It must be stated from the outset that Messiah is buggy. It locked up every 45 minutes like clockwork on two different test machines. Three-quarters of the way through the game, it began crashing every time the game attempted to load a specific, unavoidable area. This problem was eventually solved by copying a save-game file over to the second machine. The game's instability isn't its only flaw, and its bug-ridden state shouldn't be excused by the fact that it might eventually be fixed with a patch. However, the technical trials involved in running the program are somewhat mitigated by its occasional clever and original gameplay elements.
Although the advertising might lead you to believe that Messiah is a shooter, it's actually more of a third-person platform game with some gunplay. Title aside, Messiah's story has little to do with Christianity except in the broadest possible sense. The Devil has positioned himself as the ruler of an earthly technocratic dystopia. God sends an angel called Bob to do battle with Satan for the ultimate survival of the universe and whatnot in Faktur, a city filled with sex workers, corrupt cops, and cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers (for some reason referred to as CHOTs rather than CHUDs). The plot seems mainly an excuse for the developers to present the effectively incongruous image of a diapered cherub scooting through a grim and violent urban wasteland.
Though Messiah seems like a basic third-person platform game, the developers have added a wholly original element to the formula: possession. Here's how it works: You control Bob. You have no offensive abilities or armor. You can run and jump and, thanks to Bob's tiny wings, you can fly for short distances. But your secret weapon is the ability to enter into any living creature and take control of its body. Once inside a body, you automatically use it as a living health pack, as you replenish your hit points by draining health from the host. You are also in full control of the stolen body until it either dies or you dispossess it, at which point you come shooting out the back, leaving your host dazed for a few moments. The possession concept adds a great many opportunities for creative level design. Messiah is linear, but within each concurrent major area you are generally given plenty of room to explore and commandeer bodies to perform various tasks. The tasks range from stealthy maneuvering to brute-force combat. Successfully completing a set of possession-oriented trials is often quite satisfying, thanks to sheer originality of the style of play.
The artificial intelligence of the computer-controlled characters is also excellent. Enemies will use cover and attempt to circle behind you. Their behavior isn't always utterly realistic. For instance, enemies have an annoying ability to target you instantly once you draw their attention. However, their actions are at least predictable. Once you learn each of the character types' reactions and range of perception, you can use that knowledge to develop tactics to deal with the game's various situations. Patiently watching a street scene from high atop a ledge, swooping down to possess a character caught away from nearby companions, then strolling right by those armed companions unmolested in your stolen body is an exhilarating and unique game experience.
Unfortunately, Messiah is relatively short, and the memorable set pieces are interrupted by too many uninspired jumping puzzles. With the option available to create more interesting gameplay sequences involving possession, the straight jumping areas feel like nothing more than padding. The game also desperately needs a tutorial level. It takes some time to become acclimated to Messiah's controls and the structure underlying its puzzles, and the developers don't do much to ease the process. The first level is a real exercise in frustration, as you'll naturally try to play the game as a shooter and fail repeatedly.
Fortunately, the environment's graphics are terrific for the most part, though they're guilty of dipping from that bottomless well of game art-direction inspiration, Blade Runner. Furthermore, Messiah's much-hyped character rendering system, which adds and removes polygons on the fly to maintain a consistent frame rate, doesn't seem to be a complete success. Characters often appear misshapen, and many are poorly animated. Worse yet, while the frame rate does remain consistent when frames are actually moving, the game frequently stutters noticeably when you turn to face a new part of a scene. Messiah is littered with other small problems. For instance, the game seems best suited to gamepad control, but a Microsoft Sidewinder's nine buttons aren't enough to accommodate all of the game's necessary actions.
Even though it was in development for more than three years, Messiah still feels rushed. It's got one good idea, but it's a really good idea - and one original concept is still one more than most games offer. During the occasional moments when Messiah gets everything right, it transcends its many shortcomings. But it's bogged down by its litany of problems more often than not, while it frequently squanders its best play mechanic.