A Truly Special Game. Go play Celeste!
(Just a heads up, there are a few minor spoilers in this review that mainly discuss components of the first half of Celeste. If you don't want to see these spoilers, maybe not read this review, but I don't go into many serious details on Celeste's gameplay and story.)
Celeste is one of those games that you’d never expect it to be an instant classic. Quite frankly, I never heard of Celeste until I saw the January Nintendo Direct Mini and thought it looked decent, but I never got this sudden urge to play it. Granted I learned more about the developer who happens to be Matt Makes Games, who’s famous for making games such as the Towerfall series and the Jumper series (which inspired another tough platformer Super Meat Boy). I gave this a shot based on the spectacular praise and little did I know that Celeste would become some of my favorite games both mechanically and emotionally. Celeste is a brilliant game that not only has taxing yet fair platforming with sublime controls, but tells an engaging story about overcoming depression that’s smartly intertwined with the game’s difficulty.
In Celeste you play as Madeline, a stubborn girl who wants to climb Celeste Mountain (which is an actual mountain in British Columbia, Canada), but you don’t know why at first. You start with a brief tutorial level that teaches you the game’s simple mechanics such as jumping off of walls and climbing. Madeline then encounters an old lady asking if this is the trail to Celeste Mountain? The old lady confirms that’s the case, but she warns Madeline that the Mountain isn’t like any other mountain out there and that there are things she is not ready to see. After scoffing the old lady, Madeline then proceeds to her route and runs on a collapsing bridge and just when she’s about to meet her doom, a friendly raven flies down to teach you the most crucial ability in the whole game, the dash. You then use the air dash to save Madeline and that tutorial perfectly sets up what this game is about. You’ll encounter many obstacles that you test you, but you have the moves to overcome them.
As you climb Celeste Mountain, you will actually be playing through Chapters that have their own quirks and challenges that are all incredibly amusing. The first chapter is Forsaken city, which is an abandoned city that was seen as unlivable being built on a mountain. Forsaken City has Stoplight platforms where once you land or latch onto them, they will move in a certain location and Madeline can use their momentum to access different areas. Another level is the Celestial Resort, a haunted hotel (Not actually on the real Celeste Mountain) that has these ghastly blobs moving on or around platforms to test your timing and aim on getting on platforms. There’s also the Golden Ridge, which introduces wind that can either push you back or push you forward. You’ll need to experiment how to use that wind in your favor or how to overcome it. While all these levels have a personality in both their aesthetics and gimmicks, many of these share a common philosophy or containing rooms of platforming challenges. Many of these rooms will have spiked pits or walls and in all likelihood you’ll die on your first try by failing to avoid the spikes, but there’s some great experimentation for the player to either use Madeline's move set or the level’s gimmicks to triumph. The wind in particular can be really tough as it can move you into a wall of spikes or push you off surfaces, but you’ll be shouting “YEEEESSS!” when you reach the end of a wind heavy room. The game also builds on its mechanics by introducing new gimmicks based on momentum or on Madeline's move set that can aid you in clearing a room. Not to mention when you die, you normally reset at the beginning of what are normally small sized rooms, so the checkpoint system is very digestible. When you conquer the challenge it feels incredibly rewarding that after dying on obstacles, you are totally capable of beating these levels and the joy you’ll receive is nearly unmatched in the genre. The game even treats the death count in a positive manner as one of the postcards you get before starting a level tells the player to be proud of the death count. Why? The reasoning behind it is because it shows how much you learned from mastering the chapters.
The main objective for these chapters is to simply beat these rooms and reach the chapter’s ending to move the story forward. However, each chapter offers plenty of secret collectables that offer the player extra encouragement to explore the chapter’s nooks and crannies. There are floating strawberries that are hidden within the levels that are either behind a secret wall or are in rooms where you have to beat the room’s trial in order to obtain the fruit. Some of these strawberries might have wings where you can't dash or they will fly away or be in 3 seeds where you have to collect all of them before landing on the ground. Strawberries don’t have any in game significance as they normally offer more incentive to take one the tough level design, but they play a role in the story’s endgame. There are also B Side tapes where in the level, you’ll see alternating blue and pink blocks that switch every 2 seconds and you need to know when to time your dashes right to get that B tape. These tapes give you access to even more punishing versions of the chapters you played and just when you thought you achieved a tough task dying 200+ times to beat a chapter, oh boy you ain’t seen nothing yet. There’s also Crystal Hearts, which are perhaps the hardest items to find but these are where you’re truly rewarded for exploring the chapters entirely. These are hidden in some very obscure points and many of these have their own puzzles to solve in order to collect. These hearts are also key to accessing some end game content later on. All these collectable have some kind of value to them, add to replay value in case you missed them the first time and are all a blast to obtain.
As far as the controls Celeste is not too complicated but fit perfectly with the brutal platforming. Madeline has her dash that you can use by pressing a button (Y button for Switch) and you use either a D-Pad or analog stick to direct where you want the dash to go. Of course she can jump too and even climb walls by pressing the default button (R button on Switch) to climb up walls, but she can’t climb forever as she can flash red indicate she runs out of stamina. What doesn't eat up stamina is wall jumping as Madeline can wall jump between 2 walls Super Mario 64 style to access new rooms. There might have been a few instances where I thought I dashed in a certain direction but it went in a different angle that led to a death, but overall I felt the times I did die were mostly my fault and I had full control to do better. Plus the level’s different gimmicks add a breath of fresh air and some of these gimmicks are not only in your control, but feel responsive and sharp. If you feel that the game’s controls and chapters are too much, you can also activate assist mode, which makes the game a lot easier ranging from giving you infinite dashes to invincibility. Celeste’s controls are some of the most satisfying control schemes I’ve ever played in a platformer and has me interested in Matt Makes Games’ past work.
Celeste also has an interesting clash of styles going on in its visual presentation. When you open up the world map, it shows off this high res but low poly 3D version of Celeste Mountain and polygonal visuals of the chapters themselves. The actual levels, however, are not in 3D as they have more of a 16-bit look that feels retro, but also looks gorgeous as the pixel art is vibrant and matches the theme of the different chapters. Plus whenever you talk to different characters, you have some modern looking textboxes where you have a portrait of a character talking and the font is in the center. It doesn’t quite match the 16-bit look in the chapter, but that’s okay because it never bothered me as I enjoyed the mixture of art styles. Lastly when you beat a chapter, you are treated to a sweet and adorable picture that indicates that you cleared the series of rooms. Its honestly one of my favorite parts of the game as I was floored by how solid the artwork is.
This game also has some of my favorite OST’s in a video game I’ve had the joy to listen to. Electronic artist Lena Raine made the music and her skills seriously shine as you play the game. All the music makes each of the chapter more memorable and is normally perfectly suited for the situation. Whenever you’re simply talking to other characters, the music is normally light and somber. But when you are playing through the levels, it sounds much more upbeat or in certain moments grimmer. Celeste makes great use of its dynamic music as it knows when to crank up the intensity as you try over and over to reach the next checkpoint and when to calm down in a story moment. The soundtrack has plenty of variety ranging from mixtures of piano and electronic beats to jazzy arrangements. This game has about 2 chase sequences and one real boss fight and the music escalates to match the climatic instants. The boss fight in particular is some of the greatest boss fights I’ve played in a video game, namely because of how well designed it was and for the music itself. Not to mention B Sides have some wondrous remixes of the original chapters’ music and they are so catchy you don’t want them to ever leave your head.
Perhaps the big surprise with me is that Celeste has maybe some of the most relate-able stories I have found in a video game. As Madeline climbs Celeste Mountain, you learn more about her character and that she’s actually having anxiety problems and had a hard time fighting her own depression. Feeling obligated to achieve a grand task in her life, she decides to climb Celeste Mountain to prove she can conquer such a tough undertaking while escaping from her real life problems. Plus as you go through each chapter, you learn more about Madeline’s depression and how she sees it. Chapter 2 has Madeline enter this dream dimension and once she sees herself in the mirror, a personified version of her supposed dark self emerges and comes to life. This negative side (canonically called Badeline BTW) is urging Madeline to go home as she’s not a mountain climber. She’s actually the part of Madeline that tends to doubt herself and she serves as a force that attempts to stop Madeline’s adventure. Later in the game I won’t spoil any specific details, but there’s a neat mini game that depicts Madeline trying to recover from an anxiety attack. As someone whose had anxiety attacks in the past, I connected with Celeste's portrayals of coping with angst immediately. The fact that the game’s story about climbing a mountain and controlling anxiety fits so well with the Celeste’s demanding level design is very impressive. The old lady warning Madeline about what the Mountain is capable of hold some truth as a player will tally a sufficient number of deaths before finishing the chapter. Also having a negative version of the protagonist form solely to berate Madeline's mission to scale a mountain is a clever way of depicting Madeline being hard on herself. The game itself is already an amazing experience with superb levels and tight controls, but the story elevated the game to an all-new high for me.
Also through the story, you get to meet a small cast of characters that have enjoyable personalities. I’ve already talked about the old lady, but she insists on taking Madeline home if the mountain has been too much probably because the elder has climbed the mountain herself. She's probably seen how dangerous Celeste Mountain is and believes Madeline isn't prepared to reach the summit. There’s also Theo, an aspiring photographer who’s really traveling around Celeste Mountain to take pictures and gain more followers on a parody Instagram account, InstaPix. Theo is also a very lighthearted person who unlike Madeline trying to achieve a goal, is just enjoying his venture. He’s also the character Madeline speaks with the most and through these conversations, you get more info Madeline’s depression. There’s also Mr. Oshiro, the ghost hotel manager of Celestial Resort who is desperate to get some guests to stay at his hotel. He has his own story to tell as he really wants Madeline to stay in his Presidential Suite, but Madeline just wants to pass by to continue her quest. However, Mr. Oshiro doesn’t back down and does what he can to convince Madeline to stay at the suite. Though he has his own insecurity issues and those blobs I mentioned earlier are results of his own self-worth problems, using this as a metaphor that his own nervousness makes the hotel undesirable to stay at. The cast of characters isn't massive by any means, but characters are all memorable and add more depth and emotion to the game's story.
Once again, Celeste is one of those games I never expected to be such a delight. Combine the difficult levels and near perfect controls with a heartfelt story about tackling anxiety makes Celeste not only one of my favorite games of the year, but one of my favorite games period. It’s definitely a hard game to beat as you will die plenty of times in specific rooms. However, there’s still a positive message within the game that despite the tough tasks at hand, you are capable of achieving these tasks and you shouldn’t give up. Again there’s always assist mode if a player finds the game too hard, but all the levels are doable. Mix in the game’s unique blend of art styles and the fantastic OST and you have one of the best indie games (or games in general) this generation. Celeste is available on nearly every system and if you love platformers or have dealt with anxiety in the past, its a must buy!