Mountain climbing; a sport that's far more fun with moves like Madeline's.
I’ve apparently been away from the earlier generations of platformers for too long since my initial approach to Celeste was: ‘An indie platformer is getting all kinds of positive feedback? How good can a game be when you’re just pressing the jump button all the time?’ While there’ll be plenty of jumping, I had forgotten how good games like these can be when they’re designed smartly, control sharply and gives the player incentive for side objectives without having to waste time for only a modicum of satisfaction. While the challenge and difficulty of later levels may be intimidating, the games features fast restarts, (mostly) clear paths to your goal and even accessibility options (more of that please, devs!) to avoid maddening frustration. It’s probably no surprise that I give Celeste a strong recommendation, but one paragraph doesn’t really make a review.
Madeline (the protagonist) is light on her feet with just the right amount of floatiness to allow mid-air correction, and her dash ability is the stuff video game movement dreams are made out of. The objective of the game is climb the titular mountain, and said mountain has plenty of obstacles, traps and hazards to get past - It’s good Madeline controls so well. There’s a major rule in Celeste: After Madeline dashes, she cannot do so again until her feet touch solid ground*. While dashing can give you a quick zip to save some time platforming or save you from plummeting offscreen, there are sections within levels will give you only a few moments to replenish Madeline’s dash before needing to skeedaddle onto another platform, combo’ing movements until the screen is cleared. Like with mastery in other games, eventually you’ll pick up the nuances of Madeline’s movements; how high her jump peaks, how far a wall jump will go, the distance a dash travels before ending - I was pleasantly surprised with how many accidental skips I found, nevermind the potential for time attack runs.
I’m a fan of show-don’t-tell game design; show the player a concept, have them figure it out, then ramp up or expand on that concept for greater challenge over the course of the level. The concepts in Celeste aren’t groundbreaking, but they introduce enough variety to require a touch of trial and error before you’re back to wall-climbing and dashing about these new elements, culminating into a gauntlet-like finale at the end of the level. My first criticism would be that these finales can overstay their welcome, feeling like they should’ve ended a few screens ago after the initial excitement has worn off. Restarts in Celeste are quick enough to avoid being enraging, and considering the number of times Madeline will be bumping into hazards, this will be a godsend during the late game. Checkpoints between screens are generous, and while my playthrough didn’t merit turning them on, the accessibility options for slowing down the game speed, invincibility and so on are a gloriously welcome addition. Some players might need it since the challenge really climbs in the second half, but as mentioned above, it’s the kind of challenge that when you finally nail that tough sequence of moves? It feels fantastic - When you know what’s coming. The game isn’t always clear on what actions must be taken in order to reach the end of the screen, but this is so seldom that it’s only a minuscule loss of time. Celeste never feels unfair or cruel (save for the optional, exceptionally challenging bonus B-Side levels) and along with its story and characters, has an air of hopeful encouragement - When I streamed part of my playthrough, I made the joke of feeling ‘targeted’ by some of the heavier places the dialogue goes to. The dialogue and events make climbing the mountain more emotionally taxing than physical, a turn I wasn’t expecting during the between-level cutscenes.
A platformer that has you climbing and dashing about a mountain maybe doesn’t sound enthralling, but once you’re in game and get to feel how responsive Madeline’s controls are, you’ll be quick to come ‘round. With plenty of speedrunning and completionist potential, Celeste has replayability in spades. Along with its plucky attitude with its characters and accessibility options, I’m hard pressed to find anyone who wouldn’t enjoy this game, save for those not interested in the platformer genre.
*Later mechanics modify this rule, but explaining them in detail would spoil the surprise and discovery.