Celeste is a game about overcoming; it’s about climbing a mountain, both literal and figurative. When I first launched the latest offering from developer Matt Makes Games, I expected a challenging platformer with tight controls and fun levels to explore. I most certainly got this, but Celeste also delivers much, much more. It tells a story about wrestling with the past and struggling through the throes of depression and self-doubt. Handling these issues delicately, Celeste was able to weave a powerful and driven experience unlike any other.
Celeste was able to weave a powerful and driven experience unlike any other.
Players assume the role of Madeline, a girl who has the driving impulse to climb Celeste Mountain. She isn’t entirely sure why, only that she absolutely must do this. She is trying to escaping her mundane job and life of monotony, and perhaps this climb will give her a sense of meaning and purpose. The story opens up much more beyond this point, and the climb forces Madeline to address her past and attack her issues head on, which I appreciated greatly.
Beyond this, however, is the enticing and rock solid gameplay. Madeline is only given a small moveset, comprised of running, jumping, wall climbing and dashing, but these prove to be more than enough. Each chapter (of which there are seven for the main story) of the game is divided into various “sections” that serve as checkpoints throughout each level. Within these are placed an incredible combination of platforms, dangerous obstacles, and wildly moving parts that require skill and finesse to overcome them.
Using Madeline’s skills, players can latch onto walls and climb up them like Spider-Man, but only for a limited time before her strength gives out and she needs to spend a moment recovering. Because of this, much of the time will be spent bouncing off of walls instead of straight up climbing them, and players will use the immensely satisfying air dash to traverse terrain that initially seems impassable. Madeline can only dash once in the air before she needs to land on solid ground in order to use it again, so players must carefully plan out their routes beforehand when tackling each section.
Players must carefully plan out their routes beforehand when tackling each section.
For the most part, the controls are simple and very responsive; if you die by falling or hitting a dangerous obstacle it is almost always your fault and the game does a great job of not feeling unfair or frustrating. That said, I think some of the control experience can be affected by the type of controller (or keyboard) you are using. I played this using an Xbox One controller, and while for the most part everything felt great, there were areas that required precise diagonal jumps that I just could not manage the first couple of tries. You need to be very explicit in the direction you want to go, but this wasn’t always achieved when using an analog stick, and I found myself crashing into walls on numerous occasions. A simple D-Pad would have been much more serviceable, but this wasn’t really intuitive on the Xbox One controller.
Celeste is largely forgiving in its design; when you die, you almost always respawn next to, or at least very near, where you expired. Additionally, restarting only takes about 1-2 seconds, which is good because you will die a lot. Humorously, the game will keep track of how many times you have died, but it enthusiastically tells you to wear this mark as a badge of honor: “Be proud of your death count! The more you die, the more you’re learning. Keep going!” By the time the credits rolled, I had died 2,329 times, so this was a good mindset to hold to.
I spent so much time just trying to grab as many strawberries as possible, if only to tell myself that I could.
In addition to the main objective of completing each chapter and “climbing the mountain,” Celeste also adds incentive to explore and experiment. Scattered throughout the levels are floating strawberries. These are often cleverly hidden or placed in an area that requires an extra level of determination and persistence. It is not at all a requirement to collect any of these, though they do present an alternative ending to the game if you collect a certain amount. The real joy in their collection, however, comes in the personal accomplishment of achieving success in a heightened challenge. I spent so much time just trying to grab as many strawberries as possible, if only to tell myself that I could.
On top of strawberry collection, there are also cassettes hidden in every chapter. Finding these unlocks “B-Sides” for each level, which present much higher difficulty and challenge. Once again, these are not at all necessary for completing the main story, but as your platforming skill inevitably improves with playtime, it is quite fun to push yourself to the limit with new and creative divergences. There are also “C-Sides” which up the ante even more, fully fleshing out a breathtaking experience.
I enjoyed every minute of Celeste (yes, even the ones that I found to be just a bit too challenging at first), and was blown away by its simple and yet highly effective presentation. This is a gem that was created by a very small but quite impressive studio, and you can see the care and attention they put into every pixel. The gorgeous and fun soundtrack perfectly complements the colorful visual style, and I found myself entranced by the lovely animation. Everything just flows together so well; I have never felt so lost in a side-scrolling platformer.
Celeste is not for everyone, however. I wouldn’t recommend it to someone that is easily frustrated with difficult challenges or who wants a bit more variety in their gameplay, but for everyone else, it is sure to please. Matt Makes Games should be incredibly proud of what they have accomplished; it is a true and wondrous triumph.
Yes, if you:
- Are up for an intense but highly satisfying challenge
- Love 2D platformers
- Want a wholesome and invigorating experience
No, if you:
- Are easily frustrated
- Hate simply structured gameplay
- Dislike pixel art
Celeste originally released on January 25th, 2018 and is available on PS4, Xbox One (reviewed), PC, macOS, Linux, and the Nintendo Switch.