Review: Celeste

Last week, a friend of mine on Facebook tagged me in a post. Being the “gaming” guy in our circle, they wanted to draw my attention to a tweet contain a clip from the mobile game TrapAdventure 2, the one a lot of you may have also seen making the rounds that week as well. So like everyone else, they wanted me to see just how comically difficult and ball-busing that was. And I laughed at it. But not just because of the absurdity of its difficulty or comedy value, but at the idea that it was supposed to be one of the ultimate examples of difficulty in video games. Sure, the game is probably enjoyable for a chuckle or two, but when I was alerted to that tweet, I was in the middle of Celeste. A game that, in the course of a six-to-eight hour campaign, I had died around roughly 1,700 times. No, that is not an exaggeration. Seventeen hundred deaths. And I loved every damn minute of it.

There’s a moment when I realized just how special Celeste was. After a two-hour session and a particularly intense section, I noticed that I was sweating heavily and that I had developed a blister on one of my thumbs. I couldn’t think of a single recent game that had done this to me, even with those known for intense amounts of difficulty. High Hell, Enter the Gungeon, even Cuphead…none of them could do to me what Celeste did. It’s a white-knuckle platformer that rewards the most skilled and the ones willing to develop their skills, a game of sheer brutality where every fatal move is a learning experience, matched only by the gut-punching emotional narrative woven into this nightmarish yet beautiful journey. Oh, and it’s fun and massively enjoyable in general, just in case that wasn’t being gotten across.

Celeste sees you playing as Madeline, a woman traveling to Canada’s mysterious Celeste Mountain in order to…well, climb it all the way to the top. Why does she want to climb it? Even she doesn’t seem to fully know at first. The old woman at the base of the mountain gives them a warning, however, that Celeste Mountain shows those who try to climb it visions about themselves that they may not be ready to see yet. Indeed, things get rather bizarre particularly fast, with Madeline’s surroundings becoming more and more twisted as they climb, but with the help of a visiting photographer named Theo, Madeline has to overcome her own insecurities and self-doubts in order to reach the summit.

It’s a bit tricky to say a lot about Madeline’s journey while not getting into spoilers concerning certain jaw-dropping moments, but it’s one showcasing some amazing growth in its lead. Yet not one of big reveals, though. If you’re expecting any sort of big secret to be discovered connecting Madeline and Celeste Mountain, well, there really aren’t any. Again, trying not to spoil anything, but this isn’t a game about that. Not to sound like a cliche, but Celeste is all about the journey and not the destination, a journey that leads our heroine to discover things about themselves, their personality, and their overall life. A journey we can all relate to, especially when the darker parts of Madeline’s life are addressed.

It sounds a bit simple, but it’s perfectly executed. The dialogue between the nicely snarky yet lovable Madeline and the optimistic and humorous Theo is terrific, fleshing out the two with several great bits, including a quiet scene with a dialogue tree that may easily be a major highlight. And it may not be spoiling anything that a lot of Madeline’s flaws are represented via an evil version of her (I mean, they’re right up there in the promotional artwork), but again, the confrontations and interactions between the two are incredible. The cast may be minimal, but they are easily a terrific, memorable lot.

Let’s step away from the narrative, though, because we’re this far into things and haven’t even gotten into the gameplay yet. At its core, Celeste is a two-dimensional platformer with a heavy reliance on twitch gameplay. The aren’t any enemies (save for a few exceptions in some of the more pulse-pounding sections), as the focus is on simply climbing onwards and upwards, making it across numerous gaps, spikes and various obstacles. Madeline is armed with but the abilities to jump, air dash, wall jump and climb walls, and while that’s all she may need, they have to be executed at just the right time, sometimes requiring the player to work around their limitations. For example, Madeline can only air dash once and it can only be reset once she gets her feet on the ground or interacts with a certain object and she can only climb walls for so long before running out of stamina. And it all controls incredibly well, save for the occasional snafu with the analog controller accidentally leaning towards the wrong direction for an air dash (though that could just be human error on my part).

Of course, as one may expect, every one of Celeste’s various levels and screens is expertly designed to test every skill you have, making you work with each limitation. You may find yourself having to navigate a spike-filled passageway with jewels to collect mid-air that reset your air dash, requiring you to suddenly vault over a wall of death the exact second you grab one. And naturally, every area has its own unique gimmicks. Some may have platforms that only move when you dash into them, bubbles that rocket you in one direction across the screen, platforms that cover themselves in a lethal fungus after you walk on them, meaning you have to move fast and can’t look back. Yet for all of the insanity thrown at you, it’s easy to adapt to it. Even if each mechanic isn’t outright explained, all it takes is a little experimentation to quickly and properly learn how each bit plays out.

The trick, of course, is that every screen is its own insane puzzle made up of all of these various bits where the solution requires a combination of wits and quick reflexes. And like all of the best games in this area, the difficulty level is that perfect blend of being highly challenging without ever being unfair. It may take several deaths to figure out how to get past just one room, but the end result is that even just getting past one room feels truly rewarding, realizing that you can indeed conquer the near-impossible. And thankfully, any death just immediately zaps you back to the beginning of the room, ready to go again, with barely much time lost, which also emphasizes the sheer speed of things. It’s all another classic case of genius coming from simplicity.

And then there’s even the game’s unique Assist mode, which eschews simple difficulty levels in favor of being able to customize several different gameplay aspects to one’s liking. You can slow down the speed, give yourself infinite stamina for climbing or even skip whole chapters if you’d prefer. The end result is a true challenge that still finds an innovative way to make the game truly accessible to everyone, without diminishing its “hardcore” aspects (and yes, this is coming from someone who beat the game without ever turning it on once, in case you were going to ask).

All that said, the true challenges are the ones you have to seek out. Celeste isn’t a wholly linear platformer like it may seem. As you progress, you quickly begin to learn that exploration is also heavily rewarded here as well. There are the standard hidden passages to feel around for, some requiring a dash to break things open, but then there are full-on alternate routes to take, other ways to traverse each chapter that almost go into metroidvania territory at times. Tying into its themes of discovering confidence and overcoming doubts, fortune favors the bold here, as various tricky jumps and insane maneuvers through various minefields of huge gaps and instant death can reward players with Crystal Hearts that play a vital post-game role, collectable strawberries which eventually pay off in a gleefully clever way that I don’t think anyone ever realized and cassette tapes that unlock “B-Sides,” entire extra chapters that remix previous levels into something even more insanely challenging. The end result is a game with a ton to discover and keep playing with, even after you’ve long since finished the main story.

Even the story alone is worth it just for the visuals and music, though. The sixteen-bit retro style works just as well here as it did in Matt Thorson’s previous game, TowerFall, showcasing breathtaking visuals including ruined cities from failed mega-corporations with little ads strewn about, glittering caverns, sunset-kissed peaks with snow blowing in the wind and…well, as mentioned earlier, things get rather bizarre and some scenery is a true treat that you have to see for yourself. Lena Raine’s soundtrack may easily end up being one of the year’s best, perfectly transitioning from haunting and dreamlike synth tunes into action-packed chiptune blasts seamlessly, creating the perfect mood for every moment.

There’s one last thing I want to address about Celeste, though, heading back into its narrative. One may rightfully ask what this game does to actually set itself apart from any other twitch platformer, such as Super Meat Boy or the aforementioned Cuphead. And it all comes back to the game’s difficulty. I may have described Celeste as “a game of sheer brutality” earlier, but that’s only when it comes to its gameplay and challenge level. And said challenge is actually woven into the game’s plot, revolving around Madeline climbing Celeste Mountain and overcoming her demons in the process, against all odds.

The thing is, practically every game with difficulty such as this tends to be pessimistic in its approach to said difficulty in one way or another, basically flaunting the fact that you will die over and over and over to the point where Dark Souls has a friggin’ “Prepare to Die” edition. Celeste, on the other hand, refreshingly remains optimistic in its overall tone. It doesn’t hide the fact that you’re going to still perish constantly, but through Madeline’s tale, it encourages you to never give up, to eventually make to the top. It’s not obsessed with beating you down, instead it wants you to experience triumph, feel what Madeline feels, even as she picks herself up from the darkest points and still manages to continue, conquering her insecurities. It’s…almost inspiring (now I think I’m crying a little…).

Closing Comments:

Simply put, Celeste is a tour de force. A piece of work that will no doubt go down as one of the year’s best platformers or even just one of its best games in general. Between the immaculately crafted levels with a wide variety of challenges, the intense gameplay that rewards crackerjack timing, the sheer amount of post-game content and things to discover in every chapter, and a moving, amazing story in the form of Madeline’s urge to climb the behemoth that awaits her, what we have here is truly magnificent and an experience that simply cannot be missed. And hey, word has it that the view from the top is amazing.