Developer: Matt Makes Games
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PC, PS4, Xbox One
Review by Jay Borenstein
A rewarding experience for your thumbs and your spirit
When I started playing Celeste, I knew I was in for some challenging platforming. What I was not expecting was for the journey of trying, dying, and then trying again to be linked to an emotional and life-affirming quest to overcome the main character’s demons.
In Celeste you play as Madeleine, a young woman with a strong desire to climb Celeste Mountain as a means of escape. As she progresses through the hundreds of challenging rooms that require precision controls and lightning-fast reflexes, it quickly becomes apparent that the mountain doesn’t just challenge your ability to jump well, but also forces you to confront yourself. The premise is deceptively simple, but there is a lot of depth here. I was looking forward to the gameplay, having loved the insane platforming challenge that is Super Meat Boy, but certainly didn’t expect such a lovingly crafted story and characters.
So yes, let me say again, this game is difficult, and anyone who is shy of platforming will likely want to skip this one. Madeleine can jump, and has a dash power that allows her to zip once in any direction on the ground or in the air and only resets when you land on a flat surface. She can also climb up and down walls, but like Breath of the Wild, has a limited amount of stamina that will deplete when she’s off the ground for too long, eventually causing her to lose her grip and fall.
Each of the game’s stages is broken up into rooms, and every time you die in a room (and you will die in a lot) you have to start that room over again. Even what seems like a simple and short room can flub you up to the point where you die several times, but the challenges are fair and a death never sends you too far back. This rapid repetition of short sections leads to a huge sense of accomplishment when you master a particularly difficult room.
Each stage also introduces fresh game mechanics to keep you on your toes as you venture up the mountain. Between platforms that move quickly and launch you, platforms that move when you air dash, weird blobs that shoot you through them, high winds, and others, the gameplay never gets stale while staying true to the core mastery of proper air dashing and stamina use.
There are also a handful of bosses and enemies to be found in this game, which similarly changes up the gameplay just enough to stay fresh, while still focusing on quick reflexes and platforming.
For an added challenge, the stages have strawberries placed in difficult areas of different rooms which you can collect, as well as hidden cassettes which unlock “B-side” versions of each stage with even harder difficulty. The strawberries are for vanity purposes only, but completing the B-side tapes helps you unlock a post-game stage.
As for length, there’s plenty of value to be found here. As of this review I’ve completed the main quest, which took about 9 to 10 hours, but with only about half the strawberries and having accomplished none of the extremely difficult B-side cassette levels.
My only complaint about the gameplay is a minor one and has to do with the controls on the Switch. Use of the directional buttons felt more natural to me than the joystick, however, the directional buttons are so close together than I often found myself flubbing up the directions of my airdash, and had to really focus on how I was pressing the buttons. It was enough to make me wish that the Switch had a proper D-pad.
While I do feel this game is a spiritual successor to Super Meat Boy in terms of gameplay, it’s a completely different story with the aesthetic. The graphics style of Celeste takes after the charming pixel world of Towerfall, the previous game from developer Matt Makes Games. The character sprites may have low detail, but their subtle movements infuse the world with life. Gorgeous environments and color accentuate your adventure, and work together with the stellar chiptune soundtrack by Lena Raine to evoke specific moods that carry over from the plot.
One final word on the plot without giving too much away – Madeleine goes through a journey of introspection dealing with difficult emotions. Through the other characters including an enigmatic old woman, a ghost hotel manager, and a hipster adventurer, she learns more about herself and why she decided to climb the mountain in the first place. The difficulty of the gameplay, as well as the overall feeling, evoked from the plot points, settings and music make this journey seem more poignant then a straight narrative could have alone.
Play it! If it wasn’t apparent by my gushing review, this is not just a beautiful game, but an experience. Minor control issues aside, the game is rewardingly challenging but fair for the veteran platformer, with extra challenges for the masochistic. The added strawberry on top is the story, which I did not expect and really hit me out of left field with its emotional weight. This isn’t just a game – it’s a healing experience.