by Daniel Fosselman | March 9, 2018 9:29 am
Celeste is a game about climbing a mountain, and all the difficulty that comes with that task. It is a two dimensional platformer, with pixel-ey graphics and occasionally more detailed visuals. It is very stylized and visually consistent as a whole. As the player, you control Madeline (or whatever you choose to name her), the one attempting to climb all the way to Mt. Celeste’s summit. Her reasoning for doing so is mostly missing. She only ever really says that she just has to do it, for herself. It is also hinted at that the mountain has its own secrets and mysteries that will show Madeline things she may not be ready to see. This setup alone was enough to intrigue me and many other players who had only finished the first chapter of the game.
The gameplay of Celeste is one of its strongest points. The controls feel tight, perfect for this type of platformer. If you do not know what that means, the controls are very responsive and precise. Any error made feels like it is your fault, not the game’s. When you are building a game like this, controls like these are very important to the experience. What you can do is also very important in Celeste. You have your standard ability to jump, which no platformer would be complete without. Celeste diversifies itself by adding two more mechanics of player controlled movement: the ability to climb on walls and to dash. You can also dash while clinging to a wall. These mechanics are balanced fairly to give the game challenge. Dashing mid-air means you can not dash again, and the only way to restore your dash is to land on solid ground. Climbing can be useful, but clinging to a surface for too long will deplete your stamina, and you will eventually fall.
There are even more mechanics within the environment that also change how you move that can complement your abilities. Levels are laid out so you learn how to avoid hazards and use the more helpful mechanics as you progress. Collectables are also usually present all throughout the game, and provide that much extra challenge and reward. Strawberries do not do anything, except impressing your friends. Cassette tapes unlock the B-Side, or hard mode of the respective level they are in, which provide some of the best challenging and simultaneously fun experiences I have ever played. As you get further in the level, the challenges you face get more demanding. Because the levels are designed to teach you what you need to know as you go through them, the difficulty curve as the level progresses feels extremely natural and. There was almost no noticeable difficulty spikes throughout my whole playthrough.
The most noticeable problem I ever had with just playing the game is when inputting the direction to dash. Sometimes dashing in one direction is the only way to avoid a hazard, but even if I mean to dash that way I do not always exactly hold the correct direction, so I may dash the wrong way. When you are quickly moving and the game requires you to move in many different directions within a short span of time, sometimes your hand just does not make it in time going from exactly one direction to another. This ultimately felt less like a problem with the game and instead a problem with my own ability. Any time this happened the challenge was not impossible. With enough trial and error, I was able to get it right. That goes for practically every level in Celeste. Even if at first a level might seem like you’ll never beat it, if you play it enough, you get the hang of what you have to do until you are a master of it and you look back and see what you accomplished, how far you came, how when you first got there the task seemed impossible and now you have beaten it.
The music and sound of Celeste is amazing. It is so good it deserves its own section. Practically every song is memorable in its own way, and each convey the tone of the scene they are in incredibly well. Some of the levels are even synced to the music playing within them, but these sections are typically short and sparse within the game. The music is so great I am listening to one of the game’s songs as of writing this piece, and all of them are worth listening to out of the context of the game on their own. Everything from the sound of your footsteps to the characters’ incoherent gibberish as the dialogue is laid out all sound like they belong in the game. The game’s consistency is one of its best traits. Every sound is set up to give off an intentional atmosphere that really immerses the player in what they are doing. To sum it up, Celeste’s sound design is great, and the game could not be complete without its audio.
I often hear video game narratives getting criticized, and rather harshly. Celeste, on the other hand, has a story worthy of praise. The protagonist, Madeline, is not just climbing Mt. Celeste for the heck of it. She clearly has issues that she needs to address, and as the game progresses this process is beautifully illustrated to us. Her inner demons, all of her anxiety, fears, doubts, judgements and anything deemed “negative” manifests itself as another version of herself, through the power of the mountain. When she first meets this “dark side” of herself she does not understand it. Madeline runs from it, leading to a chase scene. She only gets reprieve from her “dark side” when she realizes she has been dreaming this whole time. After waking up, she learns how the ruins she was exploring in her dream are blocked off.
Madeline also has a friend, Theo, that she makes as she climbs the mountain. He seems to always put her at ease even after such tense situations. But he is sometimes a bit too focused on taking and sharing pictures and gaining followers on InstaPix. Theo is important because he acts as an outlet for Madeline on this mountain, when she is mostly alone with her thoughts and the lingering feeling of her “dark side” following her. I will not give away much else about the plot since it would be better for anyone who wants to play the game to find out for themselves. I will say that the portrayal of mental health in Celeste is candid. The message it conveys is not the cliche one that many other pieces of media have, that all those “negative” emotions need to be cast out or defeated. In life, it is more complicated than that, and that is what Celeste really tries to sell to you.
Celeste is filled with so many juicy little details and cool bits that my review wouldn’t be completed without mentioning them. I could not name them all, and there are some I haven’t even come across yet. In the very first chapter there are billboards spread around the deserted city you explore that all have comedic and ironic taglines. Like “Are you beach ready?” even though Madeline is in a winter coat and there is currently snow everywhere. Or “Now this is a real car”, and directly below it is a completely wrecked car. There is a very cool and well-implemented reference to the classic Super Mario Bros. 3 on the NES in another section of the game, which I will not give away anything else about since it also holds another secret beyond that. You can even discover an old PC that plays an even more retro version of Celeste- which was the original version of the game made in just 4 days. Many of these details add just that much more personality to the game that makes it even more memorable.
Overall, Celeste is easily my favorite game of this year as of yet. It is going to take an even greater masterpiece to top this game. Everything about it is so well-executed. It’s biggest flaw in my opinion is still only a minor nitpick. I would recommend Celeste to anyone who even shows a little interest in it. Anyone and everyone should play this game. Celeste is available for digital download on Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch, and Steam.
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