Occasionally games like Celeste will come along that are deceptively simple but wind up housing something much more creative and thought-provoking. The most recent example for me would be Undertale, a title that on the surface looks like a simple GameMaker RPG title, but upon playing reveals that it is a unique game that challenged both genre and general gaming conventions in both gameplay and story.
While Celeste may not challenge many of the gameplay conventions of 2D platformers, it presents them in a very pure and challenging form while also containing an unexpected but relatable and metaphorical story about depression and self-worth. These gameplay and story elements work together to make Celeste the first indie darling of 2018 and a title that will likely gain a dedicated following in the coming months.
While Celeste’s story is very noteworthy, the game doesn’t introduce it initially, opting instead to focus on presenting the tight gameplay — so I will do the same for this review. As soon as the main character (whose default name is Madeline) arrives at the titular Celeste Mountain, the first couple introductory screens introduce players to the basic platforming. You can move, jump, and climb on walls with the press of a button.
Just before Madeline begins her trek up the mountain, players also gain the ability to dash. Typically, players can only do this once, which means timing and aiming this ability right is key to one’s success. Combining this with the ability to climb on walls makes every challenge one faces in Celeste completable, no matter how tough it may seem. The controls are an even more refined version of those present in the developer’s previous title Towerfall and are easy to get accustomed to while also being fun to master.
Climbing does run on a finite amount of unseen stamina, which keeps player reactions quick. Though stamina, along with the dash ability, can be refreshed either when Madeline touches the ground or when special orbs or triggers across the game’s environments are activated. This can result in some cleverly constructed platforming challenges that are super rewarding to overcome.
While the game is split into multiple chapters, each chapter consists of a series of screens that contain their own individual challenges. There are usually automatic checkpoints at the beginning of each of these screens, so dying doesn’t usually set players to far back. That’s a good thing, as you’ll be dying a lot in Celeste. This is a tough game that will put you down multiple times, but it never feels unfair, which is the best blessing you can give to gameplay a platformer.
In Chapter 2, once the player likely has a grasp of the game’s mechanics, the story gets a lot more interesting. Beforehand, Madeline has just met characters like an old lady who lives on the mountain and Theo, a loveable fellow mountain climber and social media influencer hoping to gain followers by climbing the mountain. Then, a supposed dream sequence happens, and Madeline is introduced to Part of You, her “worse half” that symbolizes all Madeline’s frustration, anger, and contempt.
As players continue to climb, Celeste gets much more difficult as Part of You begins to mess with Madeline and Theo even more, delaying their journey to the peak. Fortunately, you learn just enough about Madeline along the way. She is prone to depression, anxiety, and panic attacks, and is just looking to accomplish something and achieve some self-worth with her climb of the mountain. This is sadly a relatable feeling for many, including myself, that makes it easy to get attached to Madeline and the cute little gibberish that comes out when she speaks.
It also puts the game’s challenging nature into perspective. With each completed screen, players experience a variety of emotions getting over that metaphorical mountain of a challenge. You start off angry that you can’t accomplish something, but learn to work hard, get the hang of the controls in that given situation, and complete said screen for an immense payoff. This same feeling is present in many other tough games and is one of the reasons they are quite popular with many people.
By completing Celeste, players are continually going on a string of physical challenges that equate to what Madeline is going through emotionally in-game. Towards the end of the Celeste, you end up wanting to get to the peak of Celeste Mountain for the same exact reason as Madeline without even noticing. Not many games get me to feel like that, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to get that feeling from Celeste going in, but it is something I’m glad I played through and experienced.
The story is also bolstered by nice looking pixel art and a motivating soundtrack. All of the game’s environments look gorgeous and, while the characters have less detail on them, their character portraits are cute and expressive. The soundtrack also blends piano and synth to create a score that is both relaxing and exhilarating when need be.
Just because the story is pretty relatable and engaging doesn’t mean Celeste slacks off when it comes to gameplay. As I mentioned before, controls in Celeste are quite satisfying and tight and require true mastery if you want to find all of the game’s collectibles, which come in two forms: Strawberries and B-side Chapter cassettes.
Throughout each chapter, there are multiple screens that have a strawberry placed in them. Using both planning and skill, one can find a way to knab the strawberry and land safely to collect it. These were fun to track down early on; unfortunately, they become much less appealing as the game goes on. The developers make it clear from the start that collecting the strawberries don’t amount to much outside of having them for completionist’s sake, but this wasn’t the best move for the game.
As the game gets tougher, so do the placement of the strawberries, and with no real motivation or satisfaction, no peak of the mountain to strive for with them outside of something minimal that I won’t spoil here, I ended up ignoring them in the latter half of the game. These strawberries could’ve been utilized better, whether it was to unlock the B-Side chapters (which are a much better collectible) or just for something like opening concept art.
B-side Chapters are usually located in well-hidden and extremely tough rooms and unlock alternate versions of each of the game’s chapters, which are an even harder version of the already tricky base game. Each screen had me feeling helpless when first entering it, then sighing greatly with relief when I completed them, only to move onto the next one and experience it all over again before reaching the end and receiving a heart (you’ll want to collect these).
That being said, these challenges do have a disappointingly included easy way out, as does the entire game: Assist Mode. This mode can be toggled onto any save file in the main menu and can be used to make the game easier in a variety of ways. This ranges from just slowing down the speed of Celeste to make it slightly more manageable to outright breaking the game with infinite dash and invincibility.
While I understand why the developers wanted to include Assist Mode to accommodate younger or less skilled players, the fact that it can be toggled on any file at any time makes it much less appealing to go through Celeste’s more difficult sections when that power is at your fingertips. This can end up ruining the extremely difficult endgame, and also works against the game’s themes of self-reliance and perseverance. They can be ignored, but I just wasn’t the biggest fan of its inclusion.
I did not get what I initially expected out of Celeste, but I got something much more fulfilling and rewarding. While I do have a few complaints when it comes to the use of strawberries and Assist Mode, gameplay is fluid, tight, and satisfying. It is pretty easy to learn, but challenging to master, and the level design remains fair no matter how wacky the situations get throughout the whole game.
On top of that, there is a great story that addresses themes of depression, self-discovery, and ultimately perseverance, which can be applied to both one’s personal life and the experience one has in general when playing a difficult game. You may get mad at a few points, but that peak is always there waiting for you, within reach, and is something we should all strive for, whether it is in-game or not.