Celeste is a game that I knew I would enjoy a great deal before I started playing. My history with Matt Makes Games’ action party game, Towerfall Ascension is a very positive one. With a similar art style and gameplay, and a focused narrative this time around, I was sold on their new game. What I didn’t expect was to be swept off my feet by its beautiful story, and immensely satisfying gameplay.
Madeline, our protagonist, begins the game by setting off on a journey to climb Mount Celeste. She does this for seemingly no reason other than to accomplish the goal of doing it.
Her story and motivations are something that a lot of people can relate to. Even if your struggles aren’t as difficult as her’s, everyone has the same feeling of hopelessness at some point in their lives.
But she isn’t a tool for projecting your problems onto. Madeline is a fleshed out character with personality traits unique to herself. She’s quick to get frustrated, but she also has a strong sense of determination and a need to help others.
There aren’t too many other characters in Celeste, but each of them is full of charm and personality. The old lady you meet at the beginning is a wise-cracking smart ass, and the hotel owner, Mr. Oshiro is a neurotic mess. Theo, a fellow mountain climber, is my favourite of the side characters. Even though they just met, he’s supportive and caring for Madeline. He plays an important role in her journey of overcoming her inner struggles.
If story isn’t your cup of tea, and you’re only looking for a fun game to play, Celeste is a very meaty one. While there is a substantial amount of text, it’s all skippable, and it never takes away from the core game.
Madeline has three important moves: jumping, climbing, and dashing. The controls are straightforward and easy to learn. But she can only climb for a certain amount of time before falling, and she only has one dash per jump. This makes for smart game design since it forces the player to think about every move they make. Aside from one in the final chapter, the game offers no upgrades to your move-set.
The real challenge comes from the mechanics taught to you through the environments. Each chapter introduces one or two new techniques. In the first, there are these mechanical platforms that move when you touch them, allowing you to use the momentum of their push to fly across the screen. The entire game is all about learning from the environment and mastering the game’s simple mechanics.
Celeste has a death counter that shows up after you beat a chapter. When you first start playing, the number on that counter is probably going to be pretty high. But the game reminds you that it’s okay because, with each death, you’re learning from your mistakes. That’s the beauty of it; it teaches you to never give up, and with enough patience, you can overcome the most difficult tasks. I feel like this ties into the game’s narrative as well. Learning to accept yourself and your inner demons is hard, but it’s okay if you can’t do it right away. They just happen to tell you this through super tough platforming challenges.
Every environment has different secrets to discover and collectibles to pick up. The bulk of these come in the form of strawberries strewn about the levels. Some of them are simple to get while others offer a more challenging platforming section.
The other secret items are more difficult to find. After the strawberries, the two main collectibles are the crystal hearts and the mixtapes. The blue crystal hearts were simple enough to find while others were hidden in more clever spots. You can find one of them by reloading your dashes by swapping through screens. I had no idea you could do this up to this point, and I never used this skill again.
The mixtapes are also challenging to find. Getting them gives you the option of playing the b-side versions of each chapter. These are way more difficult than the regular game. Celeste is hard, but it’s doable. The b-sides, take up the bulk of the game’s difficulty. Some of the challenges are insane, but they feel so rewarding when you put the time in to complete them. Finishing one gives you a red version of the crystal hearts. But each b-side also has a remixed version of the track from the main game. These songs are very different. Several of them ditch the atmospheric sound for a more upbeat and frantic one. They’re often as good as the main soundtrack even though they deviate from its style.
The entire presentation is always on point. This is especially apparent in the music. I can remember the moment I fell in love with Lena Raine’s excellent soundtrack. Oddly enough, I wasn’t playing it when it happened. I was listening to it from my phone when a track from a part of the game I hadn’t gotten to yet came on called “In the Mirror.” The songs up to this point were all good, but none of them hit me as much as this one. It’s this nine-minute long track with a lot of dark ambience, heavy hitting drums, and these incomprehensible whispers. The whole piece plays out in different sections. Each of them giving this strong sense of uneasiness or anxiety. I remember thinking “man, whatever happens during this part of the game must be incredible.” I wasn’t wrong.
The soundtrack and audio design are a couple of the best parts of Celeste. I love the way the music adapts to the levels, adding in different sounds and instruments as you traverse further through them. Each dash you make has a satisfying whoosh. Other objects also have great sound effects when you interact with them.
Celeste may be an excellent game with tight controls, beautiful pixel art, an incredible soundtrack, and a ton of replay value. But it’s much more than that. It tells a relevant story of depression and accepting your problems so you can overcome them. Mental health is a serious issue, and the way Celeste tackles it with so much ease is impressive.
Reviewed for Nintendo Switch