Developer: Matt Makes Games
Publisher: Matt Makes Games
Release Date: 25 January 2018
Price: $19.99 / £17.99
Reviewed by Phil Myth
2122. That's the number of deaths I accumulated over Celeste's 7 chapters, with every single one teaching me a little something about how best to traverse the eponymous magical mountain. Despite the high death count and unforgiving layout of its stages, at no point did I feel like the game was deliberately slapping me down.
In fact, between the heartwarming story and clever level design, Celeste is a game that actively encourages you to succeed even when it feels like failure is a certainty.
It's all on you
Taking control of Madeleine, a surly girl with a few personal demons to slay, you jump, dash and climb your way up the mountain, making use of numerous platforms, bubbles, and other other-worldly items along the way.
It's an incredibly punishing platformer, with quick reflexes, dexterity and careful planning all rewarded handsomely. Madeleine may only have a limited moveset, but she's so fluid and responsive to control, it imbues you with the sense that you do indeed have everything you need to succeed, even if it's not immediately obvious that that's the case.
The levels themselves are nice and varied, from a seemingly haunted hotel halfway up the mountain, to mystical temples and ethereal caves. Each and every location looks absolutely stunning in the notionally 8-bit art style, with modern horsepower adding subtlety to the surroundings that truly make them come alive. This presentation is completed by a beautiful soundtrack that brilliantly captures the mood of both the characters and the areas in which they find themselves.
The only goal is to reach the summit, but you can challenge yourself to pick up numerous strawberries as you go. There's no reward for doing so, save for the immense satisfaction of pulling off godlike feats of platforming in the pursuit. There'll be some that are placed in locations that require pixel perfect jumping, and timing accurate to a nanosecond in order to pull off.
The frustration that can set in after a couple of dozen failed attempts can be enough to imbue your JoyCon with the power of flight, but there's never any sense that there's anyone to blame but yourself. The fist-pumping satisfaction of a successful run however, is almost unmatched in video games.
These strawberries can be found both on the main path, and also off elsewhere. Occasionally you'll have to explore to find a key or two to progress as well. Although it's still very much a platformer, this does add a slight Metroidvania vibe to one or two areas, which the game pulls off with aplomb.
Celeste's other main strength is it's narrative. Madeleine suffers from panic attacks and depression, and her struggle against those – as embodied by her climbing the mountain – is handled delicately, yet with welcome candour. It's subject matter rarely tackled in a video game, and on the face of it, a hard-as-nails platformer seems an odd vehicle for such a story. Yet finding the will to go on when it seems hopeless, and finding some way to be undeterred by failure, is arguably the perfect metaphor.
Not that Madeliene is alone in her journey. You will come across a handful of characters along the way, all with their own foibles and personality traits, that make them incredibly memorable. Fellow mountaineer Theo I found especially likeable, with his jokey, optimistic outlook the perfect complement to Madeleine's more sombre struggles.
The story is woven throughout the levels, with occasionally interactive conversations taking place between chapters too. The HD animations of the characters as they talk helps build personality and gets you further invested in their struggles. There's also a robust assist mode, which allows players without the time or inclination to master the tough platforming, to experience the story in full.
Death and glory
Once you've finished the main game there's still plenty of challenges available to you. Within each chapter there are hidden cassettes that unlock a 'B Side' version of each level. These are even more dastardly than the main game and will truly separate the men from the boys.
As you make your way through the game, the sense of satisfaction as you pull off more and more seemingly impossible feats of platforming just grows and grows. When completing an area, the feeling is always one of accomplishment, never one of relief.
In much the same way as people would brag about their playtime in Breath of the Wild last year, in Celeste you learn to take pride in your death count. There's plenty of challenge here for those that want it, and with the menus cataloguing both your deaths and playtime, the speedrun community will find plenty to keep them happy too.
Celeste is a meticulously crafted action-platformer with every well-oiled aspect of it coming together to form one glorious whole. The gorgeous presentation, finely balanced control mechanics, superlative level design and beautiful soundtrack would make this a worthy purchase on their own. But with a compelling and uplifting narrative woven throughout, Celeste is elevated from being a great game to a superb one.
Pros & Cons
+ Superb gameplay and level design
+ Brave and compelling narrative
+ Beautiful presentation