Platforms: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, Switch, PC
There are a lot of ways to describe Celeste, the latest offering from TowerFall developer Matt Makes Games. Brutal. Exciting. Daunting. Rewarding. Intense. Any of these descriptors would work, but there's another word I like to use when talking about Celeste: fun. Yes, this is a tough-as-heck 2D platformer, but despite being crazy difficult, it's also a lot of fun.
Folks like to throw around terms like “NES hard” and “Souls-like” — the latter being especially cringe-worthy as it's now used too much. One thing people seem to forget about the NES era is that its best games — Super Mario Bros. 3, Double Dragon 2, Contra, and The Legend of Zelda, to name a few — weren't just highly challenging; they were also incredibly fun to play and fairly accessible. Celeste falls under that category of equally demanding, entertaining, and inviting. That's thanks due to its remarkable level design, which is just one of its many favorable qualities.
Climbing a Figurative Mountain
Though I've never climbed a mountain, I'd wager a guess that it's a difficult thing to do. As such, the titular mountain that protagonist Madeline has decided to climb comes as an intimidating opponent. Our player character knows the journey she's embarking on is a near-impossible one, but she presses onward regardless. That's the basic setup of Celeste, but beneath that climb-this-mountain-and-beat-the-game exterior is a story about perseverance and triumph.
Beyond that, though, Celeste is a story about conquering your demons. Madeline's mental health is a big part of the story here, and as short conversations with NPCs will dictate, it's obvious that the main antagonist isn't Celeste Mountain, but Madeline's bouts with anxiety and depression. Her inner demons are what make climbing the mountain go from challenging to seemingly impossible. Just like anyone who suffers from these mental health issues will tell you, there's a sense of impending dread when you're battling anxiety, depression, or both.
In that sense, Celeste is a dour game. Even then, though, it gives you hope. The conversations Madeline has with people and with herself show you, the player, that you can conquer the game even despite its high degree of difficulty. That's where this game truly shines: It tells a story of succeeding past your personal struggles, one step at a time, one failure at a time, one try at a time. You can succeed, and the game makes it a point to tell you that, because sometimes that's all you need to here to be able to move forward.
Climbing a Literal Mountain
Part of what makes Celeste so much fun to play is its intuitive nature. You can move around the screen, jump, and air dash. That's pretty much all you get, and that's all you need to have a good time here. Most of the levels are built around the air dash mechanic, requiring you to navigate around tricky spike formations and dastardly pitfalls.
You get one air dash per jump, but sometimes pick-ups scattered in mid-air will restore this move, giving you one more air dash every time you snag a pick-up. Some of the game's more intense sequences feature a bunch of pick-ups placed ever so cleverly, with spikes and traps all around you and your only means of navigation being perfectly timed air dashes. It's intense, but more than that, it's also quite exhilarating.
Madeline can also wall jump and climb walls, and you'll use these two techniques a lot. They're not used in as many high pressure situations as the air dash, but these mechanics also make for plenty of movement across the treacherous mountain. Many times, you'll have to do a mix of air dashing, wall jumping, and wall climbing just to reach your goal. It's these moments that boast the most variety in how you progress that provide with some of the most enjoyment in Celeste.
Mechanically, Celeste fulfills all of the requirements for a retro-styled platformer. The controls are simple. The levels are tricky. There are deadly obstacles at every turn. Aside from that, though, the game is just really creative with its level design. Stages are pretty long, and there's plenty to do in each one of them. Thankfully, the game has a forgiving respawn system in place, so when you die — and sometimes you'll die hundreds of times in a single stage — you don't need to worry about starting too far back.
As if the main levels in Celeste weren't already hard to get through, there are hidden remixed versions of existing stages for you to play through. These provide the biggest challenge in the game, and getting through them all will require a great deal of tenacity and patience.
Speaking of which, like any tough platformer, patience is key in getting to the end of Celeste. It'll take a lot for you to reach the game's finale, but when you do, you'll definitely feel like you earned it, because you did. That said, though Celeste may be difficult, it's nowhere near as impossible or frustrating as something like Cuphead.
A Creative Journey
Just like the gameplay of Celeste is highly creative despite its simplicity, its art style is much the same. You've probably seen countless 2D platformers with pixel art, and you can add Celeste to that mix, but the way the levels utilize color is absolutely beautiful. The whole thing has a dream-like vibe to it. Some levels actually take place in Madeline's subconscious, and these are some of the most joyously weird moments in the game in terms of visuals.
The soundtrack is also quite mesmerizing, with several catchy tunes that'll get stuck in your head long after you've finished playing. Not every theme is a winner, but there are still some outstanding tracks playing in the background as you face off against the mountain and its many trials.
Celeste is a game that will hopefully be remembered years from now. It's not just another platformer, but rather a platformer with a lot of heart and soul. It's equal parts homage to the past and a sign that the genre can still remain novel. It tells a story filled with heartfelt themes, and it elegantly mixes those themes between its character interactions and its actual gameplay. Celeste isn't just one of the most well-made platformers in recent memory — it's also one of the most memorable.