Celeste Review: A wonderful revisit to retro platforming

Celeste, winner of “Best Independent Game” award from The Game Awards 2018 and from the creators of Towerfall: Ascension, came out early in the year to a tidal wave of praise. It’s a near-pixel-perfect platformer akin to Super Meat Boy or I Wanna Be The Guy but if the developer didn’t hate humanity and wish for its demise. Deaths are expected and counted, but evenly spread out so as to make sure the player never gets so frustrated that they quit. Even for the players not accustomed to platformers, there is an Assist Mode that allows you to adjust the game speed, your stamina, how many jumps you get, and can even make you invincible.

Celeste tells a story in a rather blunt manner about a young woman overcoming her anxiety and quitter attitude by finally completing a goal she set herself. Meeting few characters (all of which are recurring) along the way, Madeline climbs Celeste Mountain despite both the Mountain and herself getting in the way. The writing throughout most of the game is a little too on-the-nose for my liking. Instead of having obvious imagery and subtle writing (the best method in my opinion), Celeste opts to have obvious everything.

The goal is to climb a mountain, which is very obviously a metaphor for her completing a daunting task, but the dialogue throughout the whole game not only has Madeline coddled but tells the player outright that she is fighting herself as she climbs – something that is so obvious that I’d find it hard to believe someone could actually miss that fact. I also would’ve liked to see more scenes where Madeline (and others) grow and show inner strength rather than totally rely on the help of others. Instead of having Theo, the only other person climbing the mountain, immediately recognize Madeline’s condition (panic attacks) and know how to help her, why not have him come up with his uncle’s trick (thinking of a feather as you breathe) on the spot and on his own? Why doesn’t Madeline get left alone and learn how to handle things by herself? These would’ve made for much more interesting developments for both Madeline and Theo. Madeline also never really succeeds on her own. The only point in the game where she accomplishes something that works out well all on her own is in one section late into the game. Every other accomplishment or revelation is done so by having the old woman, Theo, or her other half hand-hold her through it.

Celeste
Just keep pushing, Madeline. You’re almost there.

The game play, seriously contrasting the feel-good message and calm and cute tones the music and art portray, is a fast-paced, cutthroat platformer that rarely makes you feel like you died an undeserved death. You are given a jump, wall jump, a mid-air dash that can only push you in the eight compass rose directions, and a climbing mechanic gated by stamina. Using these tools and various environmental effects that usually interact with these tools, you dash around static maps. Celeste’s developers were kind enough to make it so each death only puts you back at the start of each map, rather than at the start of the whole chapter or in some arbitrary checkpoint location. Unlike most games with platforming or puzzle elements, Celeste does a fantastic job giving the player a constant, gradual progression in difficulty. I’ve seen puzzle games jump from the tutorial to puzzles that take an hour just to figure out the first step; Celeste has no such issue.

A lot of the chapters have more than they really need, and while the game is packed full of optional secrets, it does a somewhat poor job of portraying to the player which way has secrets and which way progresses the chapter. Anyone who has played an adventure game before knows that going the right way leads you to the next part of the game, but going the wrong way nets you secrets, loot, and experience. The feeling of accidentally going the right way and having the level gate you from going backwards to discover secret areas is also likely known to adventure game players and is unfortunately present in this game. In fact, in one part of a chapter I did nothing but hold right and continue to jump and dash through what looked like a massive area with plenty of screens up and down for me to explore. I don’t know how much I missed, if anything.

As with nearly all extremely successful and renowned games made by indie developers, the art and music are both phenomenal in Celeste. The pixel art while playing is very concise, colors don’t blend, and action is portrayed well through appropriate levels of effects like screen shake. The actual faces that you see while in conversations are adorable, especially considering all the variations of each face you see. The soundtrack, available on Bandcamp (B-Sides), does exactly what video game music is supposed to do: add atmosphere without distracting the player at all. Some are mysterious, most are very somber, but some add to the more high-octane, action-y scenes.

Celeste, despite my grievances with its presentation, is a wonderful revisit to the platforming genre. It can be hard with the literal tens of thousands of platforming games that exist to stand out or make something that doesn’t feel like you’ve played each puzzle already, but Celeste does a great job standing out in each aspect. For the low price point, it’s definitely worth picking up even if you only plan on doing the main story once through.

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