by Matthew Thompson
I died over a thousand times before reaching the summit in Celeste. It speaks to the impeccable design of this new 2D platformer from the makers of TowerFall that despite perishing over and over again, I never became frustrated. Checkpoints are plentiful – you are typically only tasked with completing a single screen without dying – and respawns instantaneous. This makes repeated attempts – of which you will need many – at the game’s tricky traversal segments relatively pain-free. And your persistence will be rewarded. Nothing in gaming outside of the rare competitive multiplayer moment gives me the satisfaction that besting a challenging section in a platformer can. Celeste delivers the most rewarding feeling I have gotten from the genre in this manner since Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst’s exhilarating time trials.
Celeste’s gameplay belongs to the same family of masocore platforming as titles like Super Meat Boy. Your moveset is simplistic. You can jump. You can climb. And you have an eight-directional dash at your disposal. From here, depth is added through treacherous obstacles and level design elements that allow you to perform feats that your basic moves would not. Spikes will surround you throughout your mountainous trek. The wind will try its best to impede your progress at one moment while granting you the ability to soar across gaping chasms in another. Tokens littered throughout areas will recharge your ability to dash mid-jump resulting in dizzying aerial maneuvers that have you jumping and dashing between all manner of hazards without ever touching your feet to the floor. New ideas are doled out at just the right time to keep you on your toes, never allowing Celeste to get stale during the length of the its main story with plenty more secrets and unlockable content there for those seeking the most difficult challenges. All of this combines to create some of the best 2D platforming I have had the pleasure of experiencing in quite some time.
If Celeste merely excelled at platforming it would be still be a great title worthy of praise. What takes it to the next level is the touching narrative that drives the adventure forward. I have dealt with depression and anxiety throughout my life. The very nature of these issues means my struggle has often been a lonely one. Despite how widespread these ailments are, rarely have I met or known someone in person who understands what I go through. The internet has been great for connecting me with people who suffer from similar problems though which is one of the reasons I have become comfortable talking about it when it is relevant on this site. And it has always been cathartic to see someone dealing with depression or anxiety in various media over the years. I guess it is just nice to find someone relatable even if they are fictional. Aya Cash’s portrayal of depression on You’re the Worst in Season 2 immediately comes to mind. And now so will Celeste’s Madeline.
In Celeste, a young woman named Madeline sets out to reach the top of Celeste Mountain. Along with conquering the physical dangers of the climb, she has to confront her inner demons as well. Like me and many others, Madeline suffers from depression and anxiety and it is the depiction of the latter in particular that really impressed me. Madeline’s self-doubt, the panic attack she has and the way her mind works against her are just a few of the things I found hit really close to home throughout Celeste. The game even goes as far to teach players a coping mechanism for when they are overwhelmed with anxious feelings which was a nice touch. The fact that the gameplay works in concert with the narrative in illustrating the type of perseverance often needed to push through one’s anxiety makes the whole package that much more special.
Celeste is a remarkable achievement by developer Matt Makes Games. Its platforming is top-notch, sure to deliver well-designed, rewarding challenges for fans of the genre. And while I still prefer the style of 2D platforming in series like Super Mario and the most recent pair of Rayman games, Celeste delivers a narrative rarely seen from a 2D platformer, a moving story that really touched my heart due to its relatable heroine and subject matter. Through this combination of high-quality platforming and meaningful storytelling, Celeste has found a place among my top ten 2D platformers of all-time – no small feat given the fact that I have been playing these types of games since I first picked up a game controller. I’ve played very few new releases in 2018, so to say it is my Game of the Year So Far wouldn’t be saying much. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it still topped my list come year’s end despite all the promising titles still to come. It’s that good.
A few more things:
- Above is a little montage I made with some clips I recorded of some cool sections from the game. Just imagine me dying a dozen times before actually pulling these segments off!
- As much as I love it and as excellent as I think it is, I still realize Celeste won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Its hard-as-nails platforming isn’t going to be for everyone nor is the narrative likely to strike a chord with everyone the same way it did with me. But it still comes with my highest recommendation.
- Despite the serious subject matter it covers, this game has a great sense of humor. The social media-obsessed Theo who you will meet along the way is particularly hilarious. And while the game is text-driven, the dialogue is wonderful and they do some cool things with the character portraits to add some extra life to the affair.
- I have heard some say this game was designed more for the analog stick, but I felt the dash in particular lent itself more to the precision of the d-pad, so I used that for 99% of the game (I played on PS4 too for what that is worth). There was one mechanic that I felt I really needed to use the stick for though (the feather for those who played). Having to switch for those sections was a bit awkward. And that is pretty much the worst thing I can say about this game which speaks to how awesome it is.
- On top of everything else I have said already, the pixel art graphics are well-done and make for a very attractive game while the soundtrack is lovely, flitting between somber and upbeat tunes to match the atmosphere and urgency of Celeste’s various scenarios.