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A Game with Heart
Celeste is a beautifully composed symphony of audio, visuals and gameplay. It’s simple yet complex. Harsh yet forgiving. In a 2019 where many games try to draw you in to your screen, Celeste transcends it – affecting your life outside the screen. But only if you let it. It’s a game that’s decidedly OK with you making the choices. If you want the full, insanely difficult package, you’ve got it. If you want an easier journey, that’s OK too. Either way, Madeline’s story lends itself to you; and if you choose to experience it with her, you’ll walk away with something special.
Reviewed on XBOX One S
It’s been a while since I’ve really played a platformer. I recently purchased the SEGA Megadrive collection to try and get back into some unfinished games from my youth, but in all honesty, even with games like Golden Axe, Sonic 3 and Vectorman at my fingertips, I struggled to be invested. In a 2019 where fictional universes and nonfictional settings can be virtually inhabited in a manner that pretty much takes you out of your current reality and places you in a visually indistinguishable world, the appeal of the good old side-scroller has somewhat… died. Well, not quite. Platformers are still a thing. The problem is, that for a platformer to stand out in a world where RDR2s, God of Wars and Assassin’s Creeds dominate best game lists, exciting projects like Cyberpunk 2077, Beyond Good and Evil and Deathstranding incite anticipation, and modern hardware capabilities are teraflopping mind-blowing, it needs to be special. Really, really, special.
A year ago to the day, indie Canadian video game developers and publishers Matt Makes Games (the creators of Towerfall) released Celeste across a variety of platforms, including XBOX, PS4, Nintendo Switch and Windows, Linux and macOS. I hadn’t heard of the game until late last year when a podcast that I listen to was heaping high praises on it. Later, as the year drew to a close, when the annual game of the year discussions were being held, the name Celeste kept popping up again and again across different forums. Finally, this month the game popped up on XBOX Gold for free. Intrigued, I downloaded it and sat down one evening to give it a shot. Little did I know that I was in for one of the most engrossing video gaming experiences of my life.
Celeste follows the exploits of a young girl named Madeline (whose name you may change right at the start) as she quests to summit the towering Celeste Mountain. Right off the bat, you’re met by the first of a handful of endearing recurring characters, Granny, whose warning and doubt in Madeline’s ability to climb the mountain spurs her on to start her journey. It’s the beginning of a simple, yet beautiful story of perseverance, trust and coming to terms with the parts of you that you see as a weakness. The crazy thing is that as you progress and gain insight into Madeline’s psyche, it becomes a platform (yeah, I said it) for your own introspection – and as much as she feels the need to push upward, so do you.
Through a simple tutorial, you learn that Madeline is capable of the typical left, right, crouching and jumping movements along with a single dash jump while airborne. But don’t be fooled by the simple fundamental mechanics, the game slowly builds to be one of the most technical and difficult platformers this side of the millennium. While the early levels are straightforward with a mostly static environment, as you progress through the game’s re-playable chapters, new environmental mechanics are gently introduced as are much more mobile environments. These tend to require precise timing and finesse to traverse. Your analogue technique, reactions and problem solving capabilities will be laid bare – with each death you accumulate added to a counter that accompanies your save file.
The surprising thing, however, is that the game cheers for you to succeed. It’s an odd combination. On one hand it’s trying its best to kill you yet on the other its saying, you’re stronger or better than that. Literally, there’s a message telling you not be discouraged by your deaths, but rather to use the experience from each failed attempt to improve on the next one. And there will be a next one. When you die, there’s a Strawberry-coloured, Megaman-like poof and almost immediately, you’re respawned at the start of the level; and usually without even the slightest of hesitation, you’re back at it again. If you find it too tough, there is an assist mode that will reduce the difficulty, though I never found it necessary to use. A bit of focus and determination always did the trick. I’m looking at you Flag 9! The intensity is well balanced with moments of subtitled mish-mashed dialogue which help you understand Madeline’s plight, but also add a bit of comic relief. Another character, Theo, who Madeline meets along her journey, pops up occasionally during your journey and their short interactions are particularly memorable as she learns to find solace in his company.
Along the way are collectible strawberries, which provide an optional extra challenge for the player. There’s also opportunity for exploration with secret levels often hidden just off-screen, offering special rewards such as B-side cassettes which flip each of the chapters to darker, more challenging versions of themselves. The levels are well constructed and vary between environments, each with their own unique mechanics or combinations thereof, which keep the game fresh throughout. If I had a single criticism, it would be that a lot of puzzles were mentally solvable at first glance, but that is more than compensated for in the occasional boss fights, which require both more consistently quick improvisation and movements than the regular levels.
The artwork in Celeste is incredible. There were moments where I’d reach a point of respite and just pause for a moment just to appreciate the backdrops. The colours are wonderfully complimentary and create appropriate ambience for the variety of environments. From the dark and creepy abandoned hotel to the windy peaks, each feels like an authentic and significant part of the journey. The HUD-lessness also keeps you focused on engaging with the game and not worrying about how many deaths you’ve accumulated or strawberries you’ve collected. The beautiful visuals deserved a beautiful score and the composition by Lena Rain is indeed a masterpiece. Each chapter’s atmosphere is well captured and the catchy repetitive melodies soon become anthems of perseverance.
Taking a moment to enjoy the view
At the heart of Celeste is a game about personal growth which extends beyond the corners of the screen and into reality. And that is what Celeste mountain is about. It’s about showing you something deeper within yourself. Discovering not only what you’re running away from and where your breaking point is, but also what drives you, who you can rely on and how to cope with your insecurities and anxieties. It teaches you to be patient with yourself. You walk, jump and dash through that journey with Madeline and it becomes your journey too. A Youtube reviewer for Polygon commented that “Celeste doesn’t just make you a better gamer, it makes you a better person”. It sounds ridiculous, I know. But when you finish the game, you’ll understand the truth in that.
Once you’ve completed the story, you may be left wanting more. Fortunately, there is more: you can return to the mountain and continue exploring, attempting B-sides, and collecting strawberries that you may have missed. There is also another unlockable path that can only be accessed through a bit of exploring. Further than that, there’s a DLC in the works, unfortunately it didn’t make the 1 year anniversary, but should pop up soon and will be free. So you’ve got time to prepare youself.
This is my first review for GNTH. I tried not to be too spoilery, but at the same time I hope that I managed to express what a wonderful game this is. It’s something you need to experience and understand for yourself. If your perception of every review I write after this is based on whether I got this one right, I’m certain you’ll trust my judgement in future. I cannot recommend this game enough.