Whenever I think of a game that’s every bit as punishing as it is rewarding, Super Meat Boy tends to spring to mind. It’s a game that’s simple in concept, yet thoroughly engaging in its execution. Very few titles manage to truly rub shoulder with its formula, which is a shame given how popular the genre is. Enter Celeste. Although not quite as perfected and as well rounded as that comparison, Celeste still manages to stand out on its own merit and unique design. This isn’t a game for the faint of heart or the less patient gamer. Celeste is all about accepting that you screwed up, and withdrawing a lesson from each and every failure.
The game throws you into the role of Madeline, a girl that’s hopelessly determined to make it to the top of Celeste Mountain. This journey will see you gradually climbing a mountain comprised of over 700 screens of tough-as-nails hardcore platforming challenges. Surprisingly, the story is much deeper than I was anticipating, but this isn’t dished out to the player until much later in the game. I wont spoil what awaits you, but what I will say is that underneath this genuinely frustrating yet ultimately satisfying experience, is a plot that will touch anyone who can relate to its material.
Arguably the most important aspect for a game of this sort is its controls, and on this front, Celeste handles like a dream. The controls are simple and responsive, leaving any error or mistakes solely at the doorstep of the player. Madeline can jump, climb, and air-dash. These three controls are your main tools throughout the entirety of play, collectively resting upon some super tough environments that will have you ripping out your hair in disbelief. The platforming remains accessible from start to end, making it a great entry title for newcomers of the hardcore format.
When you dash, Madeline’s hair color will change color to blue. This lets you know that you have used up your only dash ability, but this can indeed be replenished via devilishly placed items in select sections, or by touching safe ground. The game doesn’t even allow you to hang onto a wall for too long to get that proverbial lay of the land, as doing so will drain your stamina and often send you to your doom. It’s important to keep in mind that Celeste doesn’t offer any depth as far as progression is concerned. Madeline wont be obtaining super abilities, leveling up, or attributing to any stats whatsoever. Depth in this game is found within the intricacy of its level design, which holds up the overall adventure extremely well.
The game packs on hell of a challenge, and even entices players to be that extra bit daring by placing collectible strawberries (serving no purpose) in specific sections. These aren’t the only notable interactions that Celeste has in store for you, not by a long shot. Enemies and orb-like objects that gun for you will often force swifter movement, which isn’t too tricky at first. However, when you factor in that there are platforms that will only shift once you touch them, lava, poison that will coat the floor you’ve walked on, and no shortage of death traps, the difficulty doesn’t take too long to make itself apparent. This sits well with the pace of the game, and although it can prove to be too frustrating during the later stages of play, that sense of reward you feel when you finally overcome a challenge is worth the torment.
It helps that the level design is stunning, well detailed, and diverse. Each area tends to bring its own set of unique challenges to the fields of play, too. Madeline will venture through some daunting – yet equally remarkable – locations on her trek to the top of Celeste. The pixel visuals here are among the best I’ve seen since Kingdom: New Lands, tied to a wonderful soundtrack that sets the tone of the game well. Regardless of its harsh difficulty, the experience rarely ever feels definitely impossible, or at least not until the end-game. The learning curve is well set and as aforementioned, is designed in such a way that it’s a great starting point for newcomers to get in on some hardcore play.
Death will merely fling you back to the start of the screen that you failed on, with each screen taking roughly 20 seconds to overcome on a perfect run. When the game does decide to take it up a notch, players should be well tuned-in with the controls and the general movement flow. The game also comes with some modifiers that can alleviate much of the difficulty, but circumventing the challenge would be removing the game’s intended nature, so I would advise perseverance beforehand. Celeste comes jam-packed with hidden secrets and pathways, which further bolsters the generous content portion and replay value.
I did witness some framerate issues on the Xbox One version, but this seemed to be isolated to one section of the game and admittedly, I couldn’t reproduce the same error twice. Still, it’s something I wanted to point out. Players can also unlock B-Side chapters which are much harsher variants of chapters already completed, and when I say much harsher, I’m putting it lightly. That’s perhaps one of the most alluring things about this game, and possibly its greatest achievement. It’s accessible, yes, but it also houses many elements that will sing to different gamers. Speedrunners, thrill-seekers, completionists, there’s something for everyone within. This isn’t merely a game that has you running from A to B, it’s an adventure that’s deep in its story delivery and plentiful in its servings.
Celeste offers a bold and beautiful story that will touch anyone who can relate to its plot foundation. It’s a brilliantly designed and gorgeously presented experience throughout the entirety of play. Perhaps Celeste’s greatest achievement, however, is that it appeals to speedrunners, thrill seekers, and completionists alike. Furthermore, it doesn’t alienate genre newcomers thanks to how accessible it is.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.