Celeste is an indie platformer developed by Matt Makes Games Inc., creators of the acclaimed Towerfall series. It's a challenging game and may remind players of other popular games in the genre like Super Meat Boy, but Celeste isn't here to kill you and laugh as you die over and over again. It's a game that is far more accessible, with help options and hidden areas that are entirely optional. Whether you are a beginner or veteran, don't feel like Celeste isn't a game made for you. This is truly a game made for anybody.
The game features only two real actions, jumping and dashing (which can be done in air), and there is a lot of freedom in the massive and diverse stages. The story is more front and center than in most platformers, and Madeline, the protagonist of the game, is impossible not to relate to and fall in love with. The ascent up Mt. Celeste is emotional, filled with laughs, sighs, triumphs, and setbacks. All in all, Celeste is a huge platformer with rewarding gameplay for casual and hardcore gamers, and it's definitely making a lot of noise.
Celeste can be purchased on the Nintendo eShop here for $19.99.
2D platformers aren't usually known for their story-telling capabilities, but Celeste tries to wrestle with some modern complexes we all face, and the dialogue and characters really add to the game. Very simply, it starts with a girl who decides to climb a mountain, and things begin on a lighter note as a quirky old woman tells her the mountain isn't exactly normal and that Madeline may not be able to make it to the summit.
You quickly find out that Madeline is combatting her inner demons and is depressed. Her inner consciousness often appears, usually at the end of a level, to remind Madeline of how weak she is and how she ignores different parts of her mind. Without giving away any spoilers, anxiety, panic attacks, and struggling to find out how to cope with life and remaining strong come into play with her character.
There are also side characters who have their own personalities and flaws. Oshiro, the ghost of an ex-hotel concierge, continues to pour his life into a hotel that has dilapidated and long since failed, but he is under the illusion that this hotel is still operational and can survive. Theo, the lovable photographer from Seattle, acts blithe and cool, but underneath his exterior, he is facing an existential crisis that many can relate to.
The story really tells a tale of the pressures of modern life, and while it isn't necessarily complex, it's very relatable, and it feels good to have our common anxieties expressed so clearly and freely in a video game. Even as the game gets heavy, there is still a lot of light banter and comedic relief that keeps it an emotional but endearing tale. I literally laughed out loud as Madeline said one of her coping mechanisms was to drink and be mean on the internet.
The basic premise of Celeste is that Madeline is climbing a mountain, and she has the ability to jump, hang onto walls, and dash in the air. The controls are simple, but the game mechanics are anything but. Many of the gameplay elements seen in Celeste will be familiar to long-time platforming fans, but every level in Celeste comes with completely different obstacles, mechanics, and devices to overcome and master.
Starting with the basics, gripping walls is one of the game's essential movements. Madeline can grip onto the side of walls by holding the R button, but there is a catch: she only has about 5-10 seconds before she starts to get tired. As she gets fatigued, she will start flashing a bit and turn red, at which point, she will fall down the side of the cliff. There is a stamina system in place, and it forces you to keep moving and to plot out your maneuvers.
The other fundamental movement is dashing. You can simply dash from adjacent platforms horizontally, but more interestingly, you can dash in whatever direction you want while in midair. This allows you to advance over longer gaps and to solve many of the puzzles in the game. There is a caveat; after you dash, your hair turns white/blue, and you cannot dash again until you safely find footing on level ground. This means that if you are stuck on the side of the wall with no way out beside a dash, and you already used it, you need to start all over again.
While you can only dash once, there are little green orbs that float which allow you to gain an extra dash. These cannot be stored, and they are generally found in puzzles or parts where you will certainly need an extra boost(s) to overcome an obstacle. There are some really fun parts in the game where you need to continuously boost into new orbs to remain in the air until you finally make it to safety, a bit resemblant to barrel hopping in a Donkey Kong Country game.
What truly makes Celeste amazing is the level design. The levels can be explored, and they don't follow a generic left to right pattern. You are often left in open areas with divergent paths and many little rooms to explore. Some of these rooms are optional (there are strawberries in the game which are a completely optional challenge for players to collect) while one will lead to the correct way to proceed in the level. I really loved this freedom since it made for a more interesting experience, and I could pick and choose what strawberries I wanted to try to acquire on my first playthrough. It also gave me more practice at mastering the game's mechanics.
In addition to the massive levels, each stage has a completely different location and puzzles/obstacles. There is a hotel, a ridge, a mystical shrine and many other cool places on your journey up Mt. Celeste. One area, the ridge, had strong winds that could either blow you much further than usual or slow you down and force you to use precision dashes while overcoming the oncoming gusts. The shrine (my favorite level) had platforms that moved only when you dashed and balls that shot you across levels, sometimes into spikes, where you needed to dash in a certain direction before making impact. Every level left me completely mystified. I never knew how the game would play with physics and how I would be challenged to use my basic abilities in creative and precise ways.
There aren't really enemies to speak of in Celeste. The ends of the levels feature bosses which chase you, and each one has a different attack or movement pattern. This is all while trying to hit switches, jump over spikes, and survive the level design. They are tense and exciting, and while difficult, they were fast-paced and a nice change of pace from the more methodic planning the levels themselves required. There are some other enemies that appear such as the strange shadow creatures in the hotel, but for the most part, it's you against the level design and the limitations of your abilities.
Make no mistake about it, this a challenging game. You are going to die, probably well over 1,000 times, and the game keeps track of how many times you died. It was exciting and scary to watch my death count rise over 300 for one stage. While it may seem easy to dismiss this as ludacris and unfair, it's not nearly as punishing as a game like Dark Souls or Super Meat Boy. Every time you make it to a new screen, you start from that point if you die, and the solutions to a challenge are almost always in sight. It's usually on the player to execute a series of moves successfully. The checkpoints make the challenges more bite-sized and manageable.
I did feel there was a bit too much trial and error at times, but I could usually explore a room and know exactly how I was supposed to proceed. The hard part was actually executing it, but dying never sent you back far enough where I felt like rage quitting.
For those new to platformers or people who get too frustrated at the game, there is an assist mode which helps greatly. You can change the game speed, gain infinite stamina, and become invincible. How is that for an option to lighten the difficulty (pretty darn good)? And if that is too much, you can choose to add only one extra dash instead of having infinite. This means that everyone can enjoy the game, and there is a thrill to flying around a level just for the fun of it and getting to explore everything.
Nintendo Switch Version
The Switch version of the game is really well localized, and I played the game on the TV as well as undocked. Nothing is lost by going to portable mode visually, and it's an awesome option if you are looking to play on the go or have something else on the big screen.
I do have one major complaint about Celeste one the switch though. I enjoy playing 2d platformers with a d-pad, and the joy-cons on the Switch lack a real d-pad which forced me to play with the analog sticks. The analog sticks are less precise, and they caused me to die many times while I was trying to dash in the air. I ended up dashing up/left instead of just left for example. I still absolutely loved the game and found it highly playable, but if you also enjoy d-pads on 2D games, and lack a pro controller, consider Celeste on a different platform if that's an option. If not, I still had a ton of fun, and as many times as I died due to the analog sticks, I was usually able to move around just fine, and the checkpoints are frequent.
visuals and audio
Celeste is a breathtaking optical odyssey, and it simulates the mountain and hiking experience quite accurately during many points of the game (I am also a hiking enthusiast). There is just so much detail in every pixel of this game. The skies are awe-inspiring; they are always multi-colored, and the beautiful orange, pinks, and yellows truly look like a sunset on a big peak. Seeing the shadowy cliffs and distant snow-tipped peaks absolutely took me back to moments where I had been immersed in nature in real life. These visual effects are an amazing achievement given that this game is entirely 2D and retro in appearance.
The animations are also well done, and I loved that there were trails of Madlines behind me as I dashed and that there was constant background motion during the game. The clouds drift by; the leaves fall; the flags are blown by the wind; it's such a beautiful experience inside and out, and it felt like a living entity, a mountain with a spirit of its own, as I pressed on to the summit.
The music in Celeste is great as well. I wouldn't go as far to say it's the best soundtrack in years–as some other reviewers have, but it's atmospheric, beautiful, and it's definitely crafted with a lot of love and with the same attention to detail as the visuals. The music seems to jump from the realm of 8-bit to a more powerful and modern composition. The drums are full of life when the game hits dramatic points, and the ambiance alongside the solitude of the mountain is well matched.
In short, the music is just beautiful and always fits the mood. I was a bit unnerved when I heard the dissonant synths in level 4 when you counter your consciousness again, and the music always seemed to elicit my motivation. Whether it was the bouncy notes as the wind pushed me back or the celestial piano keys in a dark cavern, there are no dull, unemotional moments in this game's soundtrack.
Celeste is a fantastic 2D platformer that pushes the boundaries of the genre. The trip up the mountain feels deeply immersive and personal and is loaded with beautiful moments and challenges that fit the tone of Madeline's personal struggles and trying to reach the peak of a mountain–whether real or figurative. The challenge can be downright frustrating at times, but due to frequent checkpoints, it's manageable to break down and triumph over even the most difficult rooms. It's fun and fluid to move Madeline around the screen, and the beautiful visuals and soundtrack are almost unmatched by modern 2D platformers.
I definitely recommend playing with a proper d-pad, which made the Switch a frustrating option for me, but it didn't inhibit my enjoyment of the game all that much, and if anything, it turned me into an even better player.
If you are afraid of the challenge, there are nice options to make the game easier, and if the game is too easy–by god, how?–then there are B-sides to find and unlock with offer harder variations of the stages. Celeste is a fun game and a deep experience for a platformer, and I wouldn't be surprised to see this become a 2018 game of the year contender. Celeste is definitely a game worth picking up.
+ Diverse and massive levels
– Harder to play with analog sticks
+ Gorgeous soundtrack and visuals
– Dying so many times can be very frustrating
+ Gameplay is really fun and addicting
|+ Story is lucid and emotional|
|+ Awesome puzzles and level design|