Review: Celeste

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What you really need for your platformer to succeed are rock-solid fundamentals. If the movement and controls in your game feel good, and you present the player with a good spread of challenges to overcome with them, you’re basically home free. That’s not to say it’s an easy thing to do at all, as evidenced by the countless indie platformers that fall to the wayside with stiff controls or boring levels. The thing about Celeste is that it starts there, with those indispensable rock-solid fundamentals, and then builds something that is touching, meaningful, and absolutely singular in its execution atop of them. To reach one of those goals is an accomplishment, but to reach both is rare mastery of design.

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Plucky little Madeline has taken it upon herself to scale Celeste Mountain as part of a journey of self-discovery. It’s a mysterious place, haunted by rumor and superstition, and backed up by some truly bizarre happenings within its supposedly abandoned caverns and halls. She won’t be alone on this journey either, happening across a strange old lady, an incredibly sufferable hipster, and reflections of herself that hit a little too close to home. As Madeline approaches her goal, the purpose of her journey and the struggles that inspired it come to light, and you, the player, get a front-row seat to the most important climb of this young woman’s life.

There are a refreshing number of platformers out there with poignant, well-spun narratives but Celeste deserves special recognition for how… well, recognizable its story is. You will find no coy symbolism or avant-garde storytelling here, and in fact few metaphors at all to decipher. The things that mean things are right there in front of you, they tell you they’re right there and what they are, and yet you STILL get moments of breathless realization as the story hits its beats. Part of that power is in how earnest and relatable the characters are, with believable dialog and conflicts to hash out. But the other part, the bigger part, is that the entire story is about something that so, so many people have to deal with in their daily lives, and a realistic depiction of how it affects them. It’s a story about something real, something simple, and something important, and it’s easy to forget how powerful those tales can be.

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That might sound strange to say about a game where a young lass uses her magical hair to scale a magical mountain, but Celeste is presented with a wonderful layer of magical realism that makes it all mesh. The very real pathos of the story is distinct from the weird haunts and ruins of the mountain, yet gains strength from the events that play out there. Your buddy Theo is every extremely online millennial you’ve ever met, making quips about his selfies and ravenous monsters alike, and still has a key moment with Madeline where he teaches her a coping mechanism from his own experiences. There are boundaries between the real and surreal but the characters and their stories bridge those gaps and make the whole world feel like a real and fantastic place.

I’ve done a lot of talking about the narrative because it’s truly exceptional, but that’s not to say the gameplay isn’t some of the best platforming around, either. It’s exactly what you need it to be, tight controls with very few gimmicks that give you an ideal toolset to overcome diverse challenges. Madeline can jump, walljump, cling to walls, and dash in any direction. She can only dash once before touching the ground again though, and her grip on walls can fail if you hang for too long. With these simple mechanics, Celeste is free to throw gauntlets of spikes, perilous ascents, burning caves, and crumbling ruins at you in every imaginable configuration. There are special blocks and traps that interact with your dash and wall grab in different ways, each providing a fresh spin on your attempts to climb the mountain. You might even discover some secrets about how your powers function if you get creative, or strive to find the game’s many secrets.

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The real beauty of Celeste’s design is that it allows you to push your skills exactly as far as you want, while always leaving room for more. My first ascent to the summit took me around 6 hours, allowing for plenty of exploring and failures along the way. Your route is thick with side areas and hidden passages, though, containing bonus strawberries to collect, challenge levels to unlock, and some very creative secrets beyond even those. Those challenge levels are the B-sides, remixes of each chapter that present you with far, far more difficult obstacles to overcome. Beating those can unlock even harder levels, meaning you will always have a greater challenge to tackle. There’s even a sort of epilogue chapter you can open up by collecting some of the game’s most well-hidden secrets, so your adventures with Maddie can easily run past a dozen hours.

At this point you’ve probably heard the praise heaped upon this game by more than just me, so let me assure you with all the credibility I can muster that it is deserved. Celeste is that rare platformer that gets everything right, from the controls to the level design to the story. The graphics have no trouble keeping up either, with vibrant pixel art that brings life to banners wafting in the breeze and glittering subterranean crystals. And the music is some of the best the genre has to offer, all energetic and emotional beats that match the windswept cliffs or haunting halls they play in. Working my way through Celeste is some of the most fun I’ve ever had in a game, both from the sense of achievement and the experience of its story, and I can’t imagine the person who wouldn’t feel the same about it.

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