Developer: Matt Makes Games
After a couple weeks of reviewing lesser-known, developer-submitted games, I decided to take a little break and go into my backlog for one of the big indies. Celeste is one of those breakout indie games that even reached a level of recognition in more mainstream gaming communities. However, a big part of its large reputation is because it's known for being pretty hard, and I tend to stray away from famously challenging platformers. Celeste is a 2D platformer about a young woman's climb up a magical and dangerous mountain, battling against not only the environment but also against herself. Celeste has incredible quality in its gameplay and how it uses it to tie in to the mental and emotional issues it sheds light on.
You start your journey at the foot of the mountain, without much introduction. Through the protagonist's internal dialogue, you learn her name is Madeleine and she's trying very hard to not be nervous. The game puts you in to action right away, giving you space to learn the controls and play around. You meet an old woman at the start of the trail who questions and laughs at Madeleine's resolve to climb the perilous Celeste mountain. A frustrated Madeleine continues onward up the mountain. Eventually you meet Theo, an easygoing aspiring photographer who quickly strikes up a friendship with Madeleine. Lighthearted and laid-back about the whole situation, he has a personality that somewhat counters Madeleine's, yet he's a supportive and calming friend who stands by her side. It's clear she doesn't feel confident in herself and her abilities, but you get to actually see her confront herself head-on when she meets an Evil Madeleine, which she later refers to as "A Part of Me". Other antagonists try to keep her from continuing her journey, but "A Part of Me" is the one who really holds Madeleine back and attacks her both physically and emotionally.
I was honestly surprised to find that I was able to beat Celeste without using assist mode. I'm still really glad they included it, but the game did an excellent job of motivating me to keep re-trying levels again and again. Even when a challenge was difficult, I could reasonably understand what I was supposed to do. There's certain games where you don't even know how you could possibly tackle the problem, so trying endlessly feels like a waste, but the obstacles in Celeste are pretty clear-cut. Even if it required an extremely precise jump and movement, I knew it was doable, I just had to be patient and do it just right. Games like Celeste and Rage Among the Stars have absolutely helped my patience and my willingness to approach platformers. They both allow you to restart and try again immediately, without wasting any time. The controls in Celeste just feel incredibly satisfying somehow, her movement feel powerful and fast, yet also responsive and manageable.
There's a quite a few different art styles used within Celeste. Obviously, the game itself uses a retro pixel style, reminiscent of SNES platformers. However, the overworld map you use to travel between areas uses a 3D style instead. Then, the dialogue boxes include character profiles that look more hand-drawn and cartoon-like, as well as non-pixelated UI. Cutscenes also tend use this more hand-drawn character style. I do really enjoy the unique use of art in this game, especially during cut scenes, but unfortunately I think it was just a bit too much. It felt disconnected at times, especially in using the 3D style. The pixelated art is absolutely excellent, and the game didn't really need to shift away from it in order to make the world look interesting. There's some absolutely impressive levels I explored just to take nice screenshots. You're able to see the entire area when you move around, letting you really take in a colorful, vibrant, and mystical environment.
I understand now why everyone talks so much about Lena Raine and Celeste's soundtrack. It absolutely stands out and feels integral to the game. The music has this celestial (sorry, had to) and electronic sound to it, peaceful and soothing at times, and it raises the intensity and beats at excellent moments. It's powerful, memorable, and emotional - in that it makes you feel excited, scared, sad, motivated, and many things at once. My favorite track is "Confronting Myself", which actually sounds somewhat different from the rest of the album due to its added vocals. It's eerie and menacing, but also gets you fired up.
The boss fights, which were often boss chases, definitely raised the level of intensity and added a variable time limit to many areas. At times, these boss portions had my hands sweating I had to take a break and cool off. They're definitely challenging, but more than that, they feel stressful and frightening. They were well integrated into the story and worked as a really good way to finish off each area. For the most part, I really enjoyed the way the boss chases and went through different levels and continued adding challenges along the way. However, sometimes it felt like they went on far too long. At some point, I was tired, and the areas were getting repetitive. They would also often start you back a good ways back from where you died, since you'd have to run a pretty far distance through obstacles. I was probably at my most frustrated through some of these sections, but even then, it didn't feel ridiculous or unfairly challenging.
Celeste is an incredible example of using games to share human experiences, not only through storytelling, but through the actual gameplay. I don't think it's perfect and there's parts of it that I didn't love, but I definitely think it's deserving of all of the praise. I haven't played the post-ending chapters yet, as they require me to get a few more achievements that could take some work. I genuinely feel proud of myself for getting through this challenging platformer, but I also feel like it's actually very reasonable in its amount of challenge. I think anyone who feels like they would enjoy the game's storytelling and emotional topics would also feel motivated to get through the game - it's not "out of reach" for casual platformer gamers, in my opinion. Celeste takes you through what it's like to battle against your anxiety, something that perhaps many players of the game can relate to and had yet to see well-represented in a game.
Celeste is available on PC, Nintendo Switch, PS4, and Xbox One.
Played on: PC
Playtime: 9 hrs