ain't no mountain high enough...
Celeste is a game that has recently been the talk of the industry as well as a game so good that my co-workers can't stop talking about it. It's been thrown around as being one of the best games ever made to being that specific person's all-time favorite game. While it's not the best game I have ever played, it certainly is a truly remarkable and touching platforming adventure about mental illness that deserves your time and attention. It also helps that the pixel-infused soundtrack is insanely impressive.
Celeste, at its surface, is a game about a girl named Madeline, one who is intent on climbing the titular mountain, Celeste. As you get deeper into its story, you'll discover that this mountain starts to be less of the intent of what is going on here and more of what is currently occurring inside the head of young Madeline. I'll attempt to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible as much of the impact of Celeste is in discovering what is going on all around you. If you wish to remain entirely cut-off from knowing anything about the story here, then please, just go buy Celeste as it deserves a place in anyone's gaming library. It is just that damn good. Again, I'll be very light on the events of the story and not give away any of the bigger surprises.
What initially pushed me away from Celeste was hearing about how difficult it was, as games with high difficulty usually don't float my boat. It was mentioned to me that Celeste has an assist mode; a feature-set of difficulty options meant to make the game more accessible. You can make Madeline invincible, have unlimited stamina, increase the number of dashes you can perform, or just lower the speed at which the game runs. These options look to ensure that anyone can be included in this adventure regardless of their overall skill. While these assist options sounded great before I bought the game, I attempted to see how far I could get without them, and as it turns out, I made it to the end credits without the need of utilizing them what-so-ever. Sure, I died 2648 times before those credits occurred, as the game makes you aware, and I am sure I'll die another 3000 times before I collect every strawberry, B-side cassette, or even attempt to conquer the 8th and final chapter, which is actually part of the endgame. Those assists are there for those who need them, and that is a very cool thing.
The core gameplay of Celeste is similar to something like Super Meat Boy, a quick death puzzle game that sees you attempting to solve death-trap styled platforming puzzles. You'll jump from pillar to pillar, dash past walls and floors of spikes, or pull off insanely complex air-jumps as you attempt to reach your goal. At first, Celeste becomes this simple game of learning the mechanics to make a fairly challenging set of jumps and dashes and slowly starts to put those into practice in ways that can come off a bit intimidating. While there is a steep learning curve to much of what is presented to you, there isn't a single puzzle or challenge here that seems impossible. There were countless times where I was confronted with a platforming puzzle and wondered how I would even go about solving it. Eventually, after several deaths, the solution would present itself and the design of the puzzle would click in my head. There are a few of the strawberry collectibles that I would leave behind mainly because I knew I could revisit that location later and put my new skills to the test.
Celeste has a jump, a dash, and a grab button, and that's it. Eventually, you'll gain an additional dash, but that isn't until much later into the game. Your grabbing is limited to a small amount of stamina, so knowing how long to hold and when to let go is part of learning the in's and out's of this simple, yet complex system. You often will have to dash and jump and grab in the space of a micro-second as some puzzles will have your skills tested to an insane degree, as I learned at least a few thousand times. I did find that the Switch's analog stick offset my jump a few times as Madeline has an 8-way jump and I found it very easy to accidentally nudge the analog stick just enough to push Madeline to a direction I didn't intend to go. Eventually, I switched to the d-pad, but as the joycon's don't have a traditional layout, it was the Pro Controller that helped eventually in that regard. My time with Celeste was around 70/30 in favor of portable as I tend to rock my Switch during my lunch breaks at work, so much of my time spent with the title was swapping from analog stick to the split d-pad on the joycons.
Throughout your quest to topple Mount Celeste, you'll come across a few quirky individuals. There's an old lady that questions your mission, usually cackling some visual laughter from one of her wise-ass remarks to the host of an old and run down hotel that finds its home deep within the mountain. Eventually, you'll come across Theo, a man who also has made it his mission to see the visual splendors of what Celeste Mountain can offer, usually requesting that you and he should take a selfie any chance you both get. Theo becomes quite the support structure for Madeline as she starts to suffer from some massive panic attacks, events that start to manifest themselves into the real world. There is another character that is featured very heavily into the game and they become a huge obstacle for Madeline, one that she will have to deal with in one way or another.
Madeline will hit several emotional and mental roadblocks during her trek up the mountain. She'll doubt herself and attempt to give up several times. There is a touching moment in the game where Madeline is having a panic attack, the very event I just mentioned prior, where Theo offers some advice to get through it. Celeste does a wonderful job of discussing mental illness in ways even tv or movies just fail to do. Where most stories would see Madeline simply needing to conquer something to cure herself, there is far more here to it than that. Sure, you'll eventually reach the summit of the mountain, but in that time, Madeline will have conquered much more than placing her worn boot on the snow-covered top of Mount Celeste. The ending achieves a very different type of victory for her, one that is wonderfully told and played out in numerous conversation cutscenes. When I reached the top of the summit, I not only congratulated myself with a roaring "YES!" as I solved the final puzzle, but one of satisfaction of where Madeline was in her own personal journey.
Each of the 8 chapters will contain various collectibles that will require an untold set of skills in order to achieve 100% completion. There are hundreds of strawberries to collect, with a slight change to the final cutscene upon how many you managed to harvest. There are B-Side Cassettes, a collectible I am sure that many young players are like 'what's a cassette?', that unlocks altered versions of the chapter containing far more devious and difficult puzzles. You will need to track down several Heart collectibles in order to even attempt the final chapter as a locked door will prevent you from even stepping foot into the hot and cold contained death trap.
The levels themselves range all over the place in color and variety despite it all taking place in the single titular mountain. There are moments where you will be clinging to the side of moving blocks as they pass over a floor of spikes, using your dash to move mechanical platforms, or pushing up against an unforgiving wind, a mechanic I feel is the only annoyance in the game's overall stunning package. The level design is brilliant in the way that strengthens the control setup and split-second nature of how those controls function. There are so many interesting gameplay mechanics at play that all work off that simple three move setup of jumping, dashing, and grabbing. There are several power-ups and special types of platforms that boost you further, grant you additional dashes, or refreshing your stamina altogether, to sparkle-filled platforms that shoot you out the other side as you enter the mystical space within them. Every aspect of Celeste is designed right down to the micro-second of twitch gameplay and it is here in that design that shows a high level of polish that most games today just lack.
Celeste is a gorgeous game even if it doesn't feature high definition sprites or life-like graphics. This is a game baked in the goodness of old school 8-bit platformers and the team at Matt Makes Games have produced a visually pleasing game here. The background and foreground assets never confuse you and you always can tell where you are, something that is definitely required in a game based around split-second timing. There are nice visual standouts like Madeline's hair changing color depending on how many dashes you have left remaining, to the hand-drawn works of art during and after each chapter. Despite the simplicity in the Madeline character model, when she's tired and out of breath, or even suffering a panic attack, there is enough there to know exactly the state of emotion she is in. While the pixelated look does look crisp and clean on a big screen tv, I found myself more drawn to it when portable on the Switch.
Lena Raine's soundtrack for Celeste is mesmerizing, right down to the subtle notes and wonder of its initial prologue track. One of the reasons that I didn't get mad at any single death in the game was the fact that the soundtrack was always there to push me through every single challenge. When I was on a roll, the track in the background gave me that confidence to tackle whatever came my way. This is a soundtrack that I put on in the background to write or even play other games where their OST is just lacking. Celeste's original soundtrack is a mix of piano and electronic sounds, with a few other instruments used sparingly. Not since Ruiner has a game's soundtrack totally become such an obsession of mine and I find myself booting up to tackle a B-side mission just to hear those stunning pixel-infused notes again.
Celeste was a game that I initially had no interest in playing and frankly, it would have been a travesty had I not given it a chance. While the assist options are there for players who lack that certain element of skill and don't let my 2600+ deaths make you think I have a high-level of skill myself, it is still a game that gives you the power, should you need it, to tackle the various puzzles that come your way. Celeste is beautiful, both visually, and in the way it tackles its true subject matter. The journey of Madeline is wonderfully constructed and the way she is able to cope with what is going all around her is something that I didn't think I would relate to as much as I did. I too suffer from anxiety and bouts of depression and Celeste in many ways, allowed me to tackle some growth towards my own form of healing. Celeste is a wonderful achievement in both game design and narrative and a game you absolutely must own.