Celeste Review

By Sam Quirke, 9 months ago
In the digital age, we are flooded with independent titles all vying for our attention. It gets so cluttered that we almost subconsciously sort these games into stark categories. For our own sanity, we might sieve out certain visual styles or gameplay descriptions. It's a necessary evil, but it can lead to us missing out on an experience that transcends our expectation of a genre. I worry that many will pass over Matt Makes Games' Celeste because any discussion has to mention some very basic facts: it's a challenging platformer broadly in the mould of Super Meat Boy and it has a pixel art aesthetic. I urge anyone rolling their eyes at either of those to read on, because Celeste is a wonderfully crafted experience that deserves your attention.

Celeste

Celeste is actually the name of the mountain that our plucky young heroine sets out to climb, and your only goal is to reach the summit. It's a vague and meaningless premise that seems like it's not going to take you anywhere interesting but, of course, we quickly find out that this is no ordinary mountain. It's a place of strange magic and ruined cities, of ghosts and weird contraptions, which seems to take the essence of the characters' inner selves and make them real. The mountain requires our heroine to challenge her inner demons in order to reach its peak.

It's a story that works best if you don't know too much about it going in, but the most impressive aspect is how it addresses mental health issues. Video games have a patchy track record when it comes to this sort of representation, but Celeste avoids the usual trappings of reductive melodrama to produce a message that is pragmatic, even positive, and will certainly strike a chord for anyone who has experience dealing with depression and anxiety in themselves or their loved ones. It's a rare thing to see any medium tackle a heavy topic and still come away with a positive outlook, but Celeste pulls it off admirably thanks to a simple story well told.

The game has a small but carefully realised cast of characters that seem like real people, despite only getting to speak in written lines accompanied by slightly irritating synth chirps. The heroine's name can be customised but she is no blank slate — she is a complex character about whom we learn just enough to get a read on her. The same can be said of all the characters. We get a taste of the essence of who they are, but the game doesn't drown us in exposition; in fact, we end up knowing very little detail about anybody's lives prior to the mountain climb. Nevertheless, you finish the game feeling like you understand who they are perfectly.

Announcement Screens

Part of the charm of these characters is the juxtaposition of their art styles. In the majority of the gameplay, the characters are cute but featureless sprites, but in dialogue their talking heads are expressive 2D animations, and there are sketch-like single frames between levels and in a handful of photographs that flesh out their appearances still further. Once again, less is more — we get a flavour of how these characters look, move and sound, and the rest is left for us to imagine. The delicacy and size of our tiny on-screen sprite also helps heighten the sense of danger; a defenceless young girl hopping her way past demons and spikes to scale a huge mountain triggers some deep empathy, despite the character having no voice at all.

Speaking of "defenceless", our heroine really doesn't have any defence against the harsh reality of scaling the heights, nor the traps, enemies and level bosses that stand in her way. She can jump, wall-hop and climb for a short time, and she can perform one extra dash-jump in mid air to reach a little further, but that's it. It might sound sparse, but much like the developer's previous game TowerFall Ascension, there is beauty in simplicity. Celeste takes Towerfall's engrossing eight-directional movement style and perfects it with more sensible button mapping and a satisfying responsiveness. You will die a lot in this game, but hundreds of deaths on a stage is so much easier to bear when a perfect run looks and feels like performing a ballet.

Another soothing salve to the game's considerable difficulty is the design of the levels. Each of the seven stages has a unique aesthetic and a new game mechanic to get your head around. The variations never feel out of place — each is simply an extension of the core gameplay and allows for more complex extended runs. In most cases the platforming takes place on a single screen; if you die, you immediately restart at the beginning of the area. As the level progresses and you come to grips with the additional gameplay features, however, you'll come across extended scrolling sections that require you to test your skills and your nerve. Each stage culminates in a unique boss, and once again you are given several static screens of action to learn the enemy's pattern before being tested on more complex runs. The final stage of each boss is always a white-knuckle ride across several screens that balance frustration and eventual satisfaction perfectly.

Celeste

It's understandable if all of this has yet to sway those of you that simply don't enjoy being tested to the extremes of games like Super Meat Boy, but there is still hope for you yet in the form of Celeste's Assist Mode. It seems revolutionary now, but Assist Mode is like an old-school cheats menu. You toggle the mode on in the main menu, and when you do so you get a frank but understanding message from the developer encouraging you to try without the mode first, yet also wanting to make sure that everyone gets a chance to experience the game regardless of their ability. Your save slot will be marked as "Assist" once you've toggled it on.

You'll then get "Assist Options" in the pause menu that can be tweaked individually throughout the game. You can slow the speed of the game, toggle infinite stamina, turn your double jump into a triple, or simply make yourself invincible. This is a brilliant idea for this kind of game. If at any point you are struggling to even see the end of a particular section and plan out your movements accordingly, you can toggle on one or more of the Assists just to look a little further ahead and see where you might need to go. Of course, for those who prefer it, you can just leave the Assists on permanently and enjoy a very easy "mode" of the game, but it's wonderful to give players in the middle range of ability the tools to craft their own curve. Fundamentally, this is a game all about learning your limits and accepting help when needed, so the addition of Assist Mode makes perfect sense even if you're not the kind of player to interact with it.

There's plenty here for the hardcore, too. Each level has collectible strawberries that test your pixel-perfect jumping skills, while collectible B-side tapes will unlock entirely new versions of the stage. The mechanics and aesthetic of the stage remain the same but the layout is completely different — a remix essentially — and usually considerably tougher than the vanilla version. Beat all of those and you'll unlock an extra-tough C-side version of the level. If that's still not enough for you, there's also an option in the menu to turn on the stopwatch and hone your speed-running skills. For such a small and unassuming game, the sheer breadth and range of options for every kind of player is rather wonderful. I'm not normally an extreme challenge seeker, but having seen out the main storyline of Celeste, I find myself encouraged to seek out all of the collectibles and remixes — I'm not ready for the climb to end.

Celeste

All of this gameplay and narrative goodness is wrapped up in an attractive audiovisual package. Yes, it's another pixel-art game, but it's leagues beyond the developers' already pleasing efforts in Towerfall in terms of polish and colour palette. The changing skies as you ascend the mountain are lovely to see even as you die beneath them for the thousandth time. The music is also charming and evocative, taking the essence of 8- and 16-bit sounds but updating them with flourishes of real instrumentation. The final stage has a euphoric synth overture that blends the musical motifs of each preceding stage beautifully, and the remixed B-side levels come with their own remixed soundtracks. Despite first appearances, it's a treat for the eyes and ears.

The achievement list might look brutal and it certainly can be for a purist, but you can still earn achievements while in Assist Mode. One very slight criticism may be for our readers specifically — the TrueAchievements ratio on this game will probably average out to a low score despite how challenging the game could be if you don't use Assists, as more casual players will surely make full use of them. Still, it's a deliberate attempt by the developer to not leave anyone out of any aspect of the experience, and there's nothing to stop the thrill-seekers among you from keeping things tricky. Ultimately, this mountain is yours to climb however you want, and it is strongly suggested that you do so.

This game was featured in our Best Xbox Platformer Games Available in 2018 article. Why not check it out to see what else made the cut?

Summary

Celeste is a wonderful little platforming challenge that finds beauty in balance. Its sometimes brutal difficulty is softened by its innovative and inclusive approach to accessibility, thanks to a customisable Assist Mode that allows you to set the parameters. Its serious themes of mental health and coming to terms with oneself are leavened by its joyous audiovisual design and a small cast of well-realised characters. The frustration of dying for the thousandth time finds its counterweight in the gorgeously fluid ballet of a perfect run. With a wonderfully evocative soundtrack and a whole host of creative ideas and plenty of additional challenges beyond the main campaign, Celeste manages to cram in a whole lot of goodness without ever missing a step. Fans of tricky platformers will find much to love in the game's design, but it's also a perfect starting point for anyone new to the genre — perhaps even those actively averse to it. In short, it's a bit of a masterpiece.
5 / 5
Celeste
Positives
  • Intricate and innovative level design
  • Simple to learn but challenging to pull off
  • Highly inclusive adaptive difficulty via the Assist Mode
  • Brilliant audiovisual design
  • A simple story with a lot of heart and a strong message
Negatives
  • Chirpy voices are maybe a little annoying... but I'm grasping at straws here.
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent 11 hours stubbornly hopping up to the summit and beyond, eventually earning 14 of the game's 30 achievements. An Xbox One digital code was provided for the purposes of this review.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Sam Quirke
Written by Sam Quirke
Sam has been a Newshound since 2016. He's also been gaming long enough to know what a text parser is. When not hopelessly lost in the latest open-world epic, Sam is busy devouring books and podcasts or trading Pokémon with his wife.