Celeste is a beautifully perfect example of game design done right. I could honestly score this game right now and call it a day, that’s all you need to know. However, for the sake of objective critique, and so the developers feel justified in sending me a review copy, I’ll elaborate. Celeste tells a wonderfully subtle but eerie story about a young girl named Madeline who, for some reason, decides to climb to the top of Celeste Mountain, and along the way runs into a few strange people that always seem to be one step ahead of her and are not at all concerned about a little girl scaling this dangerous peak but still laugh at her and warn her that it will be hard, and man is that an understatement! Those of you that know me personally know that I’m not terribly skilled at video games. I’d argue I’m at my peak video game playing ability right now thanks to spending a lot of time with challenging games like God of War and the Megaman X series, but Celeste is on another level.
This is a 2D puzzle platformer along the lines of games like Super Meat Boy, where one slip up will kill your character and drop her back at the respawn point, but luckily these sections of levels are rarely bigger than the screen, so it’s just a matter of taking a second to understand your surroundings, and then zipping around with the same few abilities the girl has throughout the course of the game to reach the other side of the screen that takes you further up the mountain. Her abilities boil down to jumping, dashing, and wall-climbing, essentially. There are some more complicated combinations of those moves, such as being able to dash through some strange inter-dimensional rifts that lock you in and spit you out the other side, and you can also get an extra jump off once you exit to launch further than you normally would for some extra hard to reach platforming sections. The dash, however, is a one-time use until she touches the ground again or grabs a replenishment gem, so it becomes a very careful yet quick game of saving your dash for just the right moment and then scurrying and jumping up a wall to reach the next platform. Luckily, due to the simplicity of these controls, the game plays extremely smooth. My only complaint I’d leverage against the game is the button configuration on Switch, which is how I played it. The amount of precision button pressing you have to do can cramp your hands on the smaller controller because you always have to be ready for that next precision dash jump or wall grab, so after an hour or so I was feeling the pain of playing the game, and not just the pain in my fragile ego as it showed me who’s boss (Hint: I’m NOT the boss in this scenario).
Outside of these standard platforming sections are some that add in extra wrinkles to throw off your game, such as keys to collect without dying that will open a gate blocking your path, or platforms that move or disappear when you land on them, and these sometimes need to be finessed in specific ways that might take a few tries before the solution becomes clear, and that’s not even touching on the secret set of levels you can unlock called the B-Sides, which are much harder versions of the same level set that WILL test your ability and patience…but that’s one of the best elements of this game: You will die a lot. This is a game where death feels like part of progress. After death, you spawn back at the last entrance you came from, lose any keys you might have had, activated platforms go back to their default position, and any optional collectible strawberries you grabbed without landing will also go back to their positions. That’s really it. Sure, there is a reminder on the main map screen of how many deaths you had in that section, and that can hurt your feelings if you’re sensitive to that kind of thing, but ultimately, this is a game that encourages you to die to figure out how not to. Or even just die to reset the level and get another chance to grab that strawberry you didn’t notice the first time, or to break open a secret wall that you almost missed. Death becomes a gameplay mechanic almost as important as your other abilities.
This is made more apparent by the aforementioned eerie story in the game. There are only hints at it when you start: An old lady that seems to have purposefully shut her cabin off from the outside world, a traveler from the far away world of Seattle who just wants to chat and take selfies with you while weird stuff happens around you, and a magic mirror that breaks and unleashes the evil mirror doppelganger of the main hero. Yeah, that escalated quickly, huh? It got me too.
**Warning: Light spoilers ahead
There’s one point where you’re chased by a swarm of evil clones that shadow all of your movements and force a retry if they run into you, and after seemingly getting away to safety, the phone in front of you rings and what seems like a nightmare or a bad drug trip plays out and then boom…everything goes back to normal and that chipper hipster boy is there to chat again like nothing happened. It almost plays out like a dream; as if all of the deaths in the game don’t matter because none of it’s real, and the evil version of Madeline is a hallucination, or an embodiment of all those deaths. I don’t want to elaborate here, but it’s really interesting and adds to the heightened elements of the abilities, the elements of the levels, and the sheer amount of death respawns.
**End of spoilers
It is these kind of moments in the game that made me realize how special it is. I’ll admit, before I played it all I heard was that it was a great, polished puzzle platformer about a girl scaling a mountain, and ultimately that IS what it is, but I didn’t expect such a great script and an engaging and creepy story to unfold across the adventure as well, so it just ended up being a 1-2 punch of brilliance that set this game apart from other similar games. I expected nothing more than a flimsy narrative to tie together your reason for going from level to level. Instead, because each “level” in this game is just the next screen over from the last level as you move up the mountain, it feels much more like an interconnected narrative, even though there is still a world map of the different landscapes you explore such as an abandoned city, an old castle, and more. This is reinforced by the amount of secret pathways and exits you can find in each level. As I mentioned before, there are collectible strawberries in some of the levels, and they don’t seem to immediately have any effect on anything but your completion score, but they still invite an extra challenge to getting through the level that I personally couldn’t resist whenever I saw one. There are also cracked or false walls and floors that will lead to hidden levels with more strawberries or even the more elusive B-Side tapes available on the main map screen. The perceived nonlinearity brought on by these alternate routes go a long way to make the world feel more alive, rather than just a collection of levels strung together.
I wouldn’t go as far as to describe it as a “Metroidvania” game, since you mostly start with all the abilities you’re going to get and the game just mixes up more clever ways to use them as you go, but atmospherically it evokes that style more than any other death-run style puzzle platformer I’ve seen before, especially since I’m not usually a fan of that genre but I found myself enamored with Celeste, even when I wanted to throw my Joy-Con across the room after the 100th time of making the same stupid mistake during a level and dying. Because that’s the other thing I appreciate about this game: the difficulty never feels unfair. There are sections that are just noticeably more difficult than others, and they can take you off guard after a string of levels where you get into a rhythm and nail it over and over, but since it gives you all the tools you need to succeed and the controls are intuitive and precise, your deaths are almost always your own fault. There’s no cheap enemy placement, or enemies at all really, and there’s nothing to knock you off a ledge or stop your momentum while you jump, so it’s just a matter of fast reaction times and knowing how to get from Point A to Point B. This simplicity is refreshing in this age of games that are cinematically beautiful but basically play themselves or feel poorly designed. The only time I ever really felt like the game was killing me was during some of the precision dashes.
The game is very specific about which direction you push when you dash. There were multiple occasions where I’d accidentally dash diagonally into a wall that kills me instead of straight to the other side, because I activated the dash before I finished pushing the direction to jump up at an angle. So the game would still be registering the diagonal movement of the jump when the dash activates. This is a minor frustration, especially with how little punishment there is for death, but when you’ve finally gotten the pattern figured out and then die from a stupid button foible, it can be extra rage-inducing.
Ultimately, I go back to how I started this review: Celeste is a masterpiece. From the simplistic yet effective art style, to the tight and intuitive control scheme, to the brilliant level design that makes you think and keeps you on your toes without ever feeling annoyingly tricky or unfair, and the creepy yet understated story that I urge you to experience yourself, everything about this game oozes polish and love of the art. The fact that it kind of came out of nowhere and immediately became the talked about game at the beginning of the year, in a month when Monster Hunter World and Dragon Ball FighterZ also came out, just goes to show how much it impressed everyone. I’m just upset that it took me this long to discover its brilliance. This is the perfect blend of challenging gameplay, brilliantly designed atmospheric levels, and a very impressive amount of content for the price. This game will not be for everyone, I’ll admit, but if you grew up with the classic, brutal 2D platformers of yesteryear like I did, or if you just think that games these days don’t have enough challenge, you’d do yourself a disservice to not give this one a try. For what it aims to achieve, it’s the closest thing to a perfect game I’ve played in a very long time.