Conquering more than just a mountain
I’ve never been too keen on the idea of consistent failure as a learning concept when it comes to platformers. Games like the recent The End is Nigh drove me to unparalleled fits of frustration, despite the tight controls and level design. There’s just something about the difficulty that can drive even the most level-headed men to insanity after enough attempts. In spite of my thousand plus deaths, by the time I reached the credits, I was actually blown away with how much I genuinely enjoyed Celeste.
When I first saw the trailer for Celeste, I was immediately sold with its presentation. I’m a sucker for pixel art, despite how it has become a more common trend in recent gaming years with hits like shovel knight. The art within the game is clean and at times serene, matching the grace and beauty of a dangerous mountain with its delightfully simple character sprites and expressive portraits. Levels themselves are also displayed with all the key info readily available, without screen clutter at all. As almost a pseudo sort of reward for completing a chapter, you are shown various detailed splash arts showing the end scene of the chapter, which only adds to the sense of accomplishment. The same attention to detail that the art has also carries over to the games excellent soundtrack, which carries with it some haunting piano pieces, ambient music, and some electronica that gets the blood pumping in the harder areas. It’s a great medley of different pieces that just click with the areas you’re put in, and they only enhance the experience.
Celeste accurately showcases the difficulty of climbing a mountain with no experience, which is reflected within the plot and the gameplay. The game opens up with our incredibly stubborn protagonist Madeline at the base of Celeste mountain, with the sole intent of making it to the top. Along the way, you meet a charming cast of characters from the loveable selfie-taking Theo, to the odd Mr. Oshiro who manages the local Celeste mountain hotel. Most of them try to dissuade you from climbing the mountain not just because of Madeline’s lack of skills, but because there are supernatural implications behind the mountain. Throughout the game, the supporting cast mentions strange happenstances with the mountain and how it shows its climbers what lies within them. Celeste mountain without a doubt had this sort of silent hill vibe to it that was in the back of my mind as I kept playing. You experience these weird hallucinations and flashbacks into Madeline’s past which give some wonderful insight into her reasons behind climbing the mountain. Seeing Madeline coping with all her past troubles by trying to challenge herself to this extreme turned out to be rather poignant. She is clearly battling her inner demon in both a literal and metaphorical sense which I won’t spoil the specifics due to how powerfully it is represented. Whereas certain games lose their steam towards the end, Celeste hits you with one final stride of sheer glory when nearing the summit.
While the plot was deceptively good, how does the gameplay hold up you might ask? To put it bluntly, pretty damn good. What initially sold me when seeing this game was the pure simplicity behind it. The game focuses on a few simple concepts and using the clever level design to show how these mechanics flourish. Madeline’s primary abilities consist of an omnidirectional dash that she can do once in the air, as well as climbing a vertical surface for a brief time. It takes mere seconds to get a grip with the controls and most of the time I didn’t feel like my deaths were cheap because of how the levels were laid out. A bulk of the levels are made of single-screen challenges with some bigger rooms thrown into the mix for good measure. It’s great that the bigger stages offer a lot of screen real estate, which is something that is a necessity for these types of “hard” platformers. Many of the stages are going to take a reasonable amount of attempts to tackle per screen. Yes at times I got peeved, thinking that the timing for this is ridiculous, because it can be. The game expects a fair amount of inputs out of a player at any time in a small window. I had such an instance in the third chapter where you’re expected to do some almost unreasonably tight diagonal dashes with a small margin for error with a checkpoint and stage gimmick that was aneurysm-inducing. When you finally understand how and when to jump, dash, and climb your way through the stage, you’ll feel an incredible sense of flow and joy after crushing something that may have caused you 20 plus deaths. Each of the games’ chapters also offer some sort of gimmick as well and thankfully none of them overstay their welcome. Early chapters have you dealing with these sorts of traffic blocks that move at what feels like mach 2 once you grab or stand on them. Even better is that you can use the momentum from them to reach new heights and discover secrets which there are a lot of. The games primary collectibles are strawberries and hearts. Strawberries act as more of a completionist sort of checklist rather than a specific reward which I found disappointing, but still obligated to snag. The most they do is have a slight impact on the ending. The hearts however act as the games “super” secrets if you will, and you’ll need every last one of them if you want to see the late postgame content. Some can be found in more obvious parts of the levels, but figuring out how to exactly do them can be a real head-scratcher. The only one that immediately clicked for me was around the halfway point of the game where you see a block that looks REALLY out of place. The block looked like it was out of Super Mario bros. 3, and lo and behold, it was a reference to one of the secrets within that game. Needless to say I was pretty overjoyed when I grabbed the heart because of some old school gaming easter egg. In addition to the hearts, the game also features some even crazier alternate versions of levels called the B-sides. Once you find the mixtape in each chapter, you’ll get access to these. Expect more spikes and much more tricky jumps going into these because they can be an absolute doozy to deal with. The main games difficulty curve is rather reasonable with a few spikes here and there, but the B-sides amps it up considerably from the get-go which is only recommended to those with patience and dexterity.
On paper, there is a lot to be skeptical about Celeste. It was another hard pixel platformer that was probably going to make even seasoned gamers rage at times. When I did finally pull the trigger on the switch’s eshop I was glad I did. I was treated to one of the most engaging platformers I’ve played in quite awhile. I recognize that it takes time to let games kind of settle into their throne of being considered a classic, but to me, this game just absolutely nails it in a lot of regards. Celeste is not a game for everyone because of its high challenge, and that’s okay because, despite the deaths and the difficulty, the game accomplishes its goal of being a damn good platformer.