Celeste is an interesting game that I’ve been both hot and cold on. It released on January 25, a little less than a month ago, on pretty much every current platform – PS4, Switch, XBox One, PC, etc. It’s a single-player platformer from the maker of Towerfall: Ascension, a very fun multiplayer game that my friends and I enjoyed. I even made a few videos of it for my YouTube channel a while ago. As Towerfall was only multiplayer, it seems fitting that the creator designed an only single-player game using similar platforming mechanics.
The object of Celeste is simple: you are a young girl named Madeline who is climbing the mountain Celeste for…some reason. Through sheer will and determination (along with the ability to dash-jump) you help her navigate the treacherous pitfalls of Celeste. You meet a few interesting characters along the way, but the story is a very light backdrop for the real meat of the game – precision platforming fun.
It’s a game similar to Super Meat Boy or N++ where the sole objective is to use your skills at platforming to progress through the game. You don’t have any weapons and there aren’t any enemies per se. Just the harshness of the mountain Celeste and all the different obstacles you face along the way. Madeline is prone to panic attacks and occasionally a negative version of herself appears to taunt her in a depression-like manner so the game’s story revolves around Madeline confronting her inner demons as well as the outer difficulties of the mountain.
So where does the game shine? Obviously in the platforming mechanics. Towerfall already felt very good and each match you played in it moved very fast. The same goes for Celeste – you have the ability to jump and to dash, but you can only dash once (signified by Madeline’s hair turning blue) before you have to touch the ground again to reset the dash. You can also grip onto vertical walls for a short time and climb them, but Madeline’s strength gives out quickly so you can’t infinitely hold onto a wall and think about your next move. That’s all you start with. As the game progresses each environment adds new obstacles as well as ways to help you reset your dash – but your core abilities never change.
Watch that first step, it’s a doozy.
With that being said, this isn’t a game for platforming beginners. The difficulty ramps up very quickly – it’s a game designed in a way that expects you to die multiple times while trying to figure out a particular puzzle or tricky jump. In Chapter 1 I only died around 10 times, but in Chapter 2 that number jumped to closer to 50 times, and then in Chapters 3 and 4 my total sky-rocketed to 200-250 deaths per chapter. I’m currently working my way through Chapter 5 but I can already tell my death count will be similar. It’s a punishing game – and these are just the regular levels. The game offers B-Sides (and later, C-Sides) which are even more difficult versions of the chapter if you want even more of a challenge.
The few characters are also cute and well realized. Madeline is a wonderfully sarcastic protagonist with a good heart. Theo, another climber you meet, is fond of selfies and is always in good humor. Mr. Oshiro, who you meet in Chapter 3, is a little goofy but you start to feel sad for him as the chapter progresses. The game minimizes the story and character interactions, but the interactions you do get are pretty heartwarming.
But Celeste has a fundamental flaw that keeps it from being a truly amazing game – the chapters go on for far too long. Each chapter introduces a gimmick or two early and then throws all sorts of permutations at you as you attempt to proceed through the level. Chapter 1 isn’t bad and Chapter 2 isn’t that awful of an offender either, but Chapters 3 and 4 started to drag on and on towards the end. Every time you start to think you’ve cleared the last area and are done with the chapter, there’s another room beyond it. They feel like a movie that needed just slightly tighter editing to cut down on the overall runtime.
The length of the chapters may be fine if you’re enjoying the particular gimmick – but if you don’t like it the chapter becomes torture. I’m going to be honest – Chapter 4 nearly killed this game for me. Of the gimmicks it introduces, one is a blowing wind mechanic where you have to be holding either left or right at all times to combat the strong wind blowing you around. This is a detriment to a platformer that is based on precision and I was not enjoying the chapter at all. Multiple times I stopped and gave up on a particular room because either my hand was starting to hurt or I just wasn’t enjoying myself. I kept pushing through and eventually finished the chapter – and now in chapter 5 I’m finding puzzles and gimmicks that are much more my speed so I’m enjoying the game again. But the fact that chapter 4 went on for so long nearly made me shelve the game entirely – and since each chapter has gimmicks, it’s likely different players will find at least one chapter frustrating and unfun, and the length could kill the game for them as it almost did for me.
In addition, Twitch platformers like Super Meat Boy, N++, and Celeste succeed because while they’re designed to be punishing and you will die a lot, after you die the level you’re currently on resets very quickly. It allows you to get multiple attempts in under a minute usually, to the point that if you’re stuck on a lengthy puzzle the parts you can do often become muscle memory due to how many times you’ve repeated the level. In games like these you rarely have time to think as you act because if you stop to contemplate, you’re dead 99 times out of 100. This can become frustrating because you’re often repeating the same level over and over just so you can nail that perfectly timed jump.
To combat this, both Super Meat Boy and N++ are divided into stages. N++ has sets of 5 levels you complete to beat a stage. Super Meat Boy has worlds with 20 individual levels in them, going from 1-1 to 1-20. Both of these games benefit from the psychology of completion. After you’ve beaten a tough level, you get to see it completed on the menu screen. You get a little pat on the back of “you did it!” That’s important when you’re dying upwards of 50 times on a level because of one particular nasty jump you have to complete.
Celeste suffers, though, because the designer went with a more open, exploratory design to each chapter. There are no stages or divisions. Your reward for finishing a particularly hard room is often just the next room which might be slightly harder. The setup of the game often took the wind out of my sails as I’d finally complete a room that was giving me trouble and thinking that had to be the finale, only for another room to be after it. And since there’s no map on your first time playing through, you have no idea how close you are to the end of a chapter. The world is definitely inspired by a more interconnected Metroidvania-esque design, but since the only collectibles are completely optional it makes you wonder if keeping the exploratory feel is worth it when the game is so punishing on each individual screen.
What is nice, though, is that all the collectibles are optional. The main collectible – strawberries – is not necessary to complete the game. They’re purely for platforming addicts who want to test their skills. You don’t have to do any of the more difficult B-sides, either. In addition, the game is built in with an additional “assist mode” that you can turn on if you’re having trouble that doesn’t affect achievements or trophies. And the assist mode has different options you can toggle on and off to customize what kind of help you’re getting. I enjoy this kind of game design and give the developer two thumbs up for including it in his game.
Overall, Celeste is a quality indie game. While it has bumps in its open world-ish game design, the fact is a lot of the platforming puzzles are clever and it’s fun for me to test my skills collecting strawberries without the pressure of having to collect all of them. As long as none of the later chapters are as unfun as Chapter 4 was for me, I’ll definitely complete the game and maybe try some non-Chapter 4 B-sides. But I can’t really recommend it for people who aren’t a fan of platformers. You’ll either enjoy this genre and push your way through this game, or it’ll lose you pretty quickly.
Celese is a PLAY if you like platformers, but a PASS if you don’t.