Release Date: January 25th, 2018
Developer: Matt Makes Games, Inc.
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC (Steam, reviewed)
Written by Adam Advocaat / Moofey
It’s only natural to love a challenge. As gamers, that’s why games such as Megaman, Dark Souls, and the just-plain-cruel I Wanna Be the Guy exist. Now, Vancouver-based indie developer Matt Thorson throws his hat into the ring with his retro-inspired, soul-searching puzzle platformer Celeste.
Celeste is a game about Madeline, a young Canadian girl who sets out to try to prove her own self-worth to herself. As a result, she finds herself at the base of Mount Celeste with her sights on reaching the summit. However, as the old lady at the base warns her, the mountain has a way of bringing out the inner demons of a person. Surely enough, a dream that Madeline has on the first night releases said inner demon into the wild, and her quest to reach the peak becomes a struggle to face herself for the person that she is.
For a game like this, having a deep story isn’t a prerequisite, and the theme of facing one’s true self has been done before, but what really makes the game’s theme shine is in the cast of characters that Madeline meets along the way. At first, many of these characters, such as the old lady at the base that seems crazy at first, or the charismatic Theo, seem a bit generic, but what really makes them and the rest of the story stand out is that they all have their hidden sides and personal struggles that make them easy to relate to. Many people will latch onto Madeline immediately as she struggles with her anxiety and self-esteem on top of the “part of her” that has been let loose, and other characters will start to show their true sides as the game progresses. In the end, the characters take a game about climbing mountains, and turn it into a giant metaphor about dealing with and overcoming mental illness, and it comes across brilliantly with the combination of writing and gameplay, with the game encouraging the player to never give up.
Otherwise, Celeste is a very simple game to pick up and play, with the objective being to get from point A to point B. In addition to the staple running and jumping, Madeline has the ability to dash in order to help her cross otherwise insurmountable gaps and obstacles. This dash can be used on the ground or in mid-air, primarily to lengthen a jump or to quickly change directions mid-jump. Madeline can only dash once while in the air, and her hair color will change as an indication that her dash has already been used, though this dash can be recharged in midair by touching a green dash crystal or by interacting with certain objects unique to each chapter.
Celeste is a game that comes across its level design and mechanics very well. Although difficult, the game doesn’t use any cheap tricks that make it harder than it has to be, relying mainly on the player’s level of skill and their ability to figure out the best way to conquer each room. Though every room allows for a breather to study the best way through, there are some scrolling rooms that require some figuring out on the fly. Add in a few timing puzzles and the occasional boss and it all comes across as a good, fair challenge. Part of figuring out each room also involves how to best use some of the unique features of each chapter, such as bubbles that will allow Madeline to change direction and recharge her dash when she uses them, or “dream spaces” that she will zip through in a straight line when she dashes into them. All of this comes together to create a game that is both tough, but fair.
As mentioned, Celeste is a hard game, but it isn’t satisfied with just the main story to provide said challenge. Along the way, hidden nooks and side-rooms are home to collectibles such as strawberries and B-side cassette tapes; The former being a simple collectible that Madeline must work her way over to pick up, and then bring back to the room entrance, and the latter unlocking the harder “B-side” version of the chapter. If that isn’t enough, each chapter also has a very well-hidden crystal heart to find, which are needed to unlock the final post-game chapter, as well as the extremely hard C-side chapters, each containing a golden crystal heart at the end. And, if at some point the game becomes too hard to overcome, Celeste also boasts an assist mode that will allow the player to continue with assists such as infinite dashing or complete invincibility.
For the most part, the game plays and flows brilliantly. Every death is met with a near-instant restart at the beginning of the room, and though the game keeps track of deaths over time, it says to “be proud of your death count” to make a point that every death in the game is a learning experience. The controls were as tight as they needed to be for the pixel accuracy needed to clear some of the rooms, though there were issues with how precise the analog stick needed to be when dashing diagonally resulting in a number of errant dashes and preventable deaths. I’m not sure if it was an issue with using the Steam Controller specifically or the game itself, so experiences on different controllers or platforms may vary. On the flip side, once I was accustomed to how accurate the stick’s positioning needed to be, Connecting jumps, dashes and wall climbs were a cinch, and as the game got harder, figuring out how to tackle each room and executing it to perfection felt like a rewarding victory.
Not to be outdone, the game is scored with an excellent soundtrack by Lena Raine. Celeste easily has one of the best soundtracks for an indie game, with a nice mix of music to match the tense, tranquil, and triumphant moments with a hint of chiptune as well, and is further complemented by remixed versions for the B-side levels. Celeste also makes good use of its pixel graphics, with some of the best of its kind in recent memory with an impressive level of detail.
Celeste is what could be considered an all-around great game. At its core, it’s a game that tests the skills of the even the most hardcore gamers, and provides a relatable background that pushes the player to keep going. If there’s one indie game in the last year that everyone should play, this could very well be the one.
And most importantly, Celeste reinforces what everyone needs to hear: Never give up. Believe in yourself. You can do this.
FINAL SCORE: 9.5