After playing Celeste, it’s hard to believe that a game as deep and fully featured as this was based on a Pico-8 pet project by the two main developers of the game. It would be easy to write this game off as simply another indie platformer with pixel art, and while that description is certainly true, Celeste is something truly special. The game expertly combines the best aspects of a tough-as-nails platformer with a touching story that is sure to hit home with many of its players. Celeste will undoubtedly prove itself to be one of the best indie games of the year, with gamers of all skill levels being able to experience it’s touching narrative.
Celeste tells the story of a girl named Madeline who has tasked herself with reaching the summit of the game’s mountain. Why Madeline is forcing herself to take part in this treacherous journey is unknown at first, however, she meets a host of odd characters along the way that are also connected to the mountain. Bits of dialogue are sprinkled in throughout the adventure, and the pacing is fantastic. The game slowly reveals more about Madeline to the player without overwhelming them.
In fact, the best parts about Celeste’s narrative isn’t what it reveals to you, it’s what it doesn’t. The entire game is filled with symbolism and part of the fun comes from theorizing what everything represents. There’s a deeper meaning buried underneath the game’s surface, and the developers do an excellent job of leaving the narrative open enough for players to explore different possibilities. There won’t be anything spoiled in this review, just know that what’s here is heartwarming and masterfully told.
As touching as the story is, it’s the gameplay where Celeste really shines. It’s a brutally difficult platformer that rewards both quick reflexes and careful planning. Each chapter is broken up into a series of rooms that must be cleared, and while progression is mostly linear, there are times where the player can access secret rooms in order to find hidden collectibles. The game never really punishes you for dying, as you simply respawn at the beginning of the current room. The respawn time is only about one second long, so it becomes increasingly hard to put down during some of the more difficult stages.
The controls themselves are incredibly simple. Madeline can jump, wall bounce, climb, and dash, however, the climbing is limited and the dash can only be used once before touching the ground again. This may not seem like much at first, but in reality, these parameters make for quite a bit of movement options, especially in some of the more complex stages. Virtually any surface can be grabbed, meaning there can sometimes be multiple ways to clear a stage. The controls are extremely responsive and feel great in motion similar to games like Dustforce and Super Meat Boy.
Clearing the rooms isn’t the only goal, however. Each chapter is filled with collectible strawberries and cassette tapes. The strawberries are placed in precarious positions in some of the chapter’s rooms, however, touching them isn’t all that’s required. The player must also make it back to a safe platform in order for the strawberry to actually be collected, which creates some of the game’s toughest challenges. One cassette tape is hidden in each chapter, and once it’s collected, it unlocks the chapter’s B-Side. These stages are incredibly challenging and unforgiving, but that’s what makes them so entertaining. Some of the B-Sides can take over an hour of trial and error, but the amount of satisfaction that comes from clearing it is unrivaled. You can actually feel yourself getting better with each attempt. Regardless of the difficulty, it rarely feels frustrating.
The level design itself is arguably the most impressive thing about Celeste. The environmental mechanics added within each chapter do an excellent job in mixing up the gameplay enough to keep things interesting. What’s here is easily some of the most well-constructed platforming levels in an indie game to date, which is high praise considering some of the other big players in the genre. It’s trial and error in the greatest sense of the term, as the game requires both planning out a path and performing the difficult stunts in order to succeed. It’s easy to tell that a ridiculous amount of time was put into designing each room to feel challenging yet fair.
If you aren’t experienced with platformers, however, don’t fret. The game includes an Assist Mode that slows down the speed of the game without actually changing anything about the stages themselves. This is an ingenious way to approach difficulty, as it can help new players learn how to chain dashes and wall-jumps together. The levels become infinitely easier once they’re slowed down, so most players will be able to reach the end of the game.
All of these factors blend together to form an instant classic. Celeste is a triumph and offers a staggering amount of content for its asking price of $19.99. The developers should be applauded for transforming their original game jam vision into a fully fledged experience filled with rewarding gameplay and a touching story. Games like this only come around every so often.