Review: 'Celeste' (Switch)

Gameplay from Celeste. Gameplay from Celeste. MATT MAKES GAMES INC.

I do not have enough good words to say about Celeste.

This mountain-climbing platformer started out its life in 2015, on the Pico-8 virtual game console; it was a simple but entertaining platformer with fairly solid controls, which you can play here if you so choose. After three additional years of development, a more robust version of the game was released on modern consoles, and the end result is nothing short of magical.

This game stars Madeline, a young woman who travels to the daunting and legendary Mt. Celeste, intending to climb to the top as a personal challenge. The mountain has strange powers, however, and as Madeline climbs upward, her inner demons are given physical form and she's forced to directly confront them. As you might expect, it's not really a story about climbing a mountain; the mountain is more of a framing device for a short but sweet story about depression, mental health and overcoming inner obstacles. Along the way, she meets a very small cast of delightful characters to help her through her journey, and the story takes some simple but meaningful turns along the way.

The story is simple, and not particularly subtle about how it handles its core themes, but it's told extremely well. Celeste expertly pairs story and gameplay together, with visuals and music all coming together to draw you deeper into Madeline's personal journey in a way few games have done well. The story starts out very light, but as you play further and climb farther up the mountain, the excitement and emotion increase to a fever pitch, culminating in one of the most breathtaking finales I've ever experienced. There are very few games that have given me chills the way Celeste has done, and still does.

Of course, a great story doesn't mean much if the gameplay isn't good, but thankfully Celeste gets this exactly right as well. Madeline has very few abilities: she can jump, cling to/climb up walls, and dash through the air in eight different directions. You only get one dash at a time, and you only have so much climbing stamina before you start falling back down; you can replenish both of these just by landing on solid ground for a second. It doesn't seem like much, but each of these are implemented perfectly, and they all feel great; the Switch's HD rumble works wonders here, able to give you more feedback on what exactly Madeline has done. The analog stick can be a little imprecise at times, leading to some annoying deaths when you dash in the wrong direction, but this didn't happen to me enough to bother me.

The mechanics are bolstered by excellent level design. Each of the game's chapters features one or more new and unique mechanics, which sets that chapter apart from the rest. One chapter will have you dashing through mysterious dash-extending blocks, while another has you fighting against powerful gusts of wind. Each chapter is long enough to explore these mechanics as far as they'll go without them feeling stale, making the game feel fresh and interesting from start to finish. Some mechanics are more fun than others, of course, but I didn't find anything particularly frustrating, though the one-touch floors and walls of chapter 3 come close.

Speaking of frustration, Celeste is not an easy game by any stretch. On your way to the top of the mountain, it's not an exaggeration to say you will probably die hundreds and hundreds of times, even if you're an experienced gamer. The game is a serious challenge, and when you manage to complete it you will feel like a conqueror and a champion. Thankfully, dying in this game is not a major setback; each chapter is separated into a few dozen different screens, and dying merely sets you back to the start of the current screen, so it's quick and easy to try a difficult section over and over again. If the challenge is still too great, Celeste also comes with a built-in Assist Mode, which lets you make the game easier by slowing down the game speed, giving you infinite dashes or stamina, or making you outright invincible. It's more rewarding to play the game without it, but if you're stuck and just want to see the end, the option is there, and you aren't shamed at all for using it. This is a thoughtful inclusion.

If you go directly through each chapter to the end without exploring much, you'll beat the game within a few hours - but you'll only have seen the tiniest fraction of what Celeste has to offer. The game has spread dozens of strawberries throughout each level, each one requiring you to go through some extra, more-difficult challenge in order to acquire it. There's no reward for collecting them, aside from a more enjoyable ending screen at the end of the game, but being able to successfully overcome a challenge and get a strawberry is definitely its own reward. The game tracks each one you've collected, and even lets you know what section of each chapter to look in for any strawberries you haven't found, which is very helpful information for someone trying to collect them all.

Strawberries aren't the only secret to be found, though. Each chapter contains a hidden cassette tape, which unlocks a remixed version of that chapter known as a B-side, and while Celeste's main game may be challenging, these B-sides are absolutely brutal. The difficulty gets cranked up tenfold, requiring both problem-solving skills and extreme precision in order to complete; it's not unusual to die several hundred times on a single B-side, especially later in the game. Completing a B-side rewards you with a red heart, which is tracked in your collection journal in the game's level select.

Amazingly, there's even more hidden content to be found. Each chapter also has a secret hidden blue heart, which requires you to solve some difficult critical-thinking puzzle if you want to nab your reward, and these absolutely will strain your brain more than I ever expected from a platformer. Once you've collected all the red and blue hearts, you unlock the downright unfair C-side remixes of each level; these are mercifully short, but unrelentingly difficult, and I've only ever managed to complete one of them. You also unlock Golden Strawberry challenges, which reward you with an extra strawberry for completing an A-, B- or C-side without taking a single death, which is so ridiculous I'm not even going to try some of them. If you look hard enough, you can even unlock the original Pico-8 version of the game from 2015. I've sunk over 33 hours into this game trying to complete all the optional content, and I still feel like I'm ages away from being finished. There is a huge amount of content in this game, and even the most skilled gamer will be heavily tested by the end.

On top of all that, this game is a speedrunner's dream. The level select menu has a journal that contains all of your best records for the game; on top of strawberries collected and secret items found, you can also see your best times for each level (for simply beating it and for collecting everything), as well as the fewest deaths you've had completing each level. If you head into the options menu, you can turn on a well-crafted speedrunning clock that runs in the top-left corner, letting you know how long you've spent playing each stage. Future patches, already present in the PC version, will let you know exactly how long your speedrun was on the game's final screens. There are also lots of hidden movement tricks in the game, which you can either uncover through experimentation or look up online, and if you use them in the right places you can complete levels far faster than you ever imagined. One of the game's B-sides actually forces you to learn one of them, which is a testament to both the game's design and brutality.

The presentation gets top marks from me. The graphics are done in a retro style, feeling somewhere between the NES and the SNES, and the visual design of the game is gorgeous, especially in the later levels. The game is colorful when it wants to be, and dark and foreboding when it needs to be, and it's never unclear about what's going on, giving the player all the information they'll need. The more dreamlike visuals enhance the impact of the story, turning Madeline's inner struggle into a visually fascinating landscape, and making the game that much more intriguing and exciting.

The music is, in a word, sublime. The early tracks are more minimalist and understated, giving a soft accompaniment to your adventure as you explore the mountain. When the action gets going, however, the energy of the music is turned up, increasing the tension and excitement. The game's last few tracks are extremely memorable and engaging, giving the game both excitement and emotional weight; the music understands its place in the story and complements it perfectly. On top of that, the game's B-sides and C-sides remix each chapter's music as well as its level design, taking great music and giving it a fresh (usually funky) new spin.

Even the game's sound effects are great; the sound of jumping, landing, clinging to walls and dashing are all distinct, clear and satisfying. What's really, great, though, is the array of sound effects that act as voices for the characters. They speak in a gibberish language, but just by the sound of a character's voice, you can tell both their personality and their emotional state. Listening to the sound of Madeline's voice as she talks, you can hear her excitement, her frustration, and her fear in a way that I don't think even full voice acting could accomplish.

Everything about Celeste is wonderful, from start to finish. Story, gameplay, graphics and music combine to craft a tale that's meaningful and impactful. Well-honed gameplay mechanics and level design ensure a fun experience, and the mind-boggling amount of extra content ensures that you'll be playing this game for dozens of hours if you want to see everything. The game offers a strong challenge, but one that can be mitigated with Assist Mode if you don't want to beat your head against a wall.

But most importantly, very few games have made me feel the way that Celeste has. I cared deeply about Madeline and her friends, and my desire to see her triumph was so strong that I couldn't stop myself from playing the game every spare second I had. The game tells a story that's important and emotional, and I'm still feeling myself gripped by it every time I play through it again. I can think of almost nothing I dislike, yet I can't stop writing about how much I love this game. This game is a masterpiece, the best game of 2018 so far, and something that everyone who enjoys video games should try. If you're anything like me, you're in for an unforgettable experience.

Final score: 10 out of 10

A copy of this game was purchased by the reviewer.

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