Developer: Matt Makes Games Inc.
Publisher: Matt Makes Games Inc.
Rating: E 10+
There are many games out there that aim to challenge and punish the player. Many of them are are of the “Souls” variety, while others are very popular indie games. Indie platformers in particular have a long history of of being some of the most challenging. I recently encountered one of these with Alteric, but there are others that deserve more attention. Super Meat Boy, Hollow Knight, Ori and the Blind Forest, and Cuphead are among some of the toughest of these, but they also happen to be some of the greatest video games of all time.
Celeste is a game from the makers of Towerfall Ascension—yes, that local multiplayer game that first came out on the Ouya. This game aims to join the ranks of the indie games that were just mentioned. It may look intimidating on the surface, but Celeste is more than a brutal platformer. Players will not only be challenged, but also motivated and inspired when playing this game. This is quite possibly my favorite game of the year so far, but let me go into more detail with this review and tell you why that is.
Spiritual Content: One of the characters in the game seems to be some kind of ghost or spirit located in an abandoned hotel. There is an alternate evil version of the main character, but it’s not exactly explained what she is.
Violence: Celeste is a platformer game in which the main character must avoid various obstacles. Players can fall into various hazardous obstacles such as pits, spikes, saws, and much more. On the bright side, the main character bursts into light and respawns right on screen upon death. There is only one enemy that players are required to jump on or dash into to defeat, but there is no combat present aside from that.
Sexual Content: Early on in the game there is a poster in the background that has a woman in a bikini.The poster is done in such a way that you can only see the woman’s figure and what she’s wearing.
Drugs/Alcohol: There is a reference to alcohol consumption.
Positive Themes: Celeste is a game about determination and overcoming depression and anxiety. The character struggles with both of those things, and we witness her journey to triumph over them. The game also includes positive messages in the loading screen. This game wants to inspire people and motivate them rather than beat them down and punish them like most games of this nature are typically known for.
Celeste surprised me straight out of the gate. This was a game that I fully expected to frustrate me and possibly even make me rage quit at some point, but it did neither of those things. Every element of the game compliments one another in conveying the message that the developers are trying to tell us. This is a game about conquering our fears and the difficulties that life decides to throw our way. This message is not just told through the story and the main character, but within the obstacles and levels themselves. Though instead working to frustrate and defeat, the game tries compel you to see this journey to completion.
Our story is centered around a girl by the name of Madeline. It isn’t entirely evident right away, but she struggles with anxiety and depression. She aims to climb Mt. Celeste in hopes to overcome these struggles and runs into many challenges along the way. It’s never explained, but there is something enchanted about this mountain, which becomes manifold through playing mind games with those that try to climb it. Madeline meets a few other characters along the way. One in particular goes by the name of Theo, a character for whom Matt Makes Games Inc. made an actual Instagram account. That social media profile is great marketing, and is directly connected to his story, as he is also trying to climb the mountain. There are only a few characters in this game, but we get to see all of them evolve along with Madeline.
As we progress through Madeline’s journey, we are also encouraged to overcome the obstacles we face. There are many collectable strawberries to acquire within the game, and most of them are usually located in tough spots. However, the game literally tells you that collecting all of them doesn’t unlock or do anything special. The reason for this is to encourage players to not feel any pressure in skipping them. Another message for players is that the death count doesn’t matter. A death count can be seen on your profile and for each level, but the game tells players that we should be proud of our deaths, because that means we are learning how to play, and getting better. Messages like these are cleverly inserted to the load screen and are a nice touch that encouraged and inspired me. The type of collectible that players will want to find are the crystal hearts that unlock a special epilogue chapter.
The stages and obstacles themselves are handled in a very clever fashion. A single level might be large, but they are broken down into single screen rooms. When Madeline dies, she will almost instantly be revived in the same room, rather than forcing players to start the entire level over. Most larger rooms have multiple checkpoints, though some later stages do not. Yet by the time they begin showing up, I was already inspired enough by conquering prior level designs to overcome these obstacles. I never tired myself out as I died twenty or thirty times in a row without losing any of my progress. But if I did, I could always save and quit, and when ready, I fire up Celeste and pick up right where I left off.
In this platformer, Madeline does have more than just a jump button under her sleeve. Her dash that can only be used once in the air, and it refreshes when your feet touch the ground. We get a visual aid that lets us know when it’s used up due to a change in her hair color. The same also applies for climbing; Madeline can climb and cling to walls for a short time until she loses her grip, as indicated by sweat bubbles and her entire body flashing. While playing Celeste,I was required to implement dashing, wall-jumping, and climbing as I traversed each platforming obstacle. Many of the chapters also introduce stage-centric gameplay mechanics that must be learned. These reminded me so much of the way Nintendo integrates special mechanics into their own games. One such mechanic includes a rectangular gelatin from which dashing through would launch me just like a barrel from the Donkey Kong Country games—and don’t forget to jump while exiting for an added boost.
Don’t let the lack of reward from strawberries discourage all of you hard-headed completionists out there! There are tougher versions of each chapter to unlock, too. They are called “B-Sides,” and can be found within secret sections of a stage. These B-Side challenges are meant for those who truly want to test their mettle, and that’s not me right now. I did complete a few of them, but they get increasingly more difficult. Experiencing these B-Sides was the closest I ever got to rage and frustration while playing Celeste, a game painstakingly designed to calm and encourage. I do not recommend these optional challenges for the casual or average gamer.
Celeste is a challenging game, but I personally didn’t feel like it was the toughest thing I ever played. The developers did include an assist mode for those who really need it. Its available to turn on at the start of the game, and can make you straight up overpowered if you want it to. You could change the game speed, activate infinite stamina, set the number or air dashes, or become invincible. There’s also the option to skip entire levels if you wish to do so. After experimenting with it, I discovered that it feels like an old school debug/cheat menu. I recommend that the game should be attempted “as intended” before anyone makes the decision to play it in assist mode.
Celeste chooses the pixelated aesthetic for its presentation. It uses some more advanced elements and special effects to give it a certain charm that exceeds the “this could’ve been on a 16-bit platform” that most indies are going for. Dialogue is carried out in text boxes, but I enjoy the way they make use of the character portraits in some of the conversations. The art style from these text boxes is particularly distinguished from the normal in-game artwork, and we also get to see this stylization through stills shown at the end of each chapter.
The music stands out to me as well. During my streams of the game, I found myself complimenting the soundtrack on various occasions. It flows almost perfectly with the gameplay in such a way that can be mesmerizing. The music and gameplay would work together in keeping me entranced to the end of whatever stage I was working on. It brings a level of comfort that keeps me focused and calm within a video game styled in such a way that would normally drive me nuts. I’ve had multiple people in the stream chat wondering how I don’t get frustrated—this soundtrack plays a huge part in that.
My time with Celeste was unlike anything else. If I had to nitpick at something, it would be that the B-Side stages aren’t for everybody, but the rest of the game is. Presentation, gameplay, and level design all successfully compliment one another in such a way that not many games can achieve. Celeste acts as a beacon of hope for people and a world that really needs some of that hope right now. It aims to inspire, motivate, encourage, and empower anyone who plays it. Celeste is here to let us know that we can get through any setbacks or obstacles that stand in our way if we put our mind to it. There is no excuse to not play this game if you still haven’t already; it is available on just about every platform expect your smartphone.