When I first played Celeste last year, I was enamoured. I thought its platforming was nothing short of perfect. I thought its soundtrack was eargasmic. And I thought its understated story was beautifully married into its gameplay. After returning to the game recently, my opinion hasn’t changed one bit. Celeste is a genius piece of game design and a wondrous work of art.
First off, the actual gameplay. Celeste’s platforming is pixel perfect. All of Celeste’s obstacles are constructed around our protagonist’s – Madeline’s – dash. The game is essentially built around this mechanic and milks it in the best way. It’s incredible how much mileage the developer’s have got out of such a small move set, since every single obstacle feels new.
Celeste’s levels are split into separate rooms rather than seeing the camera following you throughout the game. This is for the best as Celeste can present small, bite sized challenges that get progressively more complicated. These rooms are almost miniature puzzles to solve. You’ll look out over a room of obstacles, hazards and platforms and need to plan three steps ahead. Where exactly should I jump? When exactly should I dash? How do I get around that? In this way, Celeste is just as much about problem solving as it is about twitch based movement, making it accessible to anyone.
The levels don’t disappoint either. In true platforming fashion, each world – or stage of the mountain – is themed. Instead of relying on old tropes like the snowy stage, the desert stage or the lava stage, Celeste takes a different approach. Each stage in Celeste doesn’t just have a different aesthetic theme but a different gameplay twist.
One of the stages is entirely built around the idea of momentum. It gives you mechanical platforms that shoot back and forth and it’s up to you to use these to your advantage. One of the stages features incredibly heavy winds; completely changing how Madeline’s dash operates and feels. They’re all incredibly varied and none of them rely on cliches of the genre.
The act of platforming itself is flawless. Madeline is weighty and responsive. Her dashes feel snappy and her wall climbing is satisfying to master… or at least try to master.
You see, Celeste is a brutally difficult game. Similarly to Ori and the Blind Forest or Super Meat Boy, dying is okay. In fact, dying, a lot, is expected. Celeste has an incredibly quick pace and when you combine that with puzzle like level design, it’s natural for it to take some trial and error to complete the game.
Of course, death is never frustrating. Every time I died I knew that I had made an error. The controls weren’t wonky, the level design wasn’t unfair. I realised my mistake and used it as a lesson. Celeste’s quick respawns don’t hurt of course. Every time you die, you’ll be back in the action, at the start of the same room, in less than a second. It’s sweat inducing, but never frustrating.
Though, if you find the base game to be difficult, you’re not ready for the B-sides and C-sides. These are collectible tapes you can find throughout the levels. Getting to them is hard enough but what they unlock is beyond your imagination. These tapes unlock remixed versions of all of the stages and they require godlike platforming precision. I got through a few of them and they each took me 2-3 hours, 300 deaths and a bucket load of sweat.
However, don’t be intimidated if you’re not great at platformers. Celeste has a flexible Assist Mode that can tailor the game to your skill level. The Assist Mode includes sliders for all types of things, including the speed of the game and how many dashes Celeste has, among other things. The best thing is that there’s no penalty: achievements aren’t disabled so don’t worry.
The other way to adjust the difficulty comes with some self restraint. There are collectible strawberries floating all over Celeste mountain and a major part of Celeste’s challenge comes from these collectibles. They’re not only incredibly well hidden but getting to them will require some serious platforming chops to manoeuvre around new obstacles. If you don’t want any extra challenge, avoid these – though you will miss some very creative sections.
Of course I’d recommend that you try to get through the game without the Assist Mode. I played it without it and it will definitely enhance your appreciation for Celeste’s story.
For me, Celeste’s sweat-inducing gameplay is only worth it because it’s married so well with a beautiful and sensitive story about mental health. Madeline, comes to climb the titular Celeste Mountain to escape and deal with her anxiety and self-consciousness. Celeste’s delicate and relatable writing accurately depicts what it’s like to deal with self-doubt.
But it’s more importantly the most appropriate story to mirror the player’s own struggles through the seemingly insurmountable mountain. This makes the climb up Celeste mountain an even more intimate and relatable one. As Madeline is crippled with the thought that maybe she’s not good enough to overcome the mountain, so was I.
This means that whether you’ve struggled with anxiety and mental health or not: Madeline’s journey remains painful, relatable and cathartic. Unlike many stories about mental health, Celeste is an genuinely healthy game to play for anyone struggling with these issues.
And that’s why Celeste on Xbox One is so ingenious. It epitomises what makes interactive storytelling so impactful. Celeste beautifully marries the emotions of the character to the emotions that we feel platforming up Celeste mountain. Her struggle is our struggle and while she’s battling her own inner demons, so are we. In that sense, players are invited to project their own struggles onto Madeline and her story here is a landscape for players to deal with their own problems. This makes Celeste infinitely more personal to players, whether you’re crippled by anxiety or just dealing with self doubt.
Celeste is undoubtedly a modern masterpiece. Its mix of reactionary platforming and problem solving is a breath of fresh air. Its Assist Mode is ahead of the curb in an industry constantly discussing accessibility. The way it masterfully weaves its emotional story about mental health with its brutal difficulty is astounding. Hours of extra content, one of the best soundtracks of all time and neat art is only the icing on the cake for this indie gem.