REVIEW: Celeste

Wednesday, December 5th, 2018

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Title Celeste
Developer Matt Makes Games Inc.
Publisher Matt Makes Games Inc.
Release Date January 25th, 2018
Genre Hardcore platformer
Platform PC, Nintendo Switch, PS4, XBox One
Age Rating E for Everyone – Fantasy Violence, Mild Language, Alcohol Reference
Official Website

It might seem odd that I’m just now putting out my review of Celeste. After all, the game officially launched on the Nintendo Switch some 10 months ago. But despite being tempted by the early coverage I found of Celeste, I was a little gun shy. Even though I love platformers of all stripes, my most recent experience with a hardcore platformer left me somewhat frustrated. It’s also somewhat of a coin toss whether or not an indie will make a splash or a ripple. It’s a tricky job balancing the difficulty necessary to qualify as hardcore with elements that still make the game approachable to a wider group of gamers. It’s harder still to succeed at that and make a game that is memorable. So, after waiting months for a sale that I felt justified taking a chance on, I picked up Celeste. Won’t you join me now as I make my ascent?

Celeste | Crazy Old Woman

Quiet, you!

The game has you in control of a red haired young woman named Madeline. For various reasons she’s decided to climb the monumental Celeste Mountain. Each section of that climb is split into chapters, for a total of 7. That might not sound like much, but Celeste’s every nook and cranny is littered with well hidden secrets. The most obvious of these are the strawberries you can collect. They don’t unlock anything, but more serve as a hook to get the completionists fully invested. They’re all hidden in hard to reach spots, oftentimes located behind breakable walls or hidden entrances. There’s even some with wings that will fly off if you try and get them the easy way. But before we get any deeper into the many secrets in Celeste, let’s talk about how Maddy actually climbs the mountain.

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One of the greatest elements of the game is the pure simplicity of the controls. You move Madeline around with the joystick or D-pad. She can’t run, only amble about at a moderate clip. She can also jump with either the B or X buttons and dash once in any direction with A or Y. That’s actually very important, since much of the terrain in Celeste is hard to navigate. Thankfully, you can grab onto any vertical surface by holding any of the shoulder buttons. But there’s a small catch. Madeline isn’t a world class climber, so her endurance is far from super human. What that means in game is that if you’re climbing a vertical surface for too long, she’ll get winded and fall, unable to grab anything else until she lands. Landing on a flat surface also recharges your dash, which is absolutely vital to navigate the progressively more challenging traps. Additionally, many stages will have unique gimmicks to help you progress, such as machines that hurl you upwards, bouncy clouds, starblocks you can dash through and much more. The reason for all these strange objects is that Celeste Mountain isn’t your average geographical feature. It’s a place of mystery and magic.

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In the first chapter of the game, things seem relatively normal, but once you get to the second chapter, the gloves come off. Madeline comes across a mysterious mirror, and from it walks her own distorted reflection. Initially the game makes you think this is all a dream, but it turns out that Madeline’s shadowy doppleganger is truly there in the flesh. She represents the negative impulses that Maddy tries to suppress, such as her anxiety and anger. I wouldn’t have expected much plot from a platformer, but the exploration of Madeline’s psyche, that fight between parts of herself which seemingly don’t mesh, layered atop a quest through a strange mountain, was shockingly compelling. As someone with their fair share of self doubt, I really resonated with this theme. Though you spend most of the time solo, you will encounter a small cast of characters that all bring a lot to the emotional fabric of the game. They range from a crazed old woman to a ghostly hotel manager to a somewhat narcissistic young man named Theo. All of them do a wonderful job of exploring the themes of the game while also guiding Maddy higher and higher up the mountain.

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Visually, Celeste is a lush love letter to the games of the past. Though many of the character designs are simple pixels, the colorful layouts of the mountain are all distinct and memorable. From the decrepit ruins of a once grand hotel to the buttery hues of a dangerous ridge, there’s a lot to appreciate. Somehow the game does a great job of infusing a ton of personality and heart into every inch of this massive adventure. Musically, it’s also a treat. The soundtracks for the main levels are melodic and often somber, while the soundtracks for the harder parts of the game are upbeat and frantic. Special note to the chipmunk gibberish sound of the characters talking, a la Yooka-Laylee. It’s charming and just rounds out an already fantastic package.

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Though I was able to beat the game in around 6 and a half hours, there’s a ton more to do in Celeste once you beat the main story. Earlier I mentioned the collectable strawberries, which are used to make a delicious pie after you reach the summit. You also unlock a Celeste minigame on the in-game PICO-8 system, which is like an NES version of the main game. There are also hidden Crystal Hearts, which are used to unlock a post game area, the Core of the mountain. The first portion of the Core reqiured 4 Hearts, and I had only found 1 by that point. Some research led me to discover that there’s at least 2 Hearts in every stage, and that’s not including the B-Side stages. You’re probably wondering what those are. Essentially, in each stage you can find a cassette tape, which unlocks the hard version of that stage. The B-Side areas, of which I’ve beaten a small handful, are all tough as nails. They have no strawberries or anything to collect, they are pure platforming purgatory. But I mean that in the very best way. Yes, they’re super challenging, but they are also fair, and don’t require anything of players they don’t already possess. Each death I got playing them was a badge of honor, and I kept learning with every one. Better yet, by beating a B-Side stage, you’ll get a Crystal Heart. So if you’re truly a completionist, there’s hours more of content once you “beat” Celeste.

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Frankly, I should have bought Celeste a long time ago, but I’m glad I finally made my way the mountain. It’s a perfect example of why I love both indies and platformers. It’s also easily the best platformer I’ve played this year. For $19.99 you get a robust package full of challenge, heart and mystery. This small cast of characters really charmed me, and the gameplay itself was pitch perfect. Though I played it with the default settings, you can turn on many helpful features to make things a bit easier. I had gotten about 1300 deaths and 81 strawberries the first time I beat the game, and since starting this review I’ve already added plenty more to both tallies. I honestly love this indie gem, and can’t recommend it highly enough. Go do yourself a favor and climb this mountain!

Celeste | Ending

Review Score
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Review Copy Purchased by Author

About Josh Speer

Josh is a passionate gamer, finding time to clock in around 30-40 hours of gaming a week. He discovered Operation Rainfall while avidly following the localization of the Big 3 Wii RPGs. He enjoys SHMUPS, Platformers, RPGs, Roguelikes and the occasional Fighter. He’s also an unashamedly giant Mega Man fan, having played the series since he was eight. As Review Manager he spends far too much time editing reviews and random articles. In his spare time he counts the days until Mega Man 11, TWEWY Final Remix and Wargroove release.