PC, PS4, Switch
The old woman’s laughter follows you as you begin your ascent. It echoes from her lodge, halfway across one screen, stretching into the next before fading into the crisp night air. You’ve already come close to being crushed by a giant falling block of ice; she warns you that if you had trouble dealing with that, you may not be prepared for what’s to come. You soon realise she isn’t kidding. As you jog to your right, the thin stone bridge begins to crumble underfoot, so you break into a sprint, leaping over a gap, only for the stone you land on to fall away as you touch down. Time stands still as a crow suddenly flaps over to you and caws out an instruction; you follow it, pressing X to dash to safe ground. Phew.
Celeste’s opening is a masterclass in economy, not just introducing you to its controls, but to the kind of trial you can expect to face. The floating onomatopoeic text of the woman’s laugh not only serves to mock protagonist Madeline’s ambitions to climb the eponymous mountain, but acts as a provocation for the player, too, urging you to prove her wrong. Immediately, you’ll steel yourself for the task ahead, realising that this is a game that wants to kill you, and often. We’re not prepared to share our stats for the build we played; suffice it to say, it succeeded.
Much of the challenge comes not from the many spiked hazards, falling blocks and shifting platforms, but two key limitations. First, your mid-air dash ability is only replenished when you land, with Madeline’s hair appearing blue once you’ve used it. And second, she’s only capable of clinging to vertical surfaces for a limited time. Occasionally, the way forward looks obvious until you realise you only have a single dash to get through it. And Madeline’s waning grip forces you to either climb or jump quickly rather than wait for the perfect moment.
Before long, you’ll have a new factor to contend with, as Madeline activates a series of environmental anomalies that accelerate your momentum in the direction you’re headed as you leap into them. This means being squished into the odd wall, until you work out the correct angle of approach. Later, via a cracked mirror, an evil alter ego appears, and then some more: they mimic Madeline’s moves several seconds afterwards, much like Super Mario Galaxy 2’ s Cosmic Clones. As long as you keep moving, they’re relatively easily avoided – at least until your progress is halted by a moving platform that can only be triggered by collecting a token. This requires you to enter a cramped alcove and negotiate your exit before the evil doppelgängers can make contact.
If reaching the next zone is your main objective, an optional secondary goal proves all but irresistible. On some screens you’ll see floating strawberries that tempt you away from the path of least resistance, usually requiring a tricky string of inputs to reach. And you can’t simply sacrifice yourself by grabbing one during a death plunge: it’ll only be added to your rucksack once you’ve touched down safely with the fruit in your possession. To further complicate matters, winged variants will flutter away if disturbed by a dash, forcing you to make your way to them without your failsafe.
It’s a slow and often fraught climb, in other words, but you’ll feel elated as much as relieved when you reach a new checkpoint. Celeste isn’t, perhaps, as revelatory as co-creator Matt Thorson’s Towerfall, but for those moments you haven’t got three friends to hand, it presents a solitary challenge that gives you the satisfaction of conquering your own personal Everest.
You’ll steel yourself for the task ahead, realising that this game wants to kill you