118 Celeste

EDGE - - GAMES -

PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One

The con­trols are exquisitely cal­i­brated, giv­ing you room to ad­just your tra­jec­tory in mid-air

De­vel­oper Matt Thor­son, Noel Berry Pub­lisher Matt Makes Games For­mat PC (tested), PS4, Switch, Xbox One Re­lease Out now

Part­way through Celeste, our moun­taineer pro­tag­o­nist Made­line suf­fers a panic at­tack. Luck­ily, her oc­ca­sional climb­ing com­pan­ion, the af­fa­ble Theo, has a sure­fire method to calm her down. Vi­su­alise a feather, he says, and breathe in and out rhyth­mi­cally – imag­in­ing that each breath out is keep­ing it air­borne. Sure enough, it rises and falls as we push a but­ton, and be­fore long Made­line has re­gained her com­po­sure. That this comes af­ter one of the game’s most frus­trat­ing se­quences doesn’t ap­pear to be ac­ci­den­tal. The tech­nique, it seems, is as much for the player’s ben­e­fit as for its hero’s.

That’s be­cause Celeste is one of those games: a pix­e­lart plat­former that con­stantly teeters on the edge of a precipice, the finest of mar­gins sep­a­rat­ing com­pul­sion and frus­tra­tion. And, boy, does de­signer Matt Thor­son know it. It’s ob­vi­ous from the out­set, when Made­line tells an old woman of her am­bi­tion to climb the tit­u­lar peak, and the woman’s mock­ing laugh­ter fol­lows her into the next screen. It’s there, too, when Made­line smashes a mir­ror and a pur­ple-haired dop­pel­ganger emerges – this is, es­sen­tially, her in­ner doubt, the part of her that sug­gests she should turn back. “Are you the weak part of me, or the lazy part?” Made­line grunts. “I’m the prag­matic part,” her grin­ning dou­ble replies.

In our case, this merely makes us all the more keen to prove it wrong. At times, how­ever, you’ll ques­tion whether you re­ally are go­ing to make it, since Celeste’s chal­lenge is as ver­tig­i­nous as its peaks. Yet while it does oc­ca­sion­ally tease that there’s much worse to come, it knows when to give you an en­cour­ag­ing pat on the back, too. As your death counter rises, a post­card ar­rives, re­mind­ing you to be proud of it: these mis­takes are part of the learn­ing process, af­ter all. “Keep go­ing!” it in­sists, and so you do, even as you know poor Made­line is due for count­less deathly plunges and im­pale­ments over the course of the sub­se­quent chap­ter. Af­ter a while, in fact, we be­gin to won­der whether Thor­son is pulling off some kind of de­vi­ous psy­cho­log­i­cal trick: are these mes­sages, by turns hope­ful and dis­cour­ag­ing, com­ing just as we most need them?

These lit­tle nar­ra­tive hooks are an in­cen­tive to keep climb­ing in and of them­selves, help­ing set Celeste apart from its peers. The moun­tain gives you a tan­gi­ble tar­get to aim at, a far stronger in­cen­tive to reach the end than the more ab­stract con­cept of a fi­nal world. The game’s en­vi­ron­ments change more than you’d think, keep­ing you on your toes as you won­der where Made­line’s jour­ney will take her next. This is a place of dark, treach­er­ous cav­erns and windswept cliffs, nat­u­rally, but you’ll also visit a ho­tel with a spec­tral concierge, a dark, labyrinthine tem­ple and a cave of waterfalls and crys­talline for­ma­tions. Mean­while, Made­line’s pre­car­i­ous men­tal state be­comes a mys­tery in its own right: the al­ti­tude might be play­ing a part, but the moun­tain seems to be bring­ing the demons in her head to life, and you’ll be root­ing for her to over­come them.

She must con­quer these chal­lenges with­out pitons, cram­pons, or any kind of hik­ing gear. All Made­line has is a jump, a dash and the abil­ity to scut­tle up ver­ti­cal sur­faces as long as her grip holds. This is, mirac­u­lously, enough, though she’ll oc­ca­sion­ally need to rely on some en­vi­ron­men­tal as­sis­tance: some plat­forms can be steered as she rides them, oth­ers shift across or up as you land or grip onto them, while float­ing bub­bles shoot her in a di­rec­tion of your choos­ing be­fore pop­ping. For the most part, these are sin­gle-screen chal­lenges, be­gin­ning and end­ing with a patch of safe ground – or oc­ca­sion­ally an exit – with an ar­ray of haz­ards in be­tween. Some­times even the safe places, well, aren’t. Plat­forms trig­gered by a rush are ei­ther coated with jagged crys­tals or li­able to shunt you into them. Some sur­faces bris­tle with thin, red ten­drils that ex­pand into a deadly mass shortly af­ter con­tact, forc­ing you to jump away. There are set-piece chases, too: Made­line’s dev­il­ish dou­ble mul­ti­plies into a se­ries of clones that copy your every move sec­onds later, while a boss tails you across mul­ti­ple screens, spo­rad­i­cally lung­ing for­ward so you can’t stay still for a mo­ment.

There are times, too, when it takes its foot off the gas en­tirely, with puz­zle-led sec­tions that re­quire care­ful ex­plo­ration. An op­tional set of col­lecta­bles – straw­ber­ries, oddly – lie mostly away from the crit­i­cal path, as your re­ward for com­plet­ing the most de­mand­ing gauntlets. Pick­ing up the hov­er­ing fruit isn’t enough; you’ll need to touch down safely on solid ground af­ter­wards to earn your prize. As an­other post­card re­minds you, col­lect­ing them isn’t manda­tory: for pa­tient play­ers, this cun­ning bit of re­verse psy­chol­ogy will make grab­bing the lot an es­sen­tial pur­suit.

Even as the death count ticks to­wards four fig­ures, most will keep trekking on­ward and up­ward. The con­trols are exquisitely cal­i­brated, giv­ing you room to ad­just your tra­jec­tory in mid-air, and usu­ally af­ford­ing you some lee­way when your tim­ing isn’t quite per­fect. Still, a con­troller with a good D-pad is rec­om­mended, since dig­i­tal con­trol of­fers a level of es­sen­tial pre­ci­sion that ana­logue can’t; the dif­fer­ence be­tween right and up-right can be the dif­fer­ence be­tween life and death.

In­evitably, as with any climb, there are mo­ments where its grip loosens, the most ir­ri­tat­ing ex­am­ple be­ing the ex­tended out­door sec­tions where pow­er­ful gusts of wind af­fect Made­line’s mo­men­tum. It’s here, where you feel like you’re bat­tling the con­trols rather than the en­vi­ron­ment, that Celeste threat­ens to get the bet­ter of you. And yet, like the rest of this game’s most knuck­le­whiten­ing tests, when it’s over, you’ll let out such a deep sigh of sat­is­fac­tion that your own imag­i­nary feather will come down with snow on it.

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