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.