Celeste is a twitch platformer with a story of ascent.
Celeste is about overcoming adversity. It’s a punishing platformer designed to accommodate people who can’t complete punishing platformers. Rather than being hard for its own sake, Celeste is hard for a reason that dovetails with its themes and narrative. And much like the demons that haunt the game’s protagonist, the difficulty does relent. You will finish this game. But if you’re like me, you’ll die upwards of 3,000 times doing so.
You play as Madeline, a young woman hellbent on climbing the Celeste Mountain. It’s tall, dangerous, and seemingly haunted; not the kind you’d normally want to climb. But Madeline does, because it seems to her that she can’t get anything else right in her life. She can’t make peace with herself, so why not dive headfirst into a insurmountable challenge?
Spikes, red ooze, fatal falls… all the environmental hazards are here, and they’ll all kill you on impact. Madeline can jump, dash (both midair and on the ground), and climb walls and cliff faces. For the bulk of the game that’s all she can do, though certain environmental features, specific to each of the worlds, tinker with the format.
You’ll find jump pads, red glowing balls that hurtle you endlessly in any given direction, and green diamonds which grant Madeline an extra mid-air dash. Celeste never stops adding modifiers to its simple two-button platforming, and most of them focus on momentum. Chaining dashes between green diamonds is a treat, as is manipulating directional blocks to leap deftly through levels. At times, Celeste has a ground-is-lava feel best captured recently in Ori and the Blind Forest, in the way it has you charging through the cosmos in a balletic dance.
The worst of these modifiers is wind. When it’s blowing in Madeline’s favor, it’s fun to course through the air. But when she must press against the wind, it’s like navigating through treacle. In an otherwise brilliant platformer, these are among the most tedious moments I’ve experienced in a modern 2D game. Celeste is about snappy action, and wind is a huge momentum killer.
C’est la vie
Celeste is interesting for the way it weaves its narrative around its twitch platforming template. It’s a story of a young woman’s efforts to make peace with herself. One can assume that scaling a mysterious mountain is tough, but the reason Madeline is scaling it, and the things we learn about her as she does, lends a sense of urgency and purpose to the task.
The familiar pattern of failing and trying again is very much a part of Madeline’s frame of mind, whether she’s scaling a mountain or not. In this way, Celeste utilizes its rhythm in a way that will feel meaningful to everyone. It helps that platforming is leavened with more open-ended areas focused on light puzzling, and these often double as tutorials for the new elements that will prevail for the next few play sessions.
What really sets Celeste apart, aside from the story, is that you’ll finish it. Twitch platformers are my bread and butter, but I’ve never finished Super Meat Boy, I’ll never finish N++, and 1001 Spikes can die in a fire. I’m happy to play a game for as long as I’m capable and not finish it, but many aren’t. This is a game for those who aren’t. Those looking for a caustic challenge can find cassettes throughout Celeste’s world that ‘remix’ the game in devious ways, but I’m fairly certain that anyone, with the right amount of determination, can complete the core game. I did so in about ten hours.
That’s probably my favorite aspect of Celeste: It wields difficulty in a meaningful way, but not in a way that will solely appeal to masochists. It reminds me of The End is Nigh, in the way its difficulty is not just a longevity-oriented feature, but a core vehicle for helping the player understand what the game is about. Celeste knows when to dig its claws in, but also when to give you a break. I’d recommend 1001 Spikes to basically no one but myself. I’d recommend Celeste to anyone.
Chaining dashes between green diamonds is a treat