Going from skyscraping towers to sky-high mountains isn't too much of a lateral move for Towerfall developer Matt Makes Games. In fact, the two games look remarkably similar, with a charming pixel art style that offers a throwback to old 16-bit games of the past. But the visual style is really where the similarities end.
Celeste feels like an entirely different animal than creator Matt Thorson's competitive multiplayer platformer. It's a solo journey of one young girl named Madeline braving the dangers of an unforgiving mountain. It's someone looking to confront the dangers of nature, but also looking to confront herself. There's a much deeper story in Celeste and it's one that helps make this masochistic game feel like something special.
Celeste operates on some of the simplest of platforming mechanics. The only mechanics the player has available to them are the ability to cling to walls and climb and an air dash. The various layers of the mountain acclimate themselves to these mechanics, creating extremely challenging platforming sequences. This game will subtly revel in its difficulty, only offering a death counter in-between stages and on the main menu. And yes, Celeste gets brutally difficult, as evidenced by that same death counter quickly hitting triple and quadruple digits.
But like most good platformers, the challenge is entirely doable. Some areas will ask players to chain together air dashes, using gems that refresh their movement counter. Other areas utilize platforms that only move when detecting an air dash, requiring players to think about how they approach them, lest they land on a bed of spikes. And of course, being thousands of feet in the sky, there are going to be brutal arctic winds.
Later in the game, elements of other genres will start to seep in. There's a hotel stage where the idea becomes to search for keys to unlock the next path, similar to a Metroidvania. Another later stage requires puzzle-solving to clear the path forward, completely forgoing the game's linear nature to that point. There's even an escort mission that puts players' platforming prowess to the test.
While Celeste can be completed in about five to six hours, there are more than enough challenges to keep players occupied well beyond that. The game doesn't pretend that collectible strawberries are anything other than an additional challenge. Often times, though, that challenge is worth taking, because it can feel satisfying to conquer a brutal sequence to get that extra 1000 points. The B-side tapes are more worthwhile, because they unlock remixed stages that somehow amplify the crushing difficulty that much more.
Yes, it's incredibly hard and anyone picking this game up is going to die a lot. Fortunately, Celeste doesn't get mired in loading screens or repetitive, mocking text. If Madeline dies, she simply respawns almost instantly. This goes a long way towards feeding that "Just one more time!" instinct and makes it that much more satisfying when a difficult sequence is conquered.
The Man in the Mirror
Had Celeste been a straightforward platformer, it would have been a fun romp. However, this game went the extra mile to tell a critical story of confronting one's own fears and insecurities. While Celeste is a difficult test of platforming precision, there's also a supernatural story unfolding around the mountain itself. And it's one that causes Madeline to confront herself, her faults, and what she ultimately wants.
Madeline is an imperfect person, someone prone to panic attack and depression. She doesn't understand why she's trying to brave Celeste Mountain. She has demons and those demons are literally manifested over the course of the game. The farther Madeline is able to ascend the mountain, the more she's able to confront her own insecurities and come to grips with who she is.
I also found it clever how this element of the journey eventually manifested into the gameplay. For example, the second level will have Madeline's mirror image chasing her across the stage. The idea becomes to outrun her or face death. But I will say that this novelty does eventually wear off.
Again, Celeste is brutally difficult and requires precision platforming at its finest. So tossing in creatures that give chase relentlessly does start to feel cheap. Imagine making it across a difficult sequence, requiring expert timing, only to get killed by a hostile that homed in on Madeline's location. It became more frustrating near the end of the game, because the enemy movement felt erratic. I did attempt to jump the incoming creature to send it past me, matador-style, but it simply floated up and nailed me in the face anyway. When the platforming gets as hard as it does, having to start over because of a persistent enemy chase does get annoying. It's not unbeatable by any means, but it is irksome. Though it should be noted that the game's Assist Mode does allow for some adjustment in that area.
And lastly, while I love Madeline's story, I do wish it could have been sprinkled out over the entirety of the game. To put this more clearly, getting through the second-to-last level was an adrenaline ride and one that left me ready to keep right on going and conquer that last stretch. But then the game slowed down with an extended dialogue sequence between Madeline and Theo, with multiple dialogue choices that slowed the game down. I would have loved to have seen these sequences placed across each of the game's stages in smaller doses than have one giant sequence near the end, especially when I'm riding a high and ready to power on through to the end.
Reaching the Peak
Those who are looking for one of the year's first true single-player challenges should look no further than Celeste. The team at Matt Makes Games has crafted a tough, yet not entirely unfair platformer, one wrapped in a touching narrative with some memorable characters. It's clear that a lot of heart went into writing the story, while it's also clear that Matt Thorson put his best level design foot forward. Some of the areas in Celeste were very reminiscent of some of his Super Mario Maker work, in terms of gimmicks, precision jumping, tricks, and difficulty.
There's a real satisfaction in knowing you've made it all the way to the top of the mountain, especially after watching Madeline's story unfold. And with enough collectible and even harder levels out there, there's much more to the five-hour story that'll keep the most hardened platforming fan going for a long time.
This review is based on a Steam code provided by the developer. Celeste is available on Steam, the PlayStation Store, the Xbox Live Marketplace, and the Nintendo eShop for $19.99. The game is not rated by the ESRB.