Developer: Matt Makes Games – Publisher: Matt Makes Games – Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC, Mac – Release Date: January 25, 2018
*This review was conducted using the Switch version.
What You’re Getting
A heartwarming tale of a troubled girl’s battle with depression under the guise of a precision platformer.
What’s The Story?
Madeline wants to climb to the top of Celeste Mountain. Her reasons aren’t immediately made clear, only the indication that the climb may be an escape from something deeply troubling her. But Celeste is no ordinary mountain. An otherworldly aura surrounds it, causing a dark presence with Madeline to physically manifest itself. Madeline soon realizes that she must not only overcome a physical mountain, but a mental, more challenging hill within herself.
Odds are anyone who’s ever struggled with depression or know someone who has will quickly realize Madeline’s climb acts as an allegory on the subject. The story manages to simplify the abstract complexity of the disease using personification. Madeline’s dark half constantly belittles her, spouting every reason why she’ll fail and criticizing her decisions. When Madeline shows resolve, her doppelganger grows fearful–seemingly more so for her host’s safety than her own. She effectively represents the voice of fear and doubt all of us have.
Thankfully, distilling these emotions into a cutesy sprite doesn’t trivialize the condition. If anything, it shows how crippling it can be in a manner easy to illustrate. When the dark side throws fits of rage that overwhelm Madeline, it exemplifies how powerfully negative thoughts can affect distressed individuals. One great moment involves quelling Madeline’s panic attack using a simple yet clever gameplay mechanic.
Madeline’s personal growth is inspiring to watch. It does a wonderful job delving into the true nature of fear and how to manage that sadness. The higher she climbed, the more I found myself rooting for Madeline to overcome her demons. Bolstering the charm and humor is an equally likable cast. Theo, a friendly photographer, offers a great support system for our heroine. Mr. Oshiro, a strange hotel owner, offers another affecting example of mental anguish due to his severe self-consciousness. By the end, Celeste’s tale left me feeling uplifted and enlightened in a way that made me thankful to have played it.
How Does It Look?
Better looking pixel art games exist but Celeste’s simple art-style gets the job done just fine. Levels have distinct looks between chapters and several of them look pretty cool, such as the haunted hotel. Having played the Switch version, the visuals appear sharper on the smaller touchscreen than they do on a larger display.
How Does It Sound?
Celeste’s soundtrack might be my favorite of the year so far. Not once did I mute the audio in favor of a podcast or other music. Standouts like Mr. Oshiro’s hotel and the remixed songs served up in the final chapter had me bobbing my head in enjoyment.
Additionally, the gibberish speak of the characters is remarkably effective at conveying emotion. Particularly, the high-pitch that Madeline’s voice took on whenever she became distressed always made me want to give her a big old hug.
How Fun Is It?
Celeste should require a license to be as much fun as it is. Sharing a similar platforming DNA to predecessor TowerFall, Madeline has a multi-directional air-dash vital for closing gaps or adjusting her mid-air trajectory. However, her dash can only be used once per jump and won’t reset until her feet touch a platform. She can also cling to and scale walls, the latter for a limited time.
Gameplay feels fantastic thanks to the tight controls. I always felt confident about air-dashing to grab that one, spike-free, wall pixel because of how good everything feels. Performance comes down to pure execution without anything else getting in the way.
Seven chapters (and a bonus eighth) feature a plethora of exciting, expertly designed levels. Celeste impressed with the myriad ways it challenges the player’s mastery of its limited moveset. For example, I loved the levels that took advantage of the air-dash’s “touch the ground to recharge” rule. It forced me to think strategically on top of being dexterous. In fact, most levels require using your head in conjunction with your reflexes. Some areas even allow peeks of upcoming segments in order to plan an approach.
Each chapter centers around a specific mechanic, starting small and building upon it. All them are fun; personal favorites include using magic voids to auto-zip towards targets and using a feather to quickly (and carefully) sail past hazards. Occasionally there’ll be a thrilling chase sequences where Madeline must escape the wrath of her darker self. Celeste even manages to make an escort/carry mission a treat. Putting all of these skills to the test in the fantastic final chapter acts as the perfect cherry atop this satisfying cake.
Celeste is a tough game but never comes across as punishing due to its welcoming attitude. Instant respawns ala Super Meat Boy alleviate frustration by quickly throwing players back into the fray. Loading screen messages offer kind words encouragement alongside general tips.
Dozens of collectible strawberries litter each chapter but Celeste states they’re only for bragging rights; a number offering tangible proof of the player’s skills. I love that, as it eliminated the guilt of abandoning tough-to-get berries in order to continue the adventure. Even still, I attempted to nab each fruit I saw as they always lay at the end of an especially awesome (and difficult) platforming gauntlet. Mysterious, more significant, collectibles are also present for thorough explorers that do lead to real rewards.
Celeste may not look like much but it’s damn near a masterpiece. Excellent platformers have come and gone but none got me as invested with their narratives as this did. It’s an affecting and memorable journey that, in its own way, could legitimately help depression/anxiety victims learn to cope. And if the story doesn’t do it for you, you’re still left with an absolute blast of a game. If you even remotely enjoy the platformer genre then Celeste cannot be missed.