Power Hour Review: Celeste (PC)
(Disclaimer: I received a review code for a free copy of Celeste, but that has not influenced my opinions of this title in any way).
Celeste is the latest title by MATT MAKES GAMES, and Indie developer known for the hit game Towerfall released back in 2013. Similar to Towerfall, Celeste is a fast-paced pixel platformer where you play as a young girl named Madeline, who is on a mission to reach the summit of Celeste Mountain. Originally based on a game concept of the same name that Matt Thornson and Noel Berry created in four days, Celeste takes most of the same mechanics and fleshes them out, creating a tighter control scheme while also adding a compelling narrative, meaningful characters, and a beautiful visual and auditory aesthetic.
Anyone who knows me knows that Platformers are one of my top genres of choice when it comes to games, so I was excited to try out Celeste. I was intrigued by the simple complexity of the movement mechanics, and when I began playing I immediately fell for the aesthetic. The pixel art looks great and fits the gameplay style perfectly, but the true beauty lies in the soundtrack. The haunting melodies created by melding piano riffs with 8-bit synths just works for this game, and it sets a surreal atmosphere as you journey further up the mountain.
The game opens with a text overlay of an unknown being encouraging Madeline to make her way to the summit of the mountain. After a very short prologue to introduce the main character and the game controls, Madeline is off on her adventure. Not long after beginning her travels, however, she comes across a young man named Theo (right most character in title picture), who is an adventurer climbing the mountain. They converse through text boxes overlaid with cute simlish-esque noises that change depending on whether their response is happy, sarcastic, etc. Two key pieces of information are gained from this meeting. 1) Theo’s witty dialogue and clever nuances paint him to be a satire of the conventional exposition character from older adventure games. You know the ones; they always show up in key areas before you do in some inexplicable fashion, spouting loads of information about the area or telling you what you should do next. It is a humorous jab that manages to play well off the more somber atmosphere of the rest of the game. Which brings me to the second piece, 2) It’s clear that Madeline has a personal internal goal she is striving for more so than the physical act of scaling the mountain. Though we don’t know what that goal is, is seems she is hoping to find some sort of peace or reconciliation by making this journey. And while she manages to crack a smile around Theo, she has more of a serious and upset demeanor otherwise, clearly struggling to work through her own internal conflict.
After further traveling up the mountain and stopping to rest for a brief period, the plot kicks into gear, and Madeline awakens to a strange and mystical sight on the mountain. After brief wandering, she encounters a dark version of herself (left most character in title picture). She claims to be a part of Madeline’s head, and is now attempting to stop Madeline from climbing the mountain for some indeterminant reason by pursuing her al-la Super Mario Galaxy 2 clones style. It appears that the dark part of her could be a physical manifestation of Madeline’s own self doubt and/or negative thoughts, though this is purely speculation on my part, as I have currently only made it through to the end of the second chapter and have only had one encounter with her.
Madeline makes her way up the mountain through three simple controls: jumping, climbing walls, and air dashing. Madeline can only dash one time in the air in any direction before touching the ground unless she grabs a green crystal midair, and her hair changes from her usual bright red to an icy blue to easily signify when you cannot dash. Similarly, Madeline only has so much stamina, and so you can’t hang onto the side of a wall for more than a few seconds before she gets tired and lets go. This coupled with the fact that Madeline dies in one hit makes for constant, fast paced gameplay that lends itself beautifully to the layout of the environment.
The game is split into chapters, and each chapter encompasses one environment split into rooms, where Madeline must traverse from one room to another until she reaches the exit. If she dies, she respawns at the entrance of that particular room. Think Super Meat Boy, but quite a bit more forgiving while still retaining a good balance of difficulty. However, where Celeste differs is that these rooms all flow seamlessly together to create one single environment instead of being segmented levels independent of one another. Because of this, the rooms are not linear either; there are branching pathways you can find as you traverse that will sometimes lead to hidden rooms with collectibles. There are two main collectibles in the game: strawberries, which seem to serve no purpose other than to satiate a completionist’s appetite (aka. me), and cassette tapes, which when found unlock more difficult chapters for hardcore players. These chapters are called B-sides, which is both a pun and a clever nod to the old days of cassette tapes, and I love it.
Many of the rooms are laid out in a way that allows you to chain together air dashes, wall climbs, and other interactable environment pieces to create a satisfyingly fluid motion path through obstacles. This method of movement becomes very rewarding once you learn to spot paths of least resistance or shortcuts to your next objective. However, there are a few issues with the controls that I encountered while playing. It seemed like there was an ever so slight delay between button presses and Madeline’s movement, and it feels like there is a somewhat heavy weight to her movements at times; for instance, when dashing, especially if you dash in a different direction you were initially traveling, Madeline seems to lose all momentum as soon as the dash ends, resulting in her falling faster than I anticipated, leading to an inevitable death. I also had some issues when trying to dash in a specific direction; sometimes Madeline would shoot way off target from what I was aiming for, though this could be contributed to the fact that I was playing with a ps4 controller and using the joystick, and while this game has full controller support, it may be more suited to keyboard controls. Despite this, the game never felt unfair, and none of the rooms or collectibles were too difficult for me to handle at my current skill level.
Overall, Celeste is a great addition to your library if you are looking for a fun, yet challenging platformer. It has a beautifully simple control scheme with relatively tight controls, a fair amount of challenge and reward for mastery, and a stunning soundtrack. Though the game is never unfair in its difficulty, expect to die a lot; in just one hour I died 177 times. Granted, several of those deaths were caused by being greedy and trying to catch all the strawberries, so players who don’t care about those will probably fare a bit better than I did. I was also pleasantly surprised to find in the first hour alone, Madeline is shown to have a lot of depth to her character, as the whole game revolves around both a physical and mental journey to the summit of the Celeste Mountain, and her interactions with other characters reveal a strong and layered personality. I’m already excited to play Celeste again, both to master the controls and to learn more about Madeline’s story.