Developer - Matt Makes Games
Publisher - Matt Makes Games
Platform - Linux, macOS, PS4, Switch [version tested], Windows, Xbox One
Price - £Various [£17.99 on the Switch]
Genre - 2D platformer
In Celeste you take the role of Madeline, a young woman who is determined to climb a mountain called 'Celeste'. Early in the game you are given the power to air dash, once, in any of the eight compass directions. As soon as you land on a flat surface, the ability is replenished. You can also cling to walls for a limited amount of time. And that, along with various bits of level furniture like springs and moving platforms, is all you have to get you to the top.
Trouble is, this is a spooky mountain. It's also filled to the absolute brim with tricks and traps, able to give even the heartiest adventurers a run for their money. Madeline is not the heartiest of adventurers, though - she's got depression, and anxiety. The tale of how she deals with that by climbing the mountain reminded me of Thomas Was Alone, the puzzle platformer elevated to new heights by the excellent narrative. Strip TWA of that plot and it'd be fairly ordinary; if Celeste lost its storyline, you would still have a very tight Super Meat Boy like game.
Your save file carries a death count, and you will die - a great many times. I fell to my doom/got run through with spikes/eaten by monsters/otherwise perished 1,386 times before I beat the game (which, as a mathematician, pleases me greatly - 1386 is a multiple of 7, 9 and 11). However, the player is encouraged to view those deaths as an important part of the learning process... and the dev team are right.
One of the things I dislike most in platformers is when you're given a section that is simply a memory test, usually of when platforms appear and vanish. The Mega Man series is very fond of this (in fact, whenever Madeline doesn't make it she explodes in a blast of eight circles, much like Mega Man); as an example, I never played Mega Man 9 again once I got to its version of this awful trope. Wary of that kind of gameplay, I was nearly put off Celeste. Fortunately, the game forgives you. Each section is a full screen or two and once you progress you'll start from the new screen in a screen-wipe instant.
Consequently there's a real pleasure to progress which can quickly become an addiction. In addition to beating Chapters - and interacting with the characters you meet along the way - there are goodies to collect. The most immediately obvious are the strawberries that litter the game's levels. There are 175 in total, which the game openly tells you are just for bragging rights. You can also find B-side tapes to unlock harder versions of the levels you're on, and get Crystal Hearts for purposes that we won't reveal here.
In fact, we're trying to avoid spoilers for the game's story because it works much better the less you know about it. Let's just say that the climb is worth it, both from a gameplay perspective and a narrative one. It moved me to tears at one point in the later stages and the first thing I did after the credits had rolled was go back to the first chapter to try and get more strawberries. It's going to leave a bit of a hole when I finally put it down.
If this talk of difficulty is putting you off, let it be known that there is an Assist Mode. This allows you to tinker with how long you can cling to walls, how many air dashes you can do, and can even make you outright invincible. The game never punishes you, judges you or looks down its nose at you for this. Another one is that, on the Switch at least, video capture is enabled. Expect to see lots of extraordinary feats - and some spoilers! - on Twitter over the next few weeks.
Final Verdict: Celeste is an extraordinary game. I've not even talked about the sweet chiptune music or the beautiful pixel art graphics because there's been so much to discuss (and avoid discussing). Simple but addictive, and brought to excellence by a worthy, carefully crafted storyline. It might be a touch expensive but it deserves to be experienced.