Why is January so goddamn good for video games?
I get that it’s the period where all of the indie/triple A developers that aren’t Activision figure it’s safe to avoid the Christmas rush, but this time? Goodness gracious, we’ve been spoilt for choice. Albert & Otto aside, we’ve got Full Metal Furies, Vesta, Monster Hunter World, Dragon Ball Fighter Z, RiftStar Raiders, and finally, Celeste, which is… pfft.
Today’s Everest contender comes to us from Matt Makes Games, a lie right off the bat, as more than one person not named Matt worked on this game. That’s it, I’ve had it with this deception, 0/10. Alright, lead man Matt Thorson knows the oxymoron this has become, so it doesn’t matter. The only other game of Matt’s that I have played is Towerfall Ascension, which was… not good, so imagine my shock when this reared its red head.
In Celeste, you play as Madeline, or whatever name you prefer really, it lets you choose. Whatever the name is (we’ll use Madeline to cut time), they really want to climb the fabled Celeste Mountain, and they’re not the only one who has given themselves that goal. It’s not clear why she wants to turn into a pro mountain climber all of a sudden, but that doesn’t really matter, and we’ll get to that.
Honestly, I didn’t trust this game. I saw the pixel art, I saw the scores other publications gave it, and I rolled my eyes. Something felt wrong, and I came into it mostly blind, not knowing what would exactly happen gameplay-wise. The result? Great balls of fire, does this game kick ass. Fitting that a game about reaching the peak has reached THE peak in terms of absolute quality.
Every factor, every single inch of this game shines at a level where you need shades to withstand it. I don’t have the foggiest idea as to why Matt Thorson and company have been hiding this for so long, and now that it’s been sprawled out for the public, it’s great to see such a magnificent game get the publicity it deserves. Let’s start at the beginning.
Gameplay is more in line with titles like N+ and Super Meat Boy, but it manages to evolve on the formula slightly. Madeline can dash, fly, slam, and climb, with the first level setting up everything for you to expand upon further levels. You’re going to need to expand as well, since they also took one other factor from the two games mentioned above: Crushing difficulty.
This game has 7 main story levels. By the end of it all, I had 900 deaths. Count ’em. Nine. Hundred. The best part about it? Every single one was my fault, as the game is more in tune with the player’s attitude rather than the game wanting the player to meet its standards for perfection. The game still has those pixel-perfect runs but those are for the truly enthusiastic or the insane. It goes both ways, really.
The game manages to be a hearty mix for speedrunners, simple challengers, pixel art lovers, and people looking for a good ol’ heartwarming story. For the speedrunners, there’s the aforementioned pixel-perfect runs. For the masochistic challengers, there’s the goal of collecting all 180 strawberry collectables, and for the heartwarming story lovers, there’s enough colourful characters and quirky dialogue littered throughout to give the game a sense of warmth.
Aesthetically, it’s up there with Shovel Knight in terms of polish and nuanced beauty. Areas are detailed, muddy yet defined, with the last level being genuinely breathtaking. The game also has some 3D elements and hand-drawn pieces, which are still cute. The selfies you take with your pseudo-sidekick Theo made me audibly “awwwwwwww” at some points, and get extra points for being drawn so well.
There’s also boss fights; high-octane, frantic pursuits littered with skill, life and accomplishment. If I had to pick a highlight, it would definitely be level 6, a clash of minds and true determination, a smorgasbord of virtual tricks that hits you like a bullet at the end of it all. Let me tell you a story.
You see, it was level 6 that caused about most of my deaths. I’d say I’d acquired about 300, and throughout the hour-long journey, I was ‘effing and Jeffin’ every single person who worked on this game with many threats being made, much to the comedy of people near me. However, it all reached a zen moment. Tranquillity had been achieved when the final stretch was finished, in the middle of a raging rant towards Matt Thorson’s family members. Bliss was reached after that last obstacle was pushed aside.
Difficulty-wise, it works perfectly. There’s an absolutely beautiful curve to it all, bonus levels that are rewarded to you for exploring, and enough of an evolution of gameplay to make every challenge seem fresh-as-a-daisy and cathartic. However, I’d say it’s 2nd-to-last in terms of greatness, in comparison to everything else on display.
The last place holder is the music, which is still great. It’s poppy, punchy, energetic, soothing, all that good stuff that a varied soundtrack should be, but nearly everything else is in close competition with one another as to what was truly the best factor. The winner, in my humble, yet COMPLETELY definitive opinion? The narrative, which… Good lord.
Before we jump into it though, a few comments might roll out saying “oh buh if duh gaem iz hard, den how doo wii enjoy duh storeey?!” Well, it’s simple, and that’s the use of an Assist Mode, which can tune down the brutality severely, but not enough to make it a simple cakewalk, unless you turn on invincibility (I.E. “Mainstream Game Journalist” Mode). If you must, add everything except invincibility, and prepare yourself for an honest message about the struggle within.
**SPOILER WARNING: The next few paragraphs will continue heavy spoilers of the story of Celeste. If you do wish to enter the game as blind as humanly possible, then I’d suggest avoiding these spoilers, and just buying it already, dammit.**
Celeste is a story about depression. Yes, the big word that your parents assume can be fixed with a good night’s rest and a cup of tea. Madeline struggles to find the acceptance and accomplishment in her life, and chooses the most outlandish solution to it: climbing a mountain. Not just physically, but metaphorically as well.
It’s a simple allegory, one might argue “too simple”, but what more could you expect? They had two other options, either placing the game in an insane asylum and letting them wallow in their own pity, like The Town of Light, or jumping off of the straight line into pretentious territory (See: Rememoried), where the general message is “we’re all going to die anyway”. That’s where it shines the most; with Madeline’s decision to act upon it.
She’s determined and strong-willed, yet filled with self-doubt. With the metaphorical mountain in the picture, it makes sense that her doubt and anger towards her own previous inability would turn into a physical manifestation, determined to see her suffer. It hit a little close to home, personally, as it would for anyone suffering from a slump.
Gameplay does take a back-seat at points to allow the characters to evolve and become fleshed out. The two most prominent outsiders will be the enigmatic old woman who greets you at the base of the mountain and the poppy photographer Theo, the latter of whom will be the aforementioned sidekick from before. However, the best character is only featured in one level, and that’s the energetic Mr. Oshiro.
Oshiro is easily one of the games highest highlights, as your journey through the hotel will reach into one of the frenetic boss battles mentioned previously. Before that, however, is a study of the character Oshiro himself., a paranoid worry-wart that needs no acceptance other than the beauty of the hotel. He is trapped, forever doomed to roam its empty halls. Madeline obviously takes it with dismissal, frustrating the poor fellow, until finally, he snaps.
The entire game leads into the understanding that Matt Makes Games has over the problems many people face in daily lives. Struggling to find meaning, struggling for acceptance, struggling to simply live without pondering “what will people remember me for?” It’s beautiful, and… alright, fine, I shed tears during this one moment that even I can’t spoil, okay? I’m an emotional sod, leave me alone.
The game’s narrative isn’t like Night in The Woods, where it’s basically saying “You’re allowed to be a useless NEET, just make sure your friends have your back.” Simultaneously, it’s also not like The Town of Light, where it wants to show you the true horrors that these people face, some moreso than others. Instead, Celeste gets on the same level as the player, speaking to them in a language they understand, letting them see that it’s okay to be frightened.
I might be looking into it too far, but in the end, the message perceived is what people need to hear. That it’s going to be okay, but you need to try and be happy.
In the end, this is the best kind of game, the one you expect nothing from, and nearly every possible problem you foresaw has been solved with relative ease. It’s fast, lovely, emotionally heavy-hitting, and just dang fun to play. I have never enjoyed 6 hours of constantly dying before, and I don’t think I ever will again, at least not on the same level that this game has provided.
Celeste is one of the best platformers you will ever play, period. Simplicity has never been so complex and rooted in mechanics before, and the variety of challenge is almost unmatched, surely reaching the top alongside titles like N+, Super Meat Boy and Shovel Knight. The only difference is that Celeste has an emotional gut-punch advantage over everything else.
Just buy this game, enjoy it, and understand it.
Actually… You know what I just realized though? The best part about this review? I’m technically no longer the most negative person on Sick Critic! I have two 10/10 scores under my belt! Woohoo!
This review of Celeste is based on the Xbox One version of the game.
One of the best platformers you'll ever play. The story is also equally superb.
Owner of the largest collection of indie games in the Western Hemisphere, and TimeSplitters’ biggest fanboy.