I’ve died a lot in Celeste. 4767 times to be exact, and that count is definitely going to increase as I try to find all the collectibles and get through the extra stages. Most people would see my death count as an indication of my lack of skill, but I like to think of it as a testament to my persistence; after all,
“A bruise is a lesson… and each lesson makes us better.”
So with a few thousand bruises under my belt, I should be quite an improved person. That’s beside the point though. Whether I’m good or hopelessly terrible at the game, I’ve had a great time with it, and anyone else who likes a good platformer, puzzle, or challenge (or just likes to go WHOOSH) will also likely find enjoyment in Celeste.
Once More Unto the Breach
There is a whole lot to like about Celeste, but the main thing that kept me going despite my many failures was how the gameplay is designed. In many games that involve puzzles, you often are given new abilities or items along your journey, and as you continue, the puzzles and solutions compound upon those additions. In Celeste, all you can do is jump, dash, and climb. Granted, there are various elements and objects added as you advance through the beautifully pixelated environments, but they’re not really things that you have to practice and master. It can take a quick minute to figure out how they work, but once you do, every stage simply comes down to how well you can maneuver through the obstacles.
Once you get the hang of your basic abilities, it’s just a matter of finding the right path and executing it. By the time you get to the more absurd stages, your grasp on the mechanics is pretty solid, so no stage ever seems too impossible to pull off.
This limited moveset also helps solidify the feeling of progression. Even as the stages become more difficult, your character never really changes. Rather than adding upgrades to the character, it’s the player that has to improve. The difficulty is ramped up gradually too, so you never notice how much of a ninja you become; but then, you stop for a breath after a particularly long chain of magical super-jumps and think “wow, I actually did that."
The satisfaction you get from beating a segment, especially the lengthy ones, erases and is even enhanced by the number of deaths you suffer from that specific stage. That is thanks in part to how quickly you’re thrown back in after you die. There’s no game over screen; you burst into bubbles, form back into a redhead lass, the music is still pumping, and it’s time to go again. The action flows so seamlessly that I often didn't realize how many times I died until I finished a chapter and saw my death count fly up.
Celeste’s stage setup is also great on the Switch. Since each segment usually only takes less than a minute to get through or fail, you can pull out your Switch and put in a few attempts even if you’ve only got a little bit of downtime. With very few long continuous chains of action, the game’s flow is rarely disrupted or interrupted if you have to stop for any reason.
All in all, the gameplay is simple and satisfying. The different stage features provide some nice variation to keep the obstacles fresh and are never made too foreign since they always revolve around your limited moveset. These elements especially come together in the more difficult segments, providing the player with creative challenges that are still fun to tackle.
Stay Awhile and Listen… or Don’t
Like many, I was not expecting a whole lot from Celeste in terms of story, but I was pleasantly surprised. In the game, you play as a girl named Madeline, who is climbing the mountain on a quest for self-discovery, or self-recovery, depending on how you look at it. The premise may sound simple, but it actually confronts some serious personal issues that many players can connect to. It’s rare for a game like this to have such a well-written story, but I wouldn’t complain if it became a trend.
Rather than having a large cast with their own arcs, the story is centered around Madeline’s struggle. The few characters that appear do have their own backstories, but they also help illustrate Madeline’s personality and inner turmoil through their interactions. While it may be correct to label the main conflict as Man vs Nature, given the gameplay, the actual story is more of a Man vs Self situation. Madeline’s main adversary that she fights against inside and sometimes outside her mind, is herself. This conflict was my favorite part of the story, due to its creative execution and also because of how I related to it personally.
The way this struggle plays out in the gameplay is something I thoroughly enjoyed as well. Not only did they have these conflicts play out via the puzzles, but the way they were brought together actually added another form of difficulty. My personal favorite story moment was the conflict in Chapter 6; I loved the way it mixed both the gameplay and music into a pretty epic event.
One other notable element of the story is that a good chunk of it is optional. A majority of the dialogue and details can be skipped or straight up avoided. When you first meet Theo, he’s sitting around in one area, and you can just not talk to him if you so desire. I can’t be sure if this was done in consideration for players who only came for the gameplay, or in consideration for those who wish to speedrun the game.
Either way, it’s a pretty nice touch. For those who want a bit more characterization, there’s a good amount to be found, and for anyone not too concerned with the story, the game only makes you go through enough to tie the general narrative together.
It’s the Little Things
I honestly have nothing but praise for Celeste. From the gameplay and story, right down to the soundtrack and pixel art; there was nothing I didn’t like. But perhaps my favorite part of the game as a whole would have to be the array of little details and nice touches.
Every character’s dialogue box is designed to match them. Madeline’s stony and cracked box hints at her steadfast but troubled mind, Theo’s stitched up plaid captures his hipster lumberjack vibe, and the old lady’s gnarled branch box goes with her aged but sturdy personality.
Another thing I found cool was how Madeline’s movements were made to look more fluid. Most of the time, Madeline’s squishiness is difficult to observe, aside from when you press down while she’s falling and she shrinks to just 6 pixels wide. However, there’s squash and stretch in almost all of her actions. When she jumps, she’s stretched out in the direction of the jump, when she dashes, she goes full-on sonic ball for a split second, and when she lands a long fall she becomes a pancake. You don’t really notice this when you play, but that’s the whole point; these details make controlling Madeline’s movements feel very flexible while not appearing too unnatural.
I believe I should stress the importance of small elements like these, not only because I think they can go unappreciated, but also because I hope that by praising them, devs will be more likely to continue including them in their games. If their efforts are recognized more, then perhaps they’ll be further inspired to make another game like Celeste.
After all, Celeste is a great game, and I’d love to see more like it. It’s an unexpectedly real story and a superb platformer that is approachable for beginners and veterans alike. I strongly encourage anyone who enjoys pixel art, puzzles, or a nice challenge to play Celeste.
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