It’s February and I’ve finally moved on from 2017. Turns out, there have already been some major releases for 2018. Both Monster Hunter World and Civilization VI: Rise and Fall are already threatening to monopolize hundreds of your gaming hours. In all the hype for those, you’d be forgiven for missing this indie platformer from Matt Makes Games. Realize though that you’d be missing out on what may be one of the best platformers ever made.
Back in 2017 (oh God, I’m still trapped, aren’t I?), Edmund McMillan, blessed be his name, graced us with his follow-up to Super Meat Boy, The End is Nigh. The game was… good. It was good. Lots of folks enjoyed it but I doubt anyone would say it had the staying power of the original. I wondered about this for quite a while. The idea of Super Meat Boy with progressive worlds and puzzles sounded amazing. Instead of jumping from independent level to independent level, screens scrolled and this allowed for secrets and easter eggs like Super Meat Boy could never have. Alas, it didn’t have the impact I thought it would have and I just couldn’t figure out why.
Celeste had the answer: controls. Platformers live and die by their controls and the best entries are games that let you feel fully in control and powerful in your own way. It then builds challenges around those controls to make you feel every death like it’s your own and never the fault of the controls. With The End is Nigh, I often found edge grabbing didn’t work as intended and my character felt a bit incompetent. Celeste, by comparison, feels utterly perfect.
The game places you in control of Madeline (HA, you thought I was gonna say Celeste, didn’t you?) as she attempts to climb Mount Celeste, a mountain with some supernatural elements to it. Madeline has a number of fantastic abilities that make you feel fully in control of your environment. Her jumps can put Mario to shame and she can wall slide/jump with the best of them. Also, she has the ability to grab onto any surface simply by holding the right trigger. This does have a timer though so you can’t just hang on the wall forever. Finally, she has a 8-way dash ability that lets you shoot forward in any direction. This can only be used once though and, along with your wall climbing timer, must be recharged by standing on solid ground.
Starting off on your journey feels great and you will quickly adjust to Madeline’s abilities and limitations. Like many of the best games of the last few years, Celeste teaches you by having you overcome new challenges, never with tutorial boxes. Using your dash will have Madeline’s hair change color until she lands on a platform and it goes back to normal. You quickly figure out that this is a visual representation of whether or not you can dash. Brilliant game design such as this teaches you new mechanics without slowing the game’s pace at all.
The game is separated out into chapters, each representing new visual styles and a new mechanic or two, but within each chapter, levels scroll continuously. Reaching the end of one area leads directly into the next. This allows for bite-sized challenges that feel rewarding without tedious retreads of the same content on each death. It also means the developer was able to create branching paths, secret areas and some devilishly clever puzzles that require a thorough understanding of the nitty-gritty mechanics.
The challenge of the game is what you want it to be. If you want to just go through the game’s story, you can and will likely have a fantastic time. In many of the levels, though, are strawberries, the game’s most common collectible. Beyond adding an additional challenge to the level and giving achievement hunters a new goal, these strawberries don’t do much. For those eagle-eyed gamers on the hunt for secrets, there are several secret areas in every chapter, leading to additional strawberries, tapes that unlock an ultra-hard remix of the chapter, and even Crystal Hearts.
Whatever difficulty you choose for yourself, Celeste is a tough game. It’s fitting that the game’s story is very symbolic of this challenge. Madeline has come to this mountain because she wants a challenge to overcome. Discovering why she’s putting herself through this is something that you will discover both for Madeline and for yourself. It’s a poignant story that has some interesting real-world parallels but also a parallel for each player. Even if you don’t relate specifically to Madeline’s issue in the game, the idea of overcoming challenges simply because they are there is something anyone playing this difficult game can understand. When NPCs are asking Madeline why she’s putting herself through this, they’re asking you the same question.
While I whole-heartedly recommend Celeste to anyone who enjoys a good platformer, there is one thing worth noting. At the time of this review, the game does not support all types of gamepads. It was a major bummer when I plugged in my Buffalo USB controller and had it not work. Intrepid gamers out there will be able to make these work with a bit of elbow grease but it’s disappointing that these controllers wouldn’t work natively for a game that so intensely demands a controller with a solid D-Pad. I was able to get through with my Xbox 360 controller but I did have a few unfortunate deaths due to a dash going in an unexpected direction. Hopefully, support for these controllers will be patched in later.
Celeste took me about 9 hours to complete with most of the strawberries, all of the B-side tapes and only one Crystal Heart. I ventured back in to get more strawberries and the Crystal Hearts but the B-Side areas are maybe a bit more than I can handle. Even so, Celeste left me immensely satisfied in a way that no other platformer has in years. With fun platforming challenges, a surprisingly deep and touching story, and plenty of content for all types of gamers, I strongly recommend Celeste to anyone ready to test their gaming mettle. It’s available right now on pretty much any platform you could want. PC, Mac, Linux, Xbox One, PS4 and Switch.