Concise Game Critique - Celeste

Concise Game Critique - Celeste

Developer: Matt Makes Games Inc.
Publisher: Matt Makes Games Inc.
Released: January 25, 2018 (Windows)
Played on: Windows (also available on Mac, Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One)
Played for: 8h (played through the main story once, dabbled in strawberry collecting on occasion)

Celeste is a tough but accessible platformer with a touching story and a whole lot of heart. And strawberries. Lots of strawberries.

You play as Madeline, a girl struggling with anxiety and depression, who has decided to climb Celeste Mountain
— a feat both mentally and physically taxing. It's something she feels she needs to do, and after playing for a while, so did I.

Madeline can can jump (and wall jump), climb vertical surfaces until her stamina runs out, and dash in 8 directions. This sounds simple enough, and it is, but the way it looks and feels, coupled with amazing level design, make it better than the sum of its parts.

The fluidity of the movement and the attention to detail in Madeline's animations is hard to put into words (or screenshots even, unless they are animated gifs). Madeline stretches when she jumps, squashes when she lands and stretches even further when she dashes.
The longer she holds on to a wall, the redder her face gets, and little drops of sweat start dripping off her forehead before she finally lets go.The jumping feels effortless, the dashes smooth. The landings feel impactful, and certain special animations toward the end of the game even more so. The accompanying audio seals the deal: The movement in Celeste looks, sounds and feels great. So does the rest of the game.

or each new area there are new environmental mechanics to learn and new hazards to avoid. Most of these are fun: challenging, but not frustratingly so; satisfying to learn, but not trivial to get through. For hardcore climbers there are strawberries to collect, and extra hard secret levels to unlock. Both of these are completely optional, which is great for a casual platformer player such as myself. The game literally tells you that "Strawberries will impress your friends, but that's about it," which I can appreciate. At the same time, though, I feel like an in-game reward of some kind for collecting certain amounts would have been nice.

Also, it might be just me, but I've always hated sections with strong headwind in every game I've ever played that has had one. Despite its thematic reasons for having them, Celeste is, unfortunately, no exception. Luckily these sections are isolated to a pretty small area, and the sections where the wind switches directions, and is pushing Madeline along to go even faster instead, were great.

Celeste employs a bunch of different visual styles and somehow manages to pull it off without feeling jarring. The world map is low-poly 3D, the character portraits and UI elements are clean (possibly vector art) 2D, the chapter end illustrations are digital paintings, and the game world itself is pixel art. At first I was slightly baffled by this, but I quickly grew to love it. Celeste could easily have been "just" a pixel art game, and it would have been awesome, but I applaud the game for trying something different. I'm still not sure how or why it works, but it really does. The soundtrack is also fantastic, and the music feels to be in tune with Madeline's emotions, which strengthens the bond between Madeline and the player.

Celeste's story deals with anxiety, depression, and learning to live and cope with your flaws, and it treats those subjects with the care and respect that they deserve. It's clear that a lot of thought, research, and quite possibly personal experience was put into this aspect of the game, and anyone who has dealt with similar issues in their own lives will surely appreciate it. I know I did.
The characters are very likeable, whimsical and sympathetic. The story is gloomy and mysterious, but ultimately quite uplifting.
Also, this game made me realize that the d-pad on every controller I own is absolutely dreadful: I died to accidental diagonal dashes more times than I care to count. This is not Celeste's fault in any way — in fact, Celeste handles its controls quite flawlessly — but it was truly a shame that my controller(s) made some of the harder sections of the game really, really frustrating for me. In the end I prevailed, but I can't say it didn't affect my experience. It won't affect my scoring though. Celeste is great.

Celeste is a beautiful, challenging platformer. It's cute, it's fluid, and it has a message that feels ever so important in this day and age. If you're not into the story, that's cool, Celeste is still one of the best platformers of this type on a purely mechanical level, but to me, the way it deals with its themes puts it above most of its peers.

4/5 Just breathe. You can do this.

Get Celeste:

Jay Marksman, March 05, 2019

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