Celeste: A Magically Grueling Rollercoaster of Emotion and Fun

Throughout recorded history, only around 4,000 brave souls have ever scaled the world’s highest point, Mt. Everest. For laymen like you and me, such a feat is genuinely unimaginable, and the adversity and physical prowess required to accomplish that climb is something we’ll never possess. While a physical task like climbing an actual mountain can never be compared to a video game, Celeste may be the closest the medium ever comes to replicating the experience. Blending together tight controls, inventive environments, and a surprisingly touching tale of battling anxiety and depression, Celeste is a sky-high success.

On its surface, Celeste is a relatively simple platformer. Shortly after assuming control of the game’s main character, Madeline, you realize her physical limitations. Madeline can only jump and dash, and her arsenal of moves never expands. While this might sound reflective of shallow, repetitive platforming, Celeste‘s artfully crafted level design manifests itself through the game’s changing environments. Sure, the player never escapes the two-move limitation of dashing and jumping, but the game’s levels apply different layers to these mechanics.

For instance, the game’s second main level introduces players to material that, when dashed through, sends Madeline soaring in the direction she faced when the dash began. Another level, later in the game, features bumpers that send Madeline flying in the opposite direction she hits them. These different environmental factors make every level feel unique, and each stage gradually escalates its gimmick.

You should never feel lost, as the steadily increasing demands of each level organically adjust you to the rising challenge. On occasion, the barrier to clearing a room is more mental than physical, and figuring out the sequence and timing of jumps is a task that requires legitimate planning and consideration. Other times, Celeste slams the player with narrow timing windows and quickly moving obstacles, and in these instances death comes fast and often. Fortunately for players’ sanity, death is not harshly punished — not even close. Instead, dying in Celeste comes with a lightning fast respawn at the room’s beginning, and this luxury, along with the game’s generous checkpoints (one comes in each room), make what could easily be a hair-ripping, controller-throwing experience into a pleasant one that encourages rather than the opposite. Celeste wants you to succeed; it wasn’t invented to frustrate you, but, rather, to encourage you to continue pushing on. While this is a pleasant choice from a gameplay standpoint, it neatly ties into the game’s larger theme as well.

Celeste‘s story features commentary on battling depression and anxiety, and it tackles these relevant issues maturely. The mountain that Madeline so desperately wishes to climb is representative of depression, and while this might sound like a simple and reductive portrayal of an issue that haunts so many, the game’s design choices supplement this symbol in a way that makes sense. Like mentioned earlier, death is no stranger in Celeste. During my first play through of the starting levels (not the “B-Side” levels, which I will detail later) I died more than 1,000 times. Considering my original play through was a little short of ten hours, a quick calculation puts my death per minute at almost seventeen. Failure is constant, but so is success. Every time I messed up, I was motivated to try again – either with quicker inputs or a different strategy. Regardless, the failures stack up quickly in Celeste, and only ironclad perseverance can push you through its trials.

Anxiety is represented by Madeline’s other half, whom she refers to as “Other Me.” During the climb, Other Me pesters Madeline and ultimately serves as a physical manifestation of her self-doubt, self-hatred, and anxiety. This other half is not the only way anxiety is referenced in Celeste, though. A couple of times through the main quest, Madeline encounters moments of crisis that send her into a panic attack. I won’t spoil the exact nature of the mini-game that ensues, even though it’s a minor part of the game, but it is an interesting way of “gamifying” her attempts to both calm herself and the negative voice inside her head. All in all, Celeste is remarkably inspirational for a title so fundamentally simple, and her battle, and eventual reconciliation, with her emotions is an extra shiny coat layered over the game — one that brings it to a level above mechanically similar titles.

You might assume that Celeste tapers off after Madeline finishes her first climb, but that couldn’t be more wrong. Hidden throughout the game are several collectibles, and one of these is a “B-Track” tape nestled within a secret area of each stage. Finding and collecting these tracks gives access to each level’s B-Side” Even though the level’s mechanics mostly stay in tact, the twists and expansions of them make for a truly grueling experience. There is even content beyond these B-Sides, but to discuss it in great detail would be a disservice for those still wishing to experience the game.

Other collectibles include strawberries, which are purely optional. These strawberries are always precariously placed and require a level of finesse beyond simply clearing levels, and only the most dedicated players will spend the time necessary to acquire them. The purely optional nature of these strawberries is fantastic, as it allows for a cleanly integrated “harder difficulty” for players who desire it. A direct option for lowering difficulty is available for those seeking a more casual experience; the game gives a plethora of options for making the game easier. Some of these features include slowing game time down or giving Madeline additional dashes.

Celeste‘s story is crucial to the game’s atmosphere, but another element is equally essential: the soundtrack. Madeline’s difficult ascent is accompanied by tunes perfectly suited for the level they are delivered in. Some of these songs are tranquil, and others are chaotic, but all blend perfectly into the game’s action. In fact, some of these tracks so naturally fit their scenarios that they subtly sink into the background and amplify the sensations already evoked by the level’s design and environment. The B-Side levels mentioned earlier offer exciting remixes of the original songs and add even more incentive to push through these harder stages. Even though some might spend a disturbing amount of time in these levels, the music never starts to irritate. (If I had to pick a favorite, I would have to go with the B-Side rendition of the hotel theme.)

Celeste was developed with a level of polish that’s hard to articulate. While experiencing everything the game had to offer, I don’t remember a single area of the game sticking out to me as negative. While perhaps not for everyone, Celeste is as close to a slam dunk as indie games get, and all platformer fans owe it to themselves to check it out. I came in skeptical, but emerged a believer. I am confident that the game will capture most hearts the way it did mine.

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