Indie Wonderland: Celeste

A few hours in

Well. Er…

I did definitely climb the mountain! That is for sure a dang thing that I did.

It took some tries, and then it took some more tries, but in the end I did reach that hallowed peak.

I have, at time of writing, been climbing the Celeste Mountain for a little under ten hours. It was a moving experience, lots of ups and downs, and I don’t just mean that as a lazy mountain climbing joke. There’s a lot to Celeste. Its level design, its difficulty, its controls, its art, its storytelling, the pattern of its played experience…

I think, er… I think Celeste might be an exceptional game.

Also, a quick disclaimer: When I said earlier that Celeste was made by ‘person A and person B’, that turns out to have been totally incorrect.

I’m not saying Celeste is a flawless game, because it very much isn’t: It has issues with its controls, and level design, and player pathing, that I’ll definitely address later on. But my general takeaway after beating Celeste was a sense of being deeply impressed, by just how comprehensively well-made this game is. It’s highly challenging, but in a way that’s often actually challenging instead of merely frustrating. Its levels encourage exploration and provide a sense of discovery. Its art and music styles are fresh and playful and a pleasure to traverse. And then there’s its story, which… The very first thing I tweeted after reaching the first place I thought was the end was something along the line of “I didn’t expect to be feeling all these emotions in my platforming game”.

Note that ‘horrifying fear’ is technically an emotion.

But let’s dip into the mechanics first. You won’t be surprised to hear that, ludically, Celeste is pretty much strictly a 2D platformer. There’s running, jumping, climbing, some dashing, the works. What isn’t immediately apparent at the start, but becomes very apparent pretty early on, is that Celeste is a challenging platformer. This isn’t a happy-go-lucky late-stage Mario game where no challenge is real and every jump is permitted. Celeste is a game that hates you.

Or, no, that’s not correct. Celeste is a game that pushes you, that taunts you. It’s technically not all that complicated: I could explain the basic move operations in one paragraph or less. You can run, jump, wall-jump, grab onto a wall and climb, and dash once at any point during any of these; the dash is refunded when you touch any sort of ground. Climbing involves an invisible stamina metric, which ensures you can’t just climb up every straight surface: You’ll know your stamina is running out when Madeline starts flashing red and sliding down.

Easy enough to get started, but then that’s just the start. Each one of the roughly half-dozen levels has its own twists on the formula. Maybe this level is replete with old technology, whirring to life the moment you touch it. Maybe this level has starry voids that propel you at great speeds — or into walls, to your death. Maybe this level switches between hot and cold, swapping environmental obstacles from helpful to lethal and back. There’s a lot to learn in every section, and a lot of death to be had — any single touch of a spike or fall into a pit will explode Madeline into coloured orbs.

Pictured: A bad situation waiting to happen.

And then there are the optional things. Principally the strawberries: Every level is replete with a few dozen floating strawberries to collect. Like so:

Just a normal-ass strawberry, floatin’ around.

These fuckin’ things will be the death of you. In fact, while writing this review, I was angry to discover that Twitter user @mcclure111 had already perfectly encapsulated Celeste in a single tweet:

If you’re looking at this screenshot, you’re legally obligated to click the above link and give mcc the deserved social media engagement.

See, here’s the thing about strawberries. They’re difficult to get to, sure. But not generally impossible. But getting to a strawberry is only half of the challenge: The pickup doesn’t actually count until you get back onto solid ground. Which means that every strawberry is a double-sided challenge: How do I get in, and then, how do I get out?

This puzzle will kill you many many many many many times.

I don’t even think I actually got this one.

Many strawberries are found in the game’s main path, but Celeste ups the ante by littering every level with dozens of side paths. Some are obvious, some are hard to reach, and some are hidden, behind breakable blocks or just walls that aren’t walls. And then some of them go further by growing wings, meaning they’ll flutter away the moment you dash even once. Time to revisit all your strategies!

The secret places are also where you’ll find Celeste‘s other secrets, like the B-side tapes that unlock additional levels, or the crystal hearts, which are generally as hard to reach as they are to actually get. Taken all together, there’s a plethora of exploration and discovery to be found… all of which is still trying its hardest to kill you, obviously.

The crystal hearts deserve extra mention for being weird meta puzzles in their own right. I didn’t figure out how to get this one until I looked it up, because my video games childhood was terribly deficient.

This is where I briefly segue into some of Celeste‘s more mechanical issues. Three things stuck out for me. First, I ran into a persistent problem with my 360 controller, where Madeline would dash into what felt like a different direction from where I pushed my analogue stick. Could be that that’s just on my end, but I’ve heard similar stories from Switch players. If this problem is on Celeste‘s side, I hope it’s number one on the to-address list: There’s nothing more frustrating than failing a hard challenge that you know how to do because Madeline decided that the diagonal upward dash which I very clearly held and indicated as such should just be a forward dash instead.

How well is the proceeding going to go? Place your bets now!

Second, there’s an issue where… There’s really no way to say this without inviting a bunch of ‘git gud’ comments, but I feel like some of the individual boards are too long. While Celeste is pretty generous with checkpoints, those checkpoints are (almost) always placed at the entrances/exits of each board. There are no puzzle halfway-point checkpoints, at least not that I remember. And while that’s not an issue for most boards, which present shorts bursts of neat challenge, some of the longer puzzles that scroll across the screen can take up to a minute to get through… and then you head-butt a spike at the last possible moment and get sent all the way back. In these cases I think I would have preferred a little more generous checkpointing… though then again, that could in theory run afoul of my third issue.

Real talk: I must have tried this puzzle over thirty times, constantly dying at this exact spot. I, er… I kept trying to airdash up, then wall-jump through the ooze, because I… forgot you can climb.

The third issue is this: Celeste encourages a lot of exploration and poking around, but then has a bad habit of locking you into a forward path if that’s the direction you went in first. Say you’re in a board with three exits: UP, LEFT, and RIGHT. You might decide to go RIGHT first… And hey, a door just slammed shut, hope you enjoy being here forever. But, lesson learned, right, next board with those options you go UP first… And hey, on screen transition Madeline jumped onto a gap-spanning bridge. What’s ‘dropping down from ledges you climbed’ mean again? I don’t even know.

See that skeleton? Tried to drop down from the gap-spanning bridge. Didn’t take.

And that’s sort of it, really. As far as mechanical issues go, Celeste is a relative good time: Sometimes the controls don’t work as well as they should, it could use more checkpoints, and exploration is sometimes punished in a way that seems built to engender level replays. But then you might want to replay levels anyway, to get more strawberries or to improve your time… Or, hell, to just spend some more time in these gorgeous places. Celeste consistently remains visually stunning, with each level presenting a different colour palette and aesthetic. Tired of the forsaken city? Try this hotel full of laundry and garbage. Endless grove of flowers not your thing? Why not hang out in the creepy temple full of eyeballs?

Tired of the wind levels? Yes you are, they’re the worst in the bunch. But look at those colours though!

Celeste‘s principal play barrier honestly isn’t any faulty system or flaw, it’s just that it’s really relentlessly difficult. It’s unashamedly a platformer’s platformer, relying on the player having quick reflexes and great situational awareness pretty much all the time. Even the early ‘simple’ levels ramp out of control fast, and this only gets worse as time goes by. There were parts of the later Summit and Core levels that I wasn’t sure I would actually be to beat. Forget the strawberries even, just getting from point A to point B. Though let’s not pretend you’re forgetting about the strawberries for even one second, you fruit maniac: Each and every one of them is its own tantalizing mini-challenge, and absolutely nothing feels worse than having to move on from one because — it’s just not happening. Again, speaking from experience here: I’m generally super persistent in the face of these things, but I remember a handful of strawberries I Just Couldn’t Do.

Celesteis cool about it, mind. Your death count doesn’t matter for anything, and one of the loading screen tips explicitly tells you to be proud of the learning process that those deaths represent. But all the same, that doesn’t help if you’re beating your head against the same puzzle for the hundredth time in a row and beyond. If you don’t like high challenge and you don’t like some level of anger, mechanically, Celeste might not be your jam.

Ah, but don’t leave just yet. I haven’t talked about the story yet.

Image unrelated, probably.

I didn’t have any expectations about Celeste‘s storytelling. Literally, I didn’t expect anything. I figured, best case scenario, I’ll be treated to some functional tale about ‘climbing a mountain because it’s there’? Worst case scenario, it’s all devoid of meaning, traversing horrible environments Super Meat Boy style with the barest of narrative substance. And really, honestly, how bad would that be?

But what I got was so much more than that. Celeste tells a story about… God, how do I address this without spoiling too much? A story about being out of sync with yourself, about fighting yourself, about knowing what you want but not knowing why you want. It’s a story about suffering under depression, fighting off that yoke whenever you can, and realizing that — you can’t always do it alone. It’s a story about friends in unexpected places, and about the importance of opening up even in moments where every instinct is telling you to shut down.

It’s also a story about the importance of taking good selfies.

Here’s what I can say about Celeste‘s storytelling: I hardly remember any individual puzzle, save for the coolest and most frustrating examples. The play is good, but it’s transient by design. But I remember every story beat and every character. There aren’t that many of either, but all the same, how many other games can say the same? Some of this game’s moments will be etched into my memory for a long time, because they made me laugh or they made me cry or they made me scared or they made me sad. It’s — real good, is what I’m trying to get at.

In fact, here’s how good Celeste‘s story is: I blanket recommend you play it for the story alone. If you also care about the platforming and the challenge, that’s fine, excellent, bonus points. But if you don’t, or if you get stuck, or you run out of energy, that’s exactly what the Assist Mode is for. You don’t need to bash your head against that concrete wall if you want to proceed… though I would recommend actually playing through a section, rather than watching story beats online. There’s something about Celeste‘s narrative/gameplay overlap that makes some of the beats just… land that much better, if you had to struggle (or ‘struggle’) through the puzzle challenge to get there first.

By this metric, obviously I think the Celestial Resort is the best level around.

Final thoughts

Celeste actually has way more levels than I’d originally thought. There’s the core set of around half a dozen, culminating in reaching the mountaintop. Then a secret extra level appears, which involves diving into the core of the mountain — you can only get into that if you have at least four of the optional crystal hearts. But then each level also has a B-sides tape, unlocking a remixed version focuses on harder puzzles. Including the core, again, except for this one you need about three dozen crystal hearts… which you can only get if you clear all normal levels and all B-sides. I’ve been given to understand there are C-sides too, which I don’t even understand how that’s supposed to work with this tape metaphor.

The puzzles to get the B-sides are all pretty interesting rhythm-based timing puzzles. You’ll know when you find one.

Now, will I play all these levels as well? Probably not. The counterpoint to ‘I blanket-recommend you play Celeste for the story’ is that I don’t see myself playing the pure challenge levels, especially when the normal levels already increased the wear and tear on my controller by quite an amount. Of course, if you are a platforming hardbody, this is only good news for you: It was already a meaty challenge, and things just got even meatier.

If you like challenging platformers, with simple mechanics remixed in super-clever ways, get yourself into Celeste. If you care about surprisingly impactful storytelling, consider getting into Celeste. Hell, even if you just care about grade-A pixel, Celeste is worth getting, if for no other reason than to support this team. It’s only 20 dollars on your choice of Steam, Itch.io or even the Nintendo Switch — the first of many indies I look at to come, I’m sure. In either case, it’s entirely worth the asking price or more. Whether it’s challenge, emotion, or visual awe you want, Celeste has something to offer — just make sure your controller of choice is chuck-proof.

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Jarenth really wonders how much more abuse his old 360 controller can withstand. Suggest stress management techniques on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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