Every once and a while, a game will come along that displays stellar coherence between its gameplay and plot, both halves elevating the other. Matt Makes Games’ latest melds its vicious twitch platforming gameplay with a sincere story about grappling with depression and anxiety.
It stars Madeline, a disgruntled young woman who has decided to climb the mysterious Celeste Mountain. On top of being extremely deadly, the summit is also imbued with certain mystical properties. Those who persevere will discover certain truths about themselves. Or at least that’s what a cackling old woman who lives at the base of the mountain claims.
While it’s central metaphor about depression is presented quite frankly, this doesn’t diminish its impact. The challenging gameplay works in tandem with Madeline’s uphill battle against her anxieties, granting an empathetic window into her world. On her travels she comes across Leo, an aspiring photographer who is also mountaineering. Leo is an optimistic and cheerful presence, offering Madeline much need emotional support. Their chemistry works, and seeing their relationship progress acts as an additional reward for conquering the increasingly difficult levels.
Celeste’s platforming is defined by the same nasty, brutish, and short style of level design that characterizes other twitch platformers. Load times are blazing fast, allowing for an endless stream of instantaneous casualties. However, it differs in its presentation of these levels, as individual areas are strung together in a semi-nonlinear world. In a given area there is generally a decent amount of exploration possible, with occasional environment puzzles and optional challenges. Collectible strawberries litter the landscape, either increasing the difficulty of required areas, or floating at the end of optional ones. Additionally, there are two increasingly difficult ‘remixes’ of each area in the form of B and C sides. These levels, particularly the sadistic C sides, are when the game becomes truly challenging, boosting my final play time to an impressive 30 hours.
One of the most important reasons I was willing to dedicate so much time was due to the tight core controls. Celeste relies on a simple controls scheme; you can jump, you can perform one air dash before touching the ground, and you can climb walls. While this seems straightforward, the subtle variations in height and distance that result from different airdash timings makes this system feel very fluid. There’s certainly a puzzle element to some of the levels, requiring careful usage of all of the core mechanics in tandem. It’s not all just a manic test of skill, but also demands problem solving.
This trend becomes increasingly true as the game progresses. Each world introduces unique mechanics that almost entirely exist in that particular area. While some carry over, such as green gems that recover the use of airdash mid-air, most can only be found in its place of origin. For instance, in the initial area there are stoplight blocks that slide in a direction after being touched. When a jump is timed properly, these blocks can launch the player at a high speed. It’s an interesting reversal of the recent RPG-ification of modern game design, requiring new means of traversal to be learned and mastered throughout, without granting permanent improvements. Impressively, almost all of these temporary tools feel fair, and fit with the rest of the experience. One of the sole aggravating power ups is a feather, which turns Madeline into a ball of light. The ball of light floats through the air without the use of jumps, and annoyingly controls best when analog stick is used. In the later challenges this requires switching between the d-pad and the stick instantaneously, a move which feels challenging in a cumbersome and unintentional way. That said, it’s much more notable that in my lengthy play time only one of these transient upgrades rubbed me the wrong way.
Celeste component parts fit together perfectly. The soundtrack, which has become a staple in my rotating work playlist, has the range and intensity to match the thematic content. Bits of it feel like an allusion to the work of Kenji Kawaii on Ghost in the Shell, combined with hints of synthwave, all filtered through chip-tune to grant it synthesis. While the three differing art styles clash a little bit, (Voxel-y 3D in the stage select menu, an impressionistic 16-bit look during gameplay, and cutesy character portraits for dialogue), the pixel art work imbues each area with its own sense of charm. Between its heartfelt story about mental health issues and its meticulously crafted platforming sequences, Celeste articulates the momentous amount of courage necessary to strive for personal change.
Image Source: Ignite News