Celeste (Matt Makes Games, 2018, PC)
George Mallory, one of the first men to ever summit Everest, famously answered a reporter’s question on why he climbs mountains with a simple, three word statement: Because it’s there. It is human nature to seek challenge, not simply because of desire for a reward, but because the challenge, in and of itself, is the reward. There are many games out there that pride themselves on their difficulty, and none have engrossed me as completely as Celeste.
Celeste is a game about a young woman climbing a mountain, tormented by both literal and figurative inner demons. The game’s plot, although simple, manages to enthrall the player through its deep themes about mental health and facing obstacles, themes that are both relatable and intrinsically tied to the gameplay. Celeste is a game about overcoming, both in story and in play.
Celeste takes the form of a deceptively simple 2D platformer. Movement is fluid and responsive, the player never feeling like they aren’t in control of their character. The core mechanic in Celeste is the air-dash, a sort of double jump that can be used to rapidly fire the player in a direction of their choosing midair. This mechanic is used for difficult, precise platforming, as is to be expected in the hardcore platformer subgenre, but is used for so much more than that.
The player can only air-dash once before either touching the ground or touching specific game objects. Each room in Celeste is painstakingly designed around this limitation, with levels requiring intelligent, creative platforming to advance. A common term for games like Braid or Limbo is puzzle platformer; these games are puzzle games that use the medium of 2D Platformers. Celeste is the opposite. It is a platformer puzzle, a game where the solution to each puzzle is platforming.
Each chapter in Celeste introduces new, creative mechanics that alter how the level functions. Platforms that rush forward when you step on them, flinging you halfway across the room; bumpers that bounce you in the opposite direction that you dash into them from; blocks that you can only travel through via dashing in a straight line; feathers that temporarily turn you into a flying mass of light; ground that becomes spike covered after you step on it; Celeste never runs out of new ideas and they never feel unfair or out of place.
Spread throughout Celeste’s chapters are collectible strawberries. These strawberries often have even harder platforming and puzzles to collect them, pushing the player to their limit. These strawberries are completely optional, only existing as an extra challenge. Collecting strawberries is fun and challenging, yet never feels like a chore, because the challenge of collecting them is its own reward.
This idea of letting the players chose how difficult they want the game to be shows up throughout Celeste. Celeste features a complex difficulty menu, allowing players to adjust the game speed, add extra air-dashes, or even turn on invincibility, letting players tailor their challenge to their own capabilities. Because of this, the difficulty of Celeste never feels unsurmountable, because there are always options available to make the game less challenging. On the other side of the coin, Celeste features a series of absolutely monstrous bonus levels that demand absolute perfection from players seeking a higher challenge.
Celeste isn’t just a difficult game, it is a good difficult game, a distinction far too many developers fail to grasp. The difficulty is fair and adjustable. The player never feels that their failure is not their own fault, nor do they feel their successes were handed to them. Each trial you surmount in Celeste fills you with pride, as you move higher and higher up the mountain, climbing it because it is there. Add in some of the most beautiful pixel art graphics I’ve ever seen, a steller story, and a catchy soundtrack, and you have one of the best games I’ve played all year.
Final Score: 10/10