It has been my experience that platformers fall into two main camps: the light-hearted, Mario-esk and relatively easy to play type, and the ultra hardcore, pay-attention-or-you-die type of games such as Super Meat Boy.
Celeste, the new game from mattmakesgames (now more than just Matt Thorson who originally started it), falls into this second camp. It is designed to challenge you, in a similar vein to something like Dark Souls: Celeste demands your attention, requiring timing and finger dexterity to get through its levels. If that proves too much, it has an innovative ‘assist mode’ that can help, and it is genuinely refreshing to not feel like your getting a gimped experience because you just don’t have the skill to play as is.
The setup of the game is thus: Madeline wants to climb Celeste mountain. She is completely unprepared for this, as the mountain has a power she has never encountered before, but attempts it anyway. It sounds like a fairly mundane thing, pulled straight out of eighties NES games, but actually the story has a nuance few games attempt.
It deals with mental health in a way few games even attempt, let alone actually pull off, though to the conclusion to that does feel like the optimistic and ‘perfect’ - for want of a better word - solution. That doesn’t mean that the game is anything less than great, I just found it to stumble at the end a little bit.
The minute to minute gameplay is your fairly standard affair of run and jump, avoiding obstacles, though you can also cling to surfaces and climb them. This is governed by a stamina meter that drains, but if you jump off and land on a flat surface it is refilled instantly, as is the air dash you are given at the start of the game.There isn’t really any enemies to take out, instead just about everything that isn’t a flat surface will kill you. It’s not even a case of it will take some health off, you hit the wrong thing and boom, you’re dead, and death comes swiftly and often.
So often, in fact, that after around twelve hours with the game I had died 3089 times. I never said I was good at this type of game, and as I sat staring at that number after the credits rolled, I realized that not one of those was the games fault. Each level is perfectly designed, with the solution and everything you need to achieve it staring you in the face, it is just a matter of whether or not you actually see it.
This is compounded by Strawberries. Each level has a set of collectible Strawberries to get, but when presented with a screen with one of those in it, it can quickly become a case of just saying “Hell no!” and moving on. This isn’t because these screens are badly designed, on the contrary, they are some of the most diabolical sections in the game, but it is a case of whether or not you can be bothered throwing yourself at the problem until you figure it out, dying over and over until you collect that tasty fruit.
Thing is, those collectibles make no difference to the game, they really are just bragging rights for completing tough sections, so if like me you get to a point where you just want to get through it, don’t feel bad for skipping them, it makes no difference to the story or anything. The collectible that does change things are the B-Side cassette tapes in each chapter. These will re-mix the level for a harder challenge, but to be honest, by the time I got to to the end I had gotten everything I wanted out of the game.
I mentioned at the start the games assist mode, and it really is great. The games designers wanted a set experience, and think it should be played without assist mode turned on, which is fair. However, not everyone is of the same skill level, so with assist mode on you are granted the ability to make things easier in a number of ways.
This might be increasing the number of air dashes you are allowed from one to infinite, making Madeline invincible, increasing how quickly the stamina meter runs down and a number of other things. It affects nothing in the story or game, it is purely a way for people to experience the game regardless of skill level. The developers were smart to put this in, it opens the game to a larger audience and gives them a chance to actually complete it.
I actually ended up turning assist mode on, I just found the game that touch too hard. All I did was increase the number of dashes by one, so I could do it twice before having to land to refill it. As I said, I still died over three thousand times and I gave up on trying to get all the strawberries, but I got through the game and it made it just a little bit easier. I didn’t find that it compromised the designers intent, Celeste is still a brilliant platformer that proves challenging even with a little help. It might not be what the experience they intended me to have, but I still enjoyed the game.
In fact the only issue I really found with the game was the last bit of the story, which for me was just a little bit too optimistic when dealing with mental health. That’s not to say such things don’t happen in real life, but the struggle is much harder than what is presented here, despite the mystical underpinnings of the story. As I said though, few games even attempt this and Celeste does a brilliant job, it just doesn’t stick the landing for me.
Everything else is brilliant. The art style is very 16 bit, but has bells and whistles that could only be dreamt of in that era, the music is awesome and the gameplay is as close to perfect as a platformer can get. I played it on the Switch, and it really is the perfect game for that system, as I played for longer than I should have lying in bed at midnight, or just sat on the sofa getting lost in a challenging section.
If you want a great platformer with a story that is more than ‘stomp on these things’, Celeste is the game for you. It plays brilliantly, looks and sounds great and has plenty of meat to sink your teeth into.