Celeste is an excellent 2D platformer – in terms of control, difficulty and presentation. But it’s so much more than that. A deep dive – sometimes quite literally – into depression, anxiety and the woes of 21st-century society, this game handles its poignant subject matters in a way that is not only enlightening and refreshing but also funny and charming. Celeste is a shining example of how narrative in video games can be used to tell a story that is topical, engaging and – most interestingly – unique to the medium.
Celeste came to be when Matt Thornson (TowerFall) and Noel Berry (Skytorn) slapped together a playable prototype – in four days, mind you – for a game jam. The prototype, taking elements from the 16-bit platformers we all know and love, was a massive hit, so the duo decided to turn it into a fully fledged release. Boy, am I glad they did. The result is one of most hard-hitting and relatable narrative experiences I’ve ever had. And even if that weren’t the case, it’d still be one of the best 2D platformers I’ve experienced in over a decade.
Anyone who’s played TowerFall or Skytorn knows that both of those games control like a dream, so it should come as no surprise that Celeste follows suit. Like most great-to-play platformers, such as Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Meat Boy, movement is reduced to just a few simple mechanics. For Celeste, it’s jump, climb (with limited stamina) and dash. The number of platforming possibilities just these three mechanics provide is staggering, and they’re all introduced in a way that’s clever and intuitive. Heck, the game even explains ways to navigate the environment in its final moments; these were possible at the beginning of the game, but I – for one – had no bloody clue about them. This speaks volumes for how deep the mobility really is. These gameplay systems all come together to complement the narrative in some truly inventive ways. More on that later.
The basic premise of Celese’s story? You, a disheartened millennial named Madeline, have set out to climb the game’s eponymous Celeste Mountain. You scale it by completing a series of increasingly challenging levels, each one with its own unique environment and platforming elements. You’ll die – a lot. Just like Super Meat Boy before it, Celeste has a forgiving respawn system – as well as damn unforgiving platforming sections.
You’ll need to be precise and patient to make it to the end. But thanks to some top-notch pacing, by the time the credits roll, you’ll be surprised at how far you’ve come and at the crazy platforming feats you’ve been able to pull off. For completionists, there are plenty of collectables to nab along the way. Though not compulsory, these collectable strawberries provide some extra gaming sweetness for gamers who love a challenge. And, in addition to the main story’s regular levels, there are super-hard versions of each one – B-Sides, which are unlocked by collecting tapes in the regular levels. For absolute maniacs, there are some even-harder levels, too.
Throughout the ten-hourish base story, Madeline crosses paths with a colourful cast of characters – some charming and some downright creepy. The dialogue is spectacular, and it’s executed flawlessly. In a similar style to the Banjo games, cutesy gibberish is dubbed over the subtitles; some people might find it annoying, but I find it endearing. As for the writing itself, it’s sometimes hilarious, sometimes charming, but always brilliant.
But it’s not just the way that the story is told that’s first-rate, it’s the topics it covers, too. The game goes places I really wasn’t expecting. Honestly, it totally caught me off guard. I thought I was in for a fun 2D-platroming romp and not much else. But bloody hell, I couldn’t be further from the truth. If that is all you what you want, though, the story is all skippable. But you’d be a bloody idiot for doing so.
So I’m going to get serious for a minute. In the past, I’ve struggled with both depression and anxiety, and to a much lesser extent I still get a little anxious from time to time. Never have I seen mental illness portrayed so accurately and truthfully in storytelling than I have here. Never. The narrative really resonated with some of the darkest moments of my life, and I’d be willing to bet that most people would feel the same –whether they’ve experienced mental illness or not.
The game touches on how people run away from what’s happening in their heads, trying to ignore it. How people turn to alcohol as a crutch for their insecurities and inside afflictions. How advertising creates unrealistic expectations for how we should look. How, on paper, some people have everything they ever wanted – a decent job, a loving partner, a likeminded group of friends, but not even that brings joy.
These themes are often presented to the player subtely throughout Celeste’s level design and pacing. There’s one metaphor that really struck me, about social media entrapment, which is something I observe all too frequently. As a Welshman living in the Netherlands, I see many of my fellow expats religiously posting pictures on social media, vicariously living their lives through their phones, rather than actually enjoying it. They essentially use photos and status updates to humble-brag online – all to validate their move to themselves (and their friends back home.) Social media is rife with this kind of thing, and it makes people question their own lives. They shouldn’t. Who gives a fuck about someone else’s bullshit highlight reel? I digress. The representations brought to life in Celeste are things that most people can relate to. Much of the multi-billion-dollar film industry, which usually approaches this kind of thing in a way that’s tasteless and ham-fisted, has been put to shame by an indie game made by a handful of talented individuals.
And the story that Celeste has told could only be achieved in a video game. For example, I saw the game’s learning curve to be a metaphor for conquering mental illness, and I reckon the developers intended it to be interpreted this way. The game ramps up its difficulty in baby steps, introducing the player to a new mechanic by smacking it across their head, but the challenge slowly ramps up, and by the end of a level – and indeed, the game – you’re blazing through difficult sections using the techniques you’ve been mastering along the way. This is exactly how to deal with living with a mental illness. You take on one challenge at a time, each one greater than the next, until you’re doing something you never thought was possible – whether that’s something as small as leaving the house without having a panic attack or giving a presentation to 50 people. Baby steps.
I went a little intense right there, didn’t I? Sorry about that. Back to the more gamey stuff.
Celeste’s presentation is spectacular. Taking the tried-and-true 16-bit art style, the game visually pops with vibrancy and character. Whether it’s trying to be decadent and debauched or lively and effervescent, it always succeeds. In among the sprites and big pixels, the game mixes it up a bit with high-res text bars and character portraits – as well as in a few in-game moments. It can seem jarring at first, but overall I think the juxtaposition works well for the game’s charm.
Although the game’s visuals are outstanding, the soundtrack is even better. Beat for beat, each area and screen’s track fits it to a tee. Modulation and harmony changes are used expertly, helping build tension and dread when needed. The music is harrowing on some sections, ambient on others and even heroic in parts, but it never fails to put a smile on my face. Bravo to composer Lena Raine. And the sound cues for the platforming are so seamless that you won’t even notice them most of the time. It’s one of my favourite video soundtracks since 2016’s Doom and is now my go-to working soundtrack. In fact, I’ve been humming along to it while writing this very review. Preview the sonic goodness below:
The final product is truly something to behold. Easily one of the best 2D platformers of the last decade or so, Celeste is one mountain that I’d recommend any gamer to climb. I’d even go as far as saying it’s one of my favourite 2D platformers of all time. Simply put, it’s an essential indie title and one of 2018’s biggest surprises so far. It’s still early days, but I can already see Celeste near the summit of my 2018 game-of-the-year list. Okay, okay – I’ll stop with the mountain puns.
What did you think of my review? Did you give Celeste a go yet? Give me a shout on Twitter: @DragonGamingDG