Developer: Matt Makes Games
Publisher: Matt Makes Games
Platform: Windows 10
In Celeste players follow the adventure of Madeline as she climbs the eponymous Celeste Mountain for reasons she herself is not quite sure of. Celeste is a platforming game built around two central mechanics: dashing, and grabbing onto walls. Dashing can be used in any direction and resets once your feet touch the ground. Wall grabbing allows Madeline to climb walls until her stamina runs out at which point she slides down to the ground. Along your journey you’ll have the opportunity to collect strawberries in many of the levels, which often add a bit of extra platforming challenge to any given area. How will you fare as you guide Madeline through the many tests of the mysterious Celeste Mountain?
My favourite aspect of Celeste is the level design. Many platformers I have played feature sequences of horizontal, or vertical challenges in restrictive segmented levels. Each level feels like its own confined space separate from the rest of the experience. However, in Celeste everything is woven into an inter connected map that makes up a whole chapter. As a result, moving through each challenge is seamless, which creates a feeling like you’re exploring a part of the Celeste Mountain instead of moving through a linear sequence of platforming. Having the game designed in this way makes combing through each chapter feel like an adventure, and greatly aids with instilling a feeling of exploration into the player.
Along with the level design, Celeste also has an excellent sense of pace. There are two main mechanics that make up the core of Celeste: dashing, and wall grabbing. Despite there only being two of them, the way each of the different mechanics are used throughout the game is amazing. Every chapter introduces new ideas, and concepts that interact with your basic abilities stretching them far beyond their original limitations. Sections that, when dashed through, reset your dash, bubbles that send you flying in another direction, and a feather that lets you fly for a duration are just a few examples of some of the ideas that are introduced into the equation creating unique challenges for the player to overcome. Because new mechanics are introduced each chapter, to replace older ones, no one idea manages to outstay its welcome. You’re given just enough time to become acclimatized to a chapter’s set of mechanics, and then they are replaced with a new challenge to master. Constantly cycling in new ideas after the player has had time to come to grips with older mechanics lends itself well to Celeste feeling like it is paced well as things are never allowed to stagnate.
In addition to the level design, the other large factor contributing to Celeste’s sense of pacing is the difficulty curve. While the game does ramp up in difficulty as new ideas are introduced, there is never a moment where the game abruptly spikes in difficulty. Each new challenge feels like it progressively builds on the skills and knowledge players have acquired, so Celeste never feels unfair. There is enough time allocated for players to practice each mechanic before combinations of these mechanics are thrown at the player. While some optional areas feel more challenging, in general the smooth increase in difficulty over the course of Celeste’s campaign further lends to the game feeling like it is paced well.
Finally, I’d like to highlight Celeste’s story in a positive light. While I’m not big on story driven experiences, I found the story for Celeste quite enjoyable. It was paced evenly across the game, and, like the different mechanics, was there long enough to get a point across before returning the player to the action. It also helped to provide context to why Madeline was climbing the mountain, as well as her own internal struggle throughout the game. Having a less intrusive approach to the story was certainly something I appreciated, and the additional information that is conveyed to the player makes Celeste a more fulfilling experience than a strictly mechanically focused game would have been.
Despite my praise for how Celeste’s levels are designed, I did find one specific decision partly undermined it: when the game would prevent you from backtracking. As you move forward in Celeste there are occasionally levels you will enter where you are immediately blocked from the path you took to enter the room. In a lot of cases this forces the player to continue moving forward, without a way to return to pick up missed collectibles from other branching paths. While there is an option to replay chapters starting from specific checkpoints for these missed collectibles, I found that restricting players from backtracking was at odds with the open level design. Blocking off the entrance to an area also interfered with my exploration of each chapter as I would occasionally find myself unable to retread my steps to a room I’d previously visited. It was in these moments that the level design no longer felt as cohesive as it did throughout the rest of the experience. While it doesn’t happen every time you enter a new room, being cut off from backtracking happens enough across the entire game that it stood out, especially when compared against the otherwise excellent level design.
The other gripe I had with Celeste was how the bonus chapter is handled. Upon completing the game an additional chapter is unlocked. To enter the final chapter however, you need to collect four crystal hearts, which can be obtained by either completing remixed hard modes of each chapter (known as b-side tapes), or by solving an obscure hidden puzzle in each chapter. After completing the game and getting to the bonus chapter I had a grand total of zero crystal hearts. I didn’t even know they were a collectible until I looked up why I wasn’t able to progress in the bonus chapter. I found it strange to use the crystal hearts as the key to the final chapter as you’re made to collect strawberries throughout Celeste’s many levels. This feels like it would have been a perfect opportunity to reward players for completing the various challenges that are needed to obtain strawberries instead of asking players to go complete a completely new set of challenges and puzzles that can be missed entirely.
Celeste is quite possibly one of my favourite platforming games, barring metroidvanias, in a long time and a game I could easily recommend. The pacing of both the mechanics and story, the difficulty curve, and the level design all feel spot on. Nothing about the experience ever bogs it down, and Celeste is entirely focused on keeping players engaged with a variety of fun ideas and intelligent level design. While I do think how the bonus chapter was handled, along with the decision to restrict backtracking are small missteps, the positives in Celeste greatly outweigh the negatives. Celeste is an impeccable game, and if any of what I’ve written about it has you interested in checking out the game then you should.