I died over 500 times completing Celeste‘s six-hour story mode. I died another 500 times on just one of the post-game challenge levels. If I’d have known this before playing Celeste, I would have deleted the game and never bothered. I like a challenge but there’s usually a limit to my patience with hard video games. Celeste is different; death has never felt so good.
Celeste is a beautiful 2D pixel-art platformer where you guide Madeline up a mountain as she desperately tries to overcome her inner demons. The story is poignant but not particularly subtle in its themes. Madeline’s struggle to climb Celeste Mountain is simply an analogy for her battle against depression and desire to understand her true self.
Despite the simple nature of the story, I ended up caring about not just Madeline but the friends she met along the way, such as Theo, the Seattle-based photographer, and Mr. Oshiro, the sympathetic owner of a run-down hotel on the mountain. Madeline and Theo talk openly about depression in a way we rarely see in any medium, let alone in an indie masocore video game. If you don’t relate to anything these characters talk about then I envy you. The story won’t be the thing you remember most from Celeste, but it’s surprisingly touching nonetheless.
Celeste is first and foremost a game about challenging your reflexes and puzzle-solving. Madeline can jump, dash once in mid-air, and climb up walls until her limited stamina runs out. With these basic moves, you must figure out how to reach the other side of the screen and then execute the correct moves. Both the puzzles and the mechanical complexity start off simple enough and gradually increase in complexity. Later levels require split-second timing and accurate diagonal dashes, while one screen, in particular, had me stumped for a good five minutes just trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. I’m still not entirely sure if I did it the “right” way, but regardless, I did it.
If Celeste was just a case of mastering a basic jump and dash, it would likely get boring fairly quickly. That’s why each chapter has a theme or gimmick to spice things up. There are blocks that move when you dash into them and provide a momentum boost to reach new areas, bubbles that expel you in a given direction, and feathers that grant you temporary flight. For the most part, each of these features is restricted to a certain chapter so you move on to something else before you get sick of it.
The limited complexity means that Celeste manages to be wonderfully simple while maintaining a steady challenge. The controls are so intuitive you’ll pick them up immediately and there are never any complex moves added beyond the three basic commands of jump, dash, and grab. Celeste fits all the cliches associated with tough games: it’s tough but fair; deaths are a learning experience; and gamers are getting angry about an easy mode on the internet.
I don’t want to downplay the difficulty, however I’d say the story mode is easier than that of Super Meat Boy and can be completed by most gamers with a little patience. Deaths will be plentiful, but restarts are almost instant and the save point at the end of each screen means you don’t have to repeat content you’ve already cleared.
If you need extra help then developers Matt Thorsen and Noel Berry have included an assist mode that lets you slow down the speed, give Madeline more dashes per jump, and even invincibility. You can tweak the parameters to your desired settings. If you’re enjoying the game, but feel like your reactions are a touch too slow then perhaps reduce the speed to 90%. If you really can’t get past one spot then temporarily add infinite dashes and invincibility. You should try Celeste without the cheats, but they’re there if you need them or just want to play around with God mode after completing the game. Fair warning though, using the assist mode just once permanently marks your save file as such.
Each chapter also has a few strawberries to collect. They tend to be hidden in obscure areas or in plain sight but hard to reach. The strawberries don’t do anything, so there’s no need to feel guilty for leaving them. You’re not missing out on any special powers or costumes. It probably makes a brief difference to a picture at the end of the game and that’s it.
In addition to strawberries, you can also collect “B-Sides.” As the name suggests, the B-Sides grant you access to remixed—and much harder—versions of earlier levels. These B-Sides also have little twists on standard gameplay, however a few of these twists are poorly communicated to players. I’m not sure if figuring out the gameplay twist is supposed to be part of the puzzle, but it’s definitely not fun to keep failing because suddenly your dash doesn’t work in the same way it did for the previous ten hours. For the particularly sadistic amongst you, there are also “C-Sides.” I have not completed these and likely never will.
And finally, in case all that wasn’t enough, there’s also a bonus chapter that only unlocks after collecting four of the hearts that are dotted around the story plus as rewards for completing the B-Sides and C-Sides. Oh, and finally finally you can play the PICO-8 virtual console and experience the 30 levels that the developers made during the game jam that inspired Celeste. There’s a frankly disgusting amount of content in Celeste which makes it easy to recommend even at the full price of $20.
Outside of the constant dying, the only minor frustration was the exploration required to find all the collectibles. Some of the strawberries and B-sides require you to uncover fake walls that look exactly like the real thing. I spent far too much time walking into every wall to uncover the tiny percentage that were covering hidden paths. A map would have helped. I enjoyed reaching the strawberries and B-Sides, but occasionally the process of finding them was tedious.
Celeste is the most relaxing difficult game I’ve ever played. Instead of getting frustrated with each death, I entered a trance-like state where I calmly started again each time, never blaming the game or even myself for the mistakes. It’s bizarre to think that such a challenging platformer could become my chill-out game, but I can play for an hour without accomplishing anything and not feel stressed or disappointed. Except for the windy chapter. That one can go to hell.
I’m not sure I’ll ever truly finish Celeste. I still have a couple of B-Sides to complete and the C-Sides are likely beyond my skill level. Assist mode is there if I need it, but I’m not ready to admit defeat yet. Neither am I ready for Celeste to be over. I’ll be dipping back into this masterpiece for many months to come.