Starting out life as an entry for a game jam back in 2015, developer Matt Makes Games (of TowerFall fame) has brought Celeste to Nintendo Switch as a fully realised action platformer. Popularised by fellow Switch indie Super Meat Boy - which was in turn inspired by designer Matt Thorson's freeware series Jumper - Celeste on the surface is another brutally challenging and fast-paced title. Traversing the titular and treacherous mountain by way of climbing, jumping and dashing over deadly traps, this formula is as popular as it is prominent on the eShop right now. Celeste does have more than a few tricks up its sleeve both mechanically and stylistically that give it a sure footing.
From the outset, it is clear that Celeste is a dangerous and hostile place, with a bitter cold and harsh terrain. However, there is a warmth and sincerity to protagonist Madeline, as she tries to reach her goal. In the early stages it feels like there is a greater, more personal journey that is waiting to be uncovered. She is vulnerable but determined. She doubts herself but supports others. Both you and Madeline will have to share determination and persistence to conquer both physical and personal challenges.
The game has plenty of atmosphere and tension, but there's also hope and the cathartic sense of self-discovery is rich throughout. Internal voices clash, text judders with emphasis, Seemingly innocuous warning boards mistakenly dismissed as scenery actually have purpose. The game deals with complex personal themes with refreshing candor and nuance.
Aesthetically, Celeste is a mix of myriad art styles, but they compliment each other well. The simple pixel art levels and sprites hark back to its roots as a demo developed in 'fantasy console' PICO 8. That's not to say they haven't been given a bit of extra polish, as the characters have fluid and varied motion animations, the backgrounds and weather effects feel suitably unforgiving and various mechanical platforms have a great kinetic energy.
Just when proceedings feel like they are going to get into a groove of familiarity in terms of location, things start to get a little otherworldly and surreal. From here, Celeste really flexes its graphical muscles, moving on from the expected snow covered trail to present new and consistently more vibrant fantastical locations, as well as some truly stunning vistas and set pieces. The chapter select is a low polygon 3D model of the mountain and is as equally charming as the in game graphics.
When Madeline interacts with the people she meets along the way, it's a different approach, as bold drawings convey a range of emotion and expression during dialogue presented at the top of the screen, and serene expositional illustrations document your journey beautifully. There's more emphasis on exploration in Celeste than most of its contemporaries, as hitting switches and finding keys to unlock doors that can be a fair distance apart.
Level design and controls are great throughout, especially when secret areas and more unique tasks are factored in. Combinations and routes may initially look impossible, but every death is a lesson so you can observe and fully exploit the environment with Madeline's move set. Whether you're utilizing the environmental elements, perfectly placed balloons or crystals to replenish your dash (indicated by Madeline's hair colour) or taking a breather on barley visible ledges, Celeste constantly feels more immense than its retro art style suggests.
Clinging to a wall within a pixel of your life, or spring boarding across a screen-wide chasm only to perform a perfectly timed dash to safety is incredibly satisfying, and with practise, the game rewards your ambition to take risks. The balance of timing, reactions, dexterity and momentum feel great, and it's clear that there's a hint of the hyper jumping mechanic that made TowerFall so good. Later, sparkling dream blocks refill both dash and stamina while thrusting you from one side to the other, and extra objects that effect your movement. We won't spoil what they are, but suffice to say that they are integral to both the narrative and gameplay.
There are two main types of collectibles on your quest to reach the summit. While the practical use of strawberries is pretty negligible, the temptation to push yourself and gather every last one is very gratifying. In addition, each chapter contains a 'b side' cassette tape, which is where the real challenge lies. Find it, and an even harder, alternate of the chapter opens. They are definitely worth the effort. Speaking of cassettes, Lena Raine's soundtrack is absolutely superb, with reflective and intricate piano being a particular personal highlight, as well as heart pounding grandeur during thrilling set pieces. Seriously, the soundtrack is best just experienced rather than explained.
The function of Madeline's dash may vary from simply making it across a gap to triggering switch or platform. The complexity of the levels you're playing might not be apparent early on, but they soon become sprawling and interesting puzzles within themselves, and sometimes it's just as crucial to see the bigger, sometimes intimidatingly challenging picture (through a well placed pair of binoculars) as it is to play what's right in front of you.
You'll have to plan your route meticulously a genuine sense of achievement that could even change your outlook on life/ challenges faced once you've put your Switch down. There's a big heart beating under Celeste's harsh and unforgiving exterior. There's a warmth to the characters and a personal conflict that's as resonant as it is relatable, with surprises at every turn.
While games in this genre have a reputation for their difficulty, the Assist mode in Celeste is a master stroke. Unintrusive, highly customisable and excellently implemented. Categorising elements of the gameplay that can be adjusted in a non binary manner truly can allow a balance between difficulty and accessibility. In fullAassist mode, you'll basically tear through the game for the story, as it's possible to slow down the speed, have infinite dash and stamina along with complete invincibility. The game is challenging enough to make you go to the options screen regularly, but perseverance pays off as you'll be missing out on a lot of what makes Celeste such a joy to play.
Mastering the game's precision timing and having lightning quick reactions will take a lot of patience and persistence, but it's worth every minute. With no aid whatsoever, Celeste as a game is a sadistically challenging yet immensely rewarding experience, to the point where you will want to put yourself through the hardships to reap the sense of satisfaction in an 'art imitating life' kind of way. While Celeste's tight and tough platforming is highly competent if a little familiar, it's the narrative and art direction that makes it truly special.
There are instances of true magnificence in Celeste, going beyond the core platform mechanics and it's all in the details. An exquisite balance of incredibly well designed levels, conscious effort to make it accessible while still having a level of difficulty and potential speed running community will salivate over.
It's a game of conflict. It's a heartfelt story of determination and self worth, with a cherished handful of eccentric characters, personality and a thoroughly enjoyable experience regardless of your ability. As accessible as it is relentless, as cute as it is harsh. The exposition, while candid and relevant, is a bit unevenly placed and affects the pace. It's a small niggle that it wasn't a bit more evenly spread out somehow, but that doesn't detract from its personal and emotional weight.
Celeste is an exemplary amalgamation of style, mechanics and character. A devilishly brilliant action platformer with enough skill required to excite genre purists and the speed running community, while at the same time featuring a breakdown of gameplay elements to customize and cater for all audiences. While the game mechanically is great, if familiar, the art style and narrative are truly special, showing both a visual and emotional range and depth that will resonate and inspire. Celeste is the absolute peak of personal exploration and discovery on Nintendo Switch.