Sometimes, it’s enough to just play a retro-tinted game or a plain old platformer that merely plays well. What do I mean by that? Well, I don’t really have a stringent requirement for an over-arching narrative that’s going to blow me away all the time. Recent 3D Mario games are proof of that, as Nintendo has made efforts to even downplay the existence of a tenuous plot device to string everything together. You’re going to get a strong base; lots of unique levels, and you will probably fight Bowser for whatever reason. I’m in. But with the rise of Indies in the past decade or so, an extra kick in the story department sure is a nice surprise.
Celeste, the latest project from the talented Matt Thorson, is one of those surprises. It’s a platformer set to the beat of climbing a mountain, but it quickly becomes so much more than that. Celeste—also the name of the mountain itself—is incredibly thematic, as our protagonist Madeline deals with various psychological challenges alongside of all of the physical hurdles required with scaling a giant crag. These are all conveyed through small breaks, with a light injection of real world humor and sensibilities that almost add a surreal element to the mix.
All of the aforementioned interludes are also spruced up by sharp cartoon art, allowing the characters to get a little more emotive than they would with the already keen sprite-work. The beautiful soundtrack that’s constantly pumping and the minimalist sound effects augment its theme.
Going along with the lack of heavy-handed, lengthy cut scenes, Celeste is really easy to get into at first. You have an invisible grab meter when holding onto walls, and a limited dash mechanic. Both are presented without meters clogging up the screen; instead you’ll get visual cues like huffing and puffing or colour changes to denote that you need to find another way.
It’s very intuitive, as the grab concept feels right, and the dash is directional like a bullet. Touching the ground or grabbing a special sparing cube power up will let you dash again, and that’s basically it. You need to marry the two together to scale every obstacle, which can be tough to reconcile until you start really getting into the swing of things. The lack of fluff-like, lengthy tutorials make it that much more fun to acclimatize.
Although it is difficult at times, the chapter-based segmentation and auto-saving is great for taking breaks. You’re also presented with myriad extra content to tackle—or not. You can collect strawberries for extra points, or not. There’s a ton of extra rooms to explore and conquer, sometimes hidden by cracks in the wall Metroid style, or not. You can also find collectibles that unlock extra stages or a retro mini game, or not. You get the picture! For those of you who aren’t all about anything but the critical path, there are no real set options outside of a speedrun timer, which is fine.
Outside of a few uneven rooms—mostly in the middle—my only real gripe with Celeste is the death restart delay. It’s not huge at all and isn’t even a big gripe, but with other games allowing for instant restarts it can sometimes get frustrating when tackling a particularly taxing room to have to wait a brief moment between deaths.
It’s really hard to think of anything fundamentally wrong with Celeste. It presents itself as a whimsical platformer, and ended up exceeding my expectations of it. If anything I wish there was a bit more when it came to the core set of levels—challenge room and mini game-esque extras are fine, but I really wanted to see more of these characters—but that’s a great problem to have.