Matt Makes Games' Celeste is a triumph, in every sense of the word. This is a truly special game that captures the true and impressionistic beauty of the old bit era and all it has to offer. Not since Yacht Club Games' Shovel Knight has this style of game been so wonderfully realized. What made Shovel Knight so good was the character movement and slow mastery (and therefore sense of accomplishment) of those movements in order to advance through the levels, and Celeste somehow manages to surpass it on these fronts.
I cannot express how important movement can be in a game and how otherwise good titles can be ruined by a lack of concern on the developer’s part for making this element enjoyable. Thankfully, Celeste is one of the most pleasant games I have experienced in this respect. It's difficult and you will die... hundreds of times (I died over 1,000 times by the time I completed it), but you respawn so quickly and the checkpoints are so frequent that you rarely get frustrated, and on the occasions you do this feeling quickly goes away when you finally break through the next checkpoint and feel an enormous sense of satisfaction.
In Celeste you hop, wall jump, double jump, and bounce off of objects all the way to the end of each world in typical platforming fashion. Every world is divided into dozens of individual screens you have to get through (let's call them levels for ease of understanding). Rarely does one get through a level without dying at least once. Indeed, often times you will need to jump so far away in order to move your screen perspective (so that you can see where you need to go to next) that you'll intentionally kill yourself.
Some levels have a handy little character that will let you move your camera around so that you know what to anticipate and can strategize, but for the most part you're going to just have to take the plunge. Most levels can be completed after a couple attempts, but some are really tricky; there were quite a few that killed me dozens of times before I managed to figure them out. At least in those moments I could take solace in the fact that I usually came a little closer to the end and died in Super Smash Bros. fashion, with explosions off-screen.
Towards the end of the Celeste, just when you've finally gotten to grips with the difficult jumping system, a new type of movement will unlock and this makes the game even more enjoyable to play. It's amazing how pleasant the double jump is to use, and the fact that you unlock it with a story progression component after hours of deaths makes it all the more satisfying. You might think, as a reader not having played the game, that unlocking the second jump wouldn't be that big of a deal, but the whole game is based on pitch-perfect timing so it really is; it's like Donkey Kong on steroids in terms of jump timing.
The only thing more impressive than the gameplay mechanics is the story. I have never, in the 70-80 games I’ve reviewed to-date, experienced a text-based NES/SNES bit game as incredibly emotionally moving as this one. Celeste follows the story of an anxious girl who needs a break from the real world; one who I honestly thought may have had a bipolar disorder. As a special education teacher I was impressed by the game's representation of a group of people that are hardly ever represented in art (be it movies, music, or video games).
In order to have you fully understand the meaning of what I'm about to say I need to make it clear that I'm not often emotionally moved by video games. Certainly, I cannot remember ever having shed a tear over one. I shed tears while playing this game. It's so overwhelming to see how much despair the central character goes through; all the self-doubt, the anxiety, the pleading for help in the most desperate of ways, the giving up entirely.
All of these things are accompanied by a soundtrack that perfectly - and I mean perfectly - fits the tone of those moments; I felt all of the sadness that she felt. I know quite a few people in my life that struggle with anxiety (friends and students) and to see this so convincingly shown in a game hit me hard. I myself felt depressed through certain parts, but I kept pushing on because I had a gut feeling about something.
That feeling was that this game wasn’t about realizing the misery of life, but the beauty within the misery, and my gut turned out to be correct. I have no intention of ruining some of the game’s best characters and scenes with specifics, but after a long time of hiking up the mountain, and despite all of your self-doubts, eventually there is a major setback. But in that moment our protagonist finally finds her inner strength and peace, and manages to press on in what is one of the most emotionally charged scenes I have ever experienced in a video game.
All of these scenes, from the funny ones to the dark, scary ones, to the sad ones, to the joyful ones, are connected with music the likes of which one rarely hears in a video game. I remember the first time your 'twin' appears and the dark music kicks in - soon after that my expectations for the game quickly went from "this seems like a decent enough indie game" to "oh my goodness this may be the best indie game I've ever played."
Music is so very important and is often undervalued or ignored completely in reviews. I could literally listen to the soundtrack of Interstellar without hearing any of the movie's dialogue and probably be moved just as much if not more. Music is even more crucial in a game that doesn't actually have voice dialogue, and Celeste is all text all of the time, except for some strange noises the characters make as the dialogue is presented.
Still, there are a couple flaws. If you love a challenge then this is a title for you, but each 'level' is short and is basically a checkpoint in itself. As you move off-screen into another screen (or level) your progress is saved. Towards the end of the game there are more and more checkpoints, but not because the game is divided into multiple screens, but rather a few large ones that contain very difficult jumps. Personally, I loved these checkpoints, but I understand not everyone will appreciate the change in how they're distributed towards the end.
On the other hand some levels require an enormous amount of deaths before you'll figure things out - which by itself is fine - but this will sometimes be because you can't adjust the camera angle to anticipate upcoming sections, which can be incredibly frustrating and will feel a little unfair at times.
Celeste isn't perfect, but that's fitting because the story is about an imperfect protagonist. But it's undoubtedly an incredible game; one you're unlikely to forget thanks to its heavy hitting tones and the absolute resolve of its protagonist who never gives in to the temptation of apathy and despair.
This review is based on a digital copy of Celeste for the NS
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