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Capsule Review: Celeste

A precision platformer with a pixel-art aesthetic and a story featuring themes of mental health and self-acceptance. Play as Madeline, a young woman attempting to reach the summit of Celeste Mountain to prove to herself that she can - and dealing with her inner demons along the way.

The climb is accomplished via a series of platforming challenges. Madeline has a handful of abilities including a jump, an omni-directional air dash, and a stamina-based wall-climb which are all replenished by standing on solid ground. Challenges vary considerably between chapters, as new mechanics are regularly added to change things up (such as midair crystals that replenish your abilities or platforms that move when you air dash). Some areas involve exploration or light puzzle-solving while others add time pressure via threats that chase you.

The player must figure out how to use their limited tools to overcome the game’s obstacles and hazards and get to the next area - and then must execute their solution with precise positioning and timing. Being off by a few pixels or a fraction of a second often spells death, though this just means an immediate reset to the beginning of the current area. The player is expected to fail many, many times along the way and the game even keeps a running counter of the number of deaths in each chapter - but given the story’s themes, it seems clear that a high death count is a badge of honor rather than a mark of shame, as it shows that the player persevered in the face of great difficulty until they emerged victorious.

It’s worth noting that even though most areas are not larger than a few screens, they can be tight with challenges and dying late in an area will require you to redo all the early parts of that area too. This seems to be standard for precision platformers and I found it to be about as prominent here as it was in Super Meat Boy. Whether it’s a problem for you will depend on how you normally feel about punishment in games - I’m quite sensitive to it and it did put me off the gameplay.

Along her journey, Madeline meets a few other characters and her journey is punctuated by a handful of dialog and character-building scenes. This context adds emotional weight and meaning to the gameplay, and although there are long stretches without dialog or story, their context is always there in the background to provide a reason to be doing what you’re doing. For players who relate to Madeline’s struggles with anxiety and self-doubt, completing the game to prove that they can will mirror Madeline’s attempt to scale the mountain to prove that she can. The harmony between story and gameplay can be powerful and uplifting.

In keeping with the game’s themes of pushing oneself for the sake of it, the vast majority of the game’s challenge is actually optional. While you do need to progress through each area to get to the next, you don’t need to pick up any of the collectibles along the way, but you can go for them if you want the satisfaction of overcoming additional challenge. Some collectibles also unlock harder side levels or additional chapters of gameplay, but none of them are required to see the story through.

Famously, the game also includes an optional “Assist Mode” with several options for fine-tuning the gameplay. You can reduce its speed if you want more time to react, remove the stamina limit on wall-climbing, grant an additional air dash (or just set it to infinite), turn on invincibility so you never die, or skip entire chapters to proceed to the next. Celeste is a game about overcoming difficulty, and these options mean as many players as possible can find the right level of difficulty for them - or even remove it entirely and just blast through to see the world and the story.

Overall, Celeste is a well-executed precision platformer with an uplifting story and impressive accessibility options. If you enjoy this genre of gameplay or you want to overcome a difficult but fair challenge to prove to yourself that you can, Celeste is for you.

I Stopped Playing When: I got through the first couple of chapters without Assist Mode, then got tired of redoing early parts of areas when I died on a later part. I gradually turned on Assist Mode options over the next couple chapters until I was invincibly flying through every area. I finished the main story to see what would happen and did not return for optional or post-game content.

Docprof's Rating:

Two Stars: Meh. The game has some merit - it probably held my attention for at least an hour or I came back to it for more than one play session. But there wasn't enough draw for me to stick with it for the long haul.

You can get it or learn more here.