Game Review: Celeste – Anxiety, Strawberries and Speedrunning

Image courtesy Matt Makes Games Developer Matt Makes Games, best known for their debut hit Towerfall, have captured the tight controls and pixel art that made their first game so popular- and packaged it in a heartfelt story about mental health and trying. Celeste is as much a game about failure as it is about discovering yourself- which is good, because it’s extremely difficult and you’ll soon discover how much patience you have for the challenge of summiting Celeste Mountain. Image courtesy Matt Makes Games You play as protagonist Madeline, a young woman who decides to challenge herself by attempting to climb a mountain. Hers is a journey that most of us have taken. Madeline has come to the mountain to challenge herself, break from the monotony that is life and figure out who she is. She meets a few strange characters along the way: an old woman that openly mocks her, a man that is stuck in his past, a sort of doppelganger, and a selfie enthusiast that seems only mildly affected by his circumstance in juxtaposition to Madeline’s constant anxiety. Madeline’s anxiety, surprisingly, is a major plot point, and an example of a positive portrayal of mental health struggles in a medium that has too few. Image courtesy Matt Makes Games Celeste is a hard-as-nails platformer in the vein of Super Meat Boy or The End is Nigh which means: super tight controls, impossible-feeling platforming sections, and challenging collectibles to grab. And in this case, it is all visualized with a gorgeous pixel art style. Madeline can run, jump and dash. Dashing serves as Madeline’s main mode of traversing harder obstacles, but she is limited to one dash per foothold. There are environmental assists such as springboards and bouncy pegs (among many others) that can reset Madeline’s dash.  Madeline can also climb/grab vertical surfaces – but only for a limited amount of time. Depending on the environment, Madeline is not limited to her base moves and instead can use objects to fling, transport, or even fly her to where she wants to go. There are also the ever-ubiquitous strawberries to collect. While they are not essential, the strawberries represent “challenge modes” in many areas, with entire paths dedicated to collecting them. They’re always so diabolically placed to seem just within reach I found most of my playtime dedicated to chasing them. Image courtesy Matt Makes Games Celeste is broken down into eight proper “worlds” or chapters. There’s a prologue that sets up the story and a challenge world that only unlocks if you’ve collected the crystal hearts for each world. Every world introduces a new set of obstacles and different ways to interact with the environment making them all unique from each other.  This keeps the gameplay from stagnating, with each world presenting fresh obstacles. Each world has a varying number of stages/screens, and has many winding paths to take, making Celeste more about exploration than from getting from the beginning to the end. Unless you’re a speedrunner, in which case: Celeste was built just for you. With an integrated speedrunning clock and even secret paths to cut down on completion time, and of course the tight platforming and controls, Celeste is a speedrunner’s dream. There are also additional, extremely hard challenge levels based on each chapter called “b-sides.”  There is nothing but pain and suffering there – but extreme satisfaction if you manage to complete them. One of Celeste's many encouraging messages. Image courtesy Matt Makes Games If you’re on the other end of the gaming spectrum from “speedrunner” you may be happy to know that Celeste comes with a hearty assist mode that allows you to customize the difficulty for yourself. Want slower gameplay and infinite health? You can do that. You can even skip entire chapters, but you’ll be doing yourself a disservice by missing out on Celeste’s heartfelt story. Image courtesy Matt Makes Games Celeste does a great job of highlighting Madeline’s mental health struggles as you and she both struggle to reach the summit of Celeste Mountain.  Anxiety is something rarely addressed in video games, and Celeste does it in a refreshing way. A lot of Madeline’s internal struggles are narrated by her or outright manifested as Madeline’s evil doppelganger.  Madeline’s doppelganger is a great representation of someone with these mental health issues working against themselves, actually stopping themselves from reaching their goal. Theo, one character that Madeline meets along the way, is especially good with helping Madeline and her anxiety. He teaches Madeline an anxiety coping mechanism not too unlike the one I use when my anxiety gets unbearable. Image courtesy Matt Makes Games Celeste is what I expected from the developer of Towerfall: tight controls and fun platforming. More than that, Celeste is a beautiful game both graphically and narratively. Rarely does a platforming game manage to successfully tell such a personal story while having the player perform obscenely hard platforming stunts.  Celeste is something special, and I expect it to endure for years with its tight controls, poignant story, and burgeoning speedrunning community. Celeste is available now on Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.
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Antal Bokor

Antal is video game advocate, retro game collector, and video game historian. He is also a small streamer, occasional podcast guest, and writer.