As someone who absolutely loves 2D platformers, I tend to get a sense of "been there, done that" whenever a new one presents itself. Unless it has something really special that sets it apart from everything else, I tend to not pay that much attention anymore. This past PAX west (last fall), I gave 'Celeste' a test run and within minutes it had won me over. 'Celeste' is a retro-style pixel-art platform adventure about climbing a mountain. Well, sort of.
I have been playing 'Celeste' for weeks now. Is it hard, Oh HELL yes it is. I’ve died 1000+ times and I can’t stop playing. However, what’s great about Celeste’s approach to difficulty is that it’s the kind of compromise between challenge and accessibility that manages to far less like a compromise than a synthesis between the needs of the two. If you feel okay challenging yourself, the game’s happy with that. If you don’t feel up to it (or your mechanical mastery simply isn’t at a level required for that), then that’s okay, too; the game’s litany of tweaks and options is a lot more chimerical than a traditional “easy mode.” Plus, it also manages to provide a sidestep to a personal nitpick, where some platformers - Crash Bandicoot or most Sonic games, for instance - feel like they’re not about dynamically reacting to challenges but simply memorizing a pattern you can’t plausibly know about until after a dozen or so deaths. This could allow you to kind of just scope out the area a little bit, even if just to get an idea about whether you feel okay to go for it on a harder setting. It could let you focus on just the toughest challenges you want to do, without any content seemingly blocked by a static mode or version of the game. Also, the controls are EXCELLENT, when I die I feel like it’s my fault and not the games fault. Each death feels just as earned as every success.
It really is something special. Each screen does a fine job of either introducing a new mechanic, or expanding upon the challenges built around one you've already discovered, and eventually chaining them together. There are so many wonderful ideas in the level design, so many nooks and crannies to explore, but it’s the sweet heart of the story and characters that keeps me coming back. There’s even an easy-to-find-Easter-Egg of the original Pico-8 version of the game for people who want the added retro challenge. AND the delightful photoblogger you run across has a real Instagram page for added world-building goodness https://www.instagram.com/theounderstars/
What starts off as a charming but challenging platformer quickly evolves into something much more through its characters and story. Madeline is someone anyone can relate to; her struggles both mentally and physically tie into serious personal demons as well as the mechanics of the game itself, which is a remarkable feat. The idea of your darker, pragmatic side being a hindrance that you must work around and even use is not just in the plot, but also the gameplay. Bottomless pits and spikes are really the only thing in the game that only works to kill you (and even then, they are arguably guiding you the right direction). The wind will push you back in the one stage, but it will also propel you forward for other sections. Platforms that speed towards spikes or ceilings can be used to launch you and give you a super jump. Even the monsters that Madeleine creates in the Mirror Temple are necessary to break down barriers. It follows the “gameplay should serve two purposes” philosophy, but rather than it being Madeleine’s abilities, it’s her adversities. Add to that several truly tender and uplifting moments as well as a KICKASS soundtrack.
Additionally, the concept of duality has come up a lot in my life lately, and I think it really speaks to the nature of how the universe works. This idea that having despair is necessary to have hope; the negative aspects of personality are there to both harm and protect us, and that we cannot exist without having both positive and negative forms of ourselves barely scratches the “quantum state” surface of our existence. I will say that this game has taken a high place in my heart. Possibly my favorite single-player game on the PS4, if not favorite overall game. Definitely my favorite indie game that I’ve played in general. And possibly my favorite 2D platformer. It's just disgustingly well made. Everything about it just clicked for me, and I love it.
'Celeste' is available now on PC , Playstation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch.
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