In many ways, I’ve longed for a game like Celeste for some time. Despite being one of my favourite games of all time, Super Meat Boy’s arrival on the Switch wasn’t the revelation it should have been, because the soundtrack isn’t the original one, and that leaves me a little empty – and yes, I know it’s the same amazing game. But then, even one of the original creators of the game couldn’t recapture that feeling for me, and The End is Nigh left me cold as well.
Celeste is the thing I’d want from a sequel to Meat Boy, though. Intricate puzzle rooms that beg for perfection, instant restarts and, surprisingly, a touching story that deals with anxiety and depression in a way I’ve never seen. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it, but amidst the whirlwind of motion and quick reactions, there’s a heart to this one that you’d never expect.
Among the jumping and climbing, you can Dash. Your hair will change colour to blue to indicate that you’ve used your “one” dash, but you can actually find objects that will replenish your dash mid-jump, allowing for some sections where your feet don’t touch the ground and you have to remind yourself to breathe. There’s never respite save for the occasional moment when you first enter an area, because you can’t even hang off a wall for a while as your stamina will run out and you’ll fall – probably into a pit of spikes.
It’s a hardcore platformer, then, but it’s more about the meticulous design of everything surrounding Madeline (the playable character) that makes Celeste so special. The rooms are designed for speed runners, but there’s plenty for everyone here. Strawberry collectables offer extra challenge but give nothing but satisfaction in return, while unlockable b-side versions of the levels are brutally difficult: you’ll get through Celeste with around a thousand deaths, but likely experience 350 or more on a single b-side level – there’s challenge if you want it.
But should you find the difficulty too much, an assist mode lets you add infinite stamina or, if you want it, invincibility in order to just enjoy the tight platforming and engaging story. On that note, actually, Madeline’s mental state actually affects the game itself. On the second proper level, you’ll enter a cliffside hotel, eventually our heroine’s mental state is manifested in a way that creates an intense chase sequence that pushes your nerves and reflexes to breaking point.
The overall arc is one of desperation, then acceptance. Madeline doesn’t just want to climb the titular mountain of Celeste, she absolutely has to. Her resolute attitude is unflinching, even in the face of terror and failure – which is arguably the worst kind of terror. Celeste is a reminder that even overcoming depression is just a case of being in remission, and that sometimes you have to accept who you are to move onward with your life.
Each new chapter introduces new elements to understand and overcome. From the chase sequences to celestial spaces that you can dash through, throwing in weather conditions that have you pushing so hard on the analog stick you think it’ll break away. Her struggle is your struggle, and the one-more-go factor is stronger here than in any game in recent memory. You want to succeed, you want to overcome Celeste.
On this Switch version, there’s nothing to complain about. The game loads quickly, responds perfectly, and plays like a dream. Ideally experienced with the pro controller, I suppose, but I played about half of the main story in Handheld Mode, and never felt I was getting an inferior version. That said, the HD rumble on those things is ridiculously strong by default in handheld mode, as if to reinforce a feeling that YOU DIED because it was your fault. That minor gripe aside, this is a flawless version of one of the best games of 2018 so far. And yes, while it’s very early to be saying that, I think this one will stay long in the memory for its handling of characters and the sensational platforming.
I adore Celeste, I truly do. There’s something here for everyone, but make no mistake: this is a hard game. You will fail many times, but that’s kind of the point. Life is about picking ourselves up when we fall down, and it’s only when you are down when you truly learn the most about yourself. This world is a troubling place to live, but Celeste made me remember I’m not ready to stop fighting just yet, and it might even help you realise that who you are is ok, because there’s nobody else like you in the world, and you’re cool. And hey, if that’s not a reason to buy a game, then I don’t know what is.
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