This one has been a difficult review to write. In fact, I don’t know whether I can even call this a review so much as a thinkpiece. As I write this, I don’t even know whether I think I can fairly score it as a game. But why, when this is a game so beloved by many on the internet, am I struggling with my words over it? Let’s dig a little deeper and find out.
Celeste (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Switch, Xbox One)
Released Jan 2018 | Developed / Published: Extremely OK Games
Genre: Platformer | HLTB: 8 hours
Here’s the thing: I’ve seen plenty of my friends play Celeste. Many of them are especially good at it, taking on the various challenge runs stuffed away in it as rewards for mastering the main game. Now, I’m not naive; I know they’re good, I know that skill has come as a result of hundreds of hours of practice, and that to compare my experience playing against that would be, frankly, ridiculous. If truth be told, watching them play was what kept me from buying Celeste for the longest time; I only picked it up in the winter sales just one because it was a couple of quid and I figured I would at least get my money’s worth that way.
So, what is Celeste? Well, on the surface, at its most utterly basic and reductive level, Celeste is a platformer which is part of a rich heritage of fiendishly hard twitch-reflex games where the challenge is its own reward. As you play, the game’s main character, Maddy, battles against her own sense of depression and self-doubt as she resolves to climb the titular mountain. However, I feel like that doesn’t do Celeste any kind of justice. What it’s really about is confronting yourself. This is a concept baked into the very core of the game. Yes, it’s about a girl climbing a mountain, and yet it’s also about much, much more. Within the confines of the narrative it becomes abundantly clear she is battling some pretty serious inner demons and so the story becomes about her journey to confront and overcome them. It’s one of the strongest points in Celeste’s favour; as this deeply personal and emotive story unfolds through the sharp, witty dialogue between Maddy and fellow climber Theo, it’s hard not to draw parallels to our own experiences. This is obviously very personal, but I’m no stranger to the same emotions Maddy attempts to deal with during her adventure, and seeing it play out with dialogue that felt so intimately real definitely hit hard.
However. Celeste is also a game about literally confronting yourself. Those core narrative concepts about fighting your perception of your flaws and always choosing to pick yourself up and continue if you fall are woven into the fabric of the gameplay expertly and elegantly. This is best exemplified by Celeste’s consistent loop and dying and trying again as you constantly battle to overcome stage hazards and instant-death threats while ascending the mountain’s perilous peaks. Celeste makes sure that dying is a literally momentary obstacle, with the time between defeat and starting again cut down to about a second. That’s vital in a game like this, which tracks your death count and expects you to keep going in the face of it. At its best, the loop is designed to addict you. It trades on the same masochism as games like (and believe me I don’t invoke this comparison lightly, okay? Here we go) Dark Souls; to be clear, I’m not trying to do the memey “it’s the Dark Souls of x” thing here, but I do think Celeste trades off the same feeling from its players. You’ve got to be really into the notion of knowing you’re going to die an awful lot, and that the process is part of the fun. If you can’t gel with that as an expectation, then Celeste might not be for you.
So, to the nub of the matter. Celeste wasn’t for me. The internet loves hard games, and it loves retro-inspired games, and it really, really likes hard, retro-inspired games. It’s no surprise at all why Celeste has risen to such prominence. It’s also why this write-up is one I approached with a little trepidation. Celeste might be an indie darling, but it’s a game which I definitely struggled to enjoy. Still, it’s not like its ‘bad’, per se – I actually think it is, in both narrative and mechanical terms, utterly exceptional – but it’s also not a game I had fun playing and I’m still a stickler for actually enjoying a game as a metric against which we measure it.
I suppose I just never really draw a lot of joy from the constant loop of death, especially when I don’t particularly feel like I’m making progress between attempts. Celeste was certainly charming at first, as I found myself taken in by the gorgeous visuals, outstanding music, and smooth early steps of the platforming. As I leapt and bound through those beginning stages I thought for a small moment that I had been wrong in my apprehensions about whether I would like Celeste or not. However, that was shattered as I struggled through Chapter 2, and by the time I finished Chapter 3 I was genuinely annoyed and upset. I realised partway through Chapter 4 that I was merely plodding through, and that every second I spent restarting was rapidly draining any sense of joy or fun from me. Ultimately I decided my enjoyment of the game came before the intended way to play, so I gave up and turned on Assist mode.
The inclusion of Assist mode is definitely an interesting and welcome addition from the developers. Basically it allows you to cheat unrelentingly, letting the player toggle gamebreaking elements like the number of dashes you can use in a sequence, or switching on invincibility. Before you turn it on, the game warns you that Celeste is supposed to be a challenging but rewarding experience, but it very pointedly doesn’t offer any judgement on you for using Assist Mode. In fact, it does change anything at all about the main game; you can still get all the collectibles and see the same story as if you’d played without it.
In the end, the only source of judgement was from myself. It felt honestly heart-breaking to turn Assist Mode on, but the truth is I didn’t feel like Celeste was “challenging but rewarding” at all. It was the former, without a doubt, but absolutely not the latter. I’m glad I got to see what the game was going to throw at me, but I won’t pretend it was satisfying to see the end. Make no mistake, Assist Mode was the right choice for me; if I had pushed on through and forced myself to beat it I know I would have been deeply resentful and bitter about it. That said, I wasn’t any more satisfied to have beaten the game with Assist Mode turned on; instead I was left feeling a sense of emptiness and disappointment. I think what I really wanted from Celeste was to be part of something, to be able to join in when friends streamed it, and to share in their elation at and love of a game so many of them hold quite dearly. Instead, I ended up feeling further away from it all, about as disconnected as possible.
But, Celeste is a game about self-reflection, and at the time of writing it’s been a week or so since I saw the credits roll and put the game away. That’s a long time to hold onto any annoyance, at least for me, and in truth Celeste has occupied my thoughts more than it ought to, given I didn’t enjoy it. I still kind of want to return to it and see if I can take on the levels that beat me, but equally I’d be just as content to leave it be. If nothing else I’m more content with where I am in relation to my friends who play; I know I still can get a joy of joy from watching them have fun, and by being part of their communities when they do, and I know it’s okay if I suck at Celeste.
So, having said all that, how do I rate this game? It left me in an unusual place; usually when I have a bad experience with a game it’s because something was wrong with the narrative or the mechanics, but with Celeste that simply hasn’t been the case. I adored the writing as it resonated with me on a very personal level, and even though the mountain climbing metaphor wasn’t especially deep, it’s not like the game had any pretentious about it. On top of that, I also have very little to complain about regarding the mechanics of the game; they weren’t floaty or sticky or imprecise or even poorly implemented, but instead they were simply exceptionally well-constructed. I suppose my bad experience with Celeste – and make no mistake, it was an awful time – came purely from the prohibitive difficulty but even then the game gave me an out and said “No, that’s fine, enjoy it any way you want!” So when it comes down to whether or not Celeste is a good game or not – well, yeah, it really is! I’d go so far as to label it brilliant, incredible, amazing even. It’s a game I hated playing but it’s hardly a game I could, with any integrity, refuse to recommend.