I’ve been playing Celeste on the Switch. Here’s how I feel about it so far.
Celeste is developed by the creator of Towerfall, which is something I didn’t know that when I first became intrigued by it. It makes sense looking at it now. Precision controls, highly lethal consequences for small failures, but a very forgiving tone overall. Wall sliding and jumping, air dashing, and a lot of creative twists on the level design within a simple format. Superb visual clarity without needing high resolution art. Strong atmosphere and a good dose of imagination. It’s not hard to love either of these games.
Image by NicheGamer
The premise is extremely simple here: run, jump, and climb from screen to screen. It’s a pure platformer, mostly linear and classically demanding. One screen at a time. Your character’s goal is to reach the top of a strange mountain — a fictional version of Mount Celeste, in Canada — but you don’t have to care about that at all. You’ll meet characters who mostly serve to make commentary on you and your irrational need to climb higher, and it’s up to you whether to interact with them beyond the initial exchange. If you do, you’ll learn more about how your heroine sees herself, and before long you’ll be piecing together the puzzle of what’s really going on. She’s reserved and stubborn, but doesn’t seem to realize what’s motivating her. The dialogue is perfectly suitable for an all-ages friendly platformer that tries to have heart.
Although this is a First Impression, I feel like I’ve probably played most of the game already, so I’ll explain the cool features that make Celeste feel different from other platformers.
Your character has a limited amount of stamina which is only used for hanging onto walls and climbing (up or down). When your character air dashes, her hair changes color to indicate that she’s spent her dash and can’t do it again until her feet land on the ground. Climbing and dashing are two powerful abilities, but they both have very clear limitations. You’ll need them a lot, as timing and tricky angles make it impossible to progress otherwise. Jump, wall-jump, hang, wait, jump, controlled fall, hang again, jump, wall jump, dash — is just a middle of the road challenge in Celeste.
It is an exaggeration to say that Celeste is all screen-by-screen, but it feels that way compared to the long and elaborate levels of most platformers. A “level” in Celeste may be comprised of a hundred small sections, and each section is a checkpoint. No matter how impossible a section may feel after dying 200 times in a row, you know that you’ll never have to do it again if you finish it once, and you always respawn at the start of the same room. The game doesn’t play sad music, waste your time, or humiliate you for failing. You just respawn almost immediately and go right back to it. That way you stay in the “zone” and want to try again right away. On loading screens you’ll even see encouragement from the developers telling you to think of your death count as a number of lessons you’ve learned in order to get better. And you will get better.
Image by IndieGamingWebsite
Using the Switch’s default “joycon grip” setup and playing on the TV is fine, but I’ve been waiting for the Mayflash adapter that should let me use my Dualshock 4 controllers on the Switch before doing a proper review. Without a D-Pad or a full sized joystick, it’s can be needlessly hard to land certain hairpin jumps.
The game also has a built-in, optional speedrun clock for streamers (or braggers) to take advantage of. I would consider this to be a legitimately “next-gen” feature to go with the others in my list.
Celeste offers extra challenges to players in the form of strawberries, which are purely optional, useless pickups you will find in very tough spots all over the place. To collect a strawberry, you must not only touch it, but return back to stable and safe ground. If you die while holding it, it doesn’t count. I love this idea, and it plays out just the way I would hope.
You won’t know when or where to expect the next strawberry, but your gamer brain craves it once you see one. At first they’re a bit of a learning tool, forcing you to try out combinations of moves you wouldn’t normally want to use, but eventually they get diabolically tough and are positioned in the middle of already-crazy sections. Loading screens will tell you that they serve no purpose but to show off, and I’d say it’s worth showing off if you can get them all.
I thought this was very cool: there’s an alternate variety of strawberries that have wings, and these will instantly fly out of the screen and become unattainable if you use your dash ability. If you die or revisit the screen they will reappear, but you have to reach them and get to safety without dashing.
There are more clever little twists in levels, like the tokens that refresh your dash when you touch them. This allows the game to create big expanses of linked challenges, where touching the refresh tokens is the only thing keeping you going until the next piece of solid ground.
Will It Finish Strong?
What I’ve played so far has been great, but I wonder if Celeste will fall into the bad trap of obnoxious design by the end. You need things to keep getting harder, but this should always be balanced by new ideas and refreshing mechanics. Every “level” I’ve played so far has done exactly that, so I’d be surprised if it changed now.
Besides that, I don’t have any concerns. I won’t spoil the story developments, but suffice it to say that those playing it for a deep lore should rethink their priorities. It’s not a “cool” story, and it doesn’t build a world that you will want to get lost in. It’s the personal story of a girl, not the establishment of a world you’ll care about. My intelligence hasn’t been insulted so far.