Most recent games fall in to typical genres such as open world, action, adventure, RPG, shooters, and so on. They also tend to be a high graphical showcase where they compete to get ever closer to the line between virtual and real.
There are also games that have distinctive art styles and don’t fit into today’s mainstream genres. They often have decent graphics too. However, they are often overlooked in favor of bigger AAA titles.
It was the year 2019. God of War, Red Dead Redemption 2, Detroit: Become Human, and Marvel’s Spiderman were all released that year. AAA games received all of the attention.
However, a small studio called ‘Extremely OK Games’ released an indie game called Celeste. This game was not only visually distinct from the rest, its tight gameplay made it comparable to some of those AAA powerhouses.
I recently had the chance to try out Celeste, which is actually my second 2D platform game ever.
Here’s a collection of my thoughts after 6 hours of playing.
“I’m going to climb Celeste Mountain at any cost”
The plot of the game is quite simple.
You play as Madeline who aims to climb Celeste Mountain. The story of the game is her adventure climbing Celeste.
When Madeline arrives at the base of the mountain, she meets Granny who actually warns her against climbing the mountain. Not only because of many have perished during the climb the mountain but also because the mountain is said to be haunted. Apparently many strange strange occurrences take place on it.
Of course, Madeline ignores Granny and goes forth!
Eventually, she encounters an abandoned city. At this moment you might start feeling like something’s not right.
Maybe what Granny said about Celeste Mountain might be true…
In the city she meets Theo, a social media-obsessed traveler from Seattle.
In the next area, Madeline has a nightmare where she encounters Badeline for the very first time, who ends up chasing Madeline out of the area after casting doubt on her inability to successfully climb the mountain.
Badeline is actually a part of Madeline. Well, she is the physical manifestation of Madeline’s anxiety and depression.
She is the main antagonist of the game, casting doubt on Madeline’s abilities throughout the journey and attempting to stop Madeline from climbing Celeste. She justifies herself and her actions by saying that she is doing that to save Madeline and describe herself as the “pragmatic part” of Madeline where Madeline is “weak” and “lazy”.
A series of events transpire from this point where Madeline’s attempts to make progress are hindered by Badeline. Through all this, Madeline also goes through a gauntlet of emotions, even having a panic attack at one point. (Luckily, Theo calms her down.)
Eventually, Madeline gains enough confidence to declare that she is going to abandon Badeline. This results in Madeline being thrown down the mountain and meeting Granny.
The wise old lady advises her to seek resolution rather than abandonment, Madeline searches for and chases Badeline, then apologizes.
Madeline wants to climb the mountain to prove herself but also regain her self-esteem. She learns to confront her insecurities and overcome her anxiety and depression throughout the journey.
In the game, it was to reconcile with Badeline, her own anxiety and depression. This is the true beauty of this game.
The “Masocore” Gameplay Experience
If there is one thing that you first need to know about the game, that would be how hard the game is.
Celeste is probably one of the hardest games that I have played and there are no difficulty options to choose from.
The game was really hard for me at first due to my own inexperience with the 2D platforming genre. After playing for some time and getting the “hang of it”, I thought I was getting somewhere before being humbled by the game again.
My journey through it… you could compare it to climbing a mountain.
There are 9 chapters in the game (if you count the Chapter 8 and 9 which are unlocked after the epilogue). The chapters end up getting more and more difficult the more you progress. They also get progressively longer.
This game is difficult by design. Let me elaborate.
Firstly, the levels are designed very well. Looking back on these chapters, I came to realize the amount of effort that these developers have put in to create levels that increase progressively in difficulty while also teaching the player new stuff.
You start the game with the ability to climb which does use up stamina. The developers thought of a clever way of showing this by not only showing air bubbles near Madeline but also the more you climb (using stamina) the color of her hair changes from orange to turquoise.
Madeline also gets the ability to do a “Dash”, which is sort of like a double jump but Madeline will rather be doing a dash instead of a jump. You are able to only do the dash once in mid-air until she reaches the ground.
You will also come across green colored gems which give you the ability to do another Dash in mid-air. Dash will only be refilled if you have used it once. The same mechanic is also used to show you have done a Dash by changing Madeline’s hair color.
These are the core mechanics that the developers used when designing all of the chapters and using this they made the chapters.
They came up with different and very clever ways to make each of the chapter different yet more difficult by adding more mechanics which some are respective to its own chapter. This makes each chapter stand out. Though some mechanics are carried over, which isn’t bad either.
Each of chapters is divided into multiple single-screen challenges with checkpoints in between the screens.
As I said before Celeste is a hard game and you will definitely die a lot of times but thankfully, even if you die you don’t go back to the start of the chapter.
Instead, you go back to the starting position of this screen which act as checkpoints.
If you end up liking the challenging aspect of the game and want to challenge yourself more, the game has got you covered.
In each of the chapters (except Chapter 9) you are able to collect Cassette Tapes which unlocks that specific chapter’s B-side. The original chapter you play is now referred to as “A-side”.
The difference between the both sides are that B-side uses the mechanics of its respective chapter but is used to create a more difficult experience.
After finishing the harder challenge of the B-side chapters, the C-side chapters are unlocked. These are shorter in length but are even more difficult.
Now I know that I have been talking about how difficult Celeste is, but that’s not all there is to it. If you take a look at the story of the game, it is really good and does its part to try justify why the gameplay is so challenging.
The story of Celeste can be told in a way with difficulty options (easy, normal and hard) but I feel like having the hard difficulty as the default one in the game adds more realism to the story.
After playing at some point you would soon realize you are also on this journey with Madeline to climb Celeste Mountain. It’s a hard and treacherous journey of a mountain climb which is not a easy feat, and learning about yourself more and becoming a better person.
For me that’s the best thing about Celeste and why it was easy to get attached to the game as the game was relatable to some degree.
Honestly, I’m pretty proud of the fact that I manage to finish the game with “a “small” number of “only” 1,411 deaths.
Also, there is an Assist Mode in the game if the challenge isn’t your cup of tea but would like to enjoy the other parts of it.
The Pixel Aesthetic
I was very surprised by the visuals of the game.
Before I played the game, I knew that the graphics of this game will be using a pixel style, similar to games like Stardew Valley and so on.
I only had a passing familiarity with style in general as I had not played many games that used it. However, this game taught me how beautiful the pixel art style can be.
Whether you are in a cave or hotel or even in a ruin, it always looks really nice. The developers put a lot of care into representing the scenery of those places with pixels.
Even the skies looks beautiful in the game. In a way, the entire game looks like a moving art piece.
The pixel art style also had a practical use. It made me more keenly aware of edges and surfaces to use for platforming.
Of course, all the characters in the game are shown in the pixel style unless they are in a cutscene with conversation. In those parts, a dialogue bubble shows up with a more detailed portrait of the characters.
I have played a couple of games with this feature and the one problem I have is that some of the games shows a static portrait of the characters during the conversations. Due to that it makes the character look unreactive no matter what is going on in the scene.
Imagine having a very sad conversation but the people are showing an unemotional straight face. Awkward!
Characters showing emotions in these moments makes it more important and engaging. It makes them feel more human. Luckily, Celeste does this too and for me that would be one of the best decisions that devs took.
For a story which is emotional and also portrays mental health issues, showing emotions with facial expression in these cutscenes is important.
We get to see Madeline happy, sad, angry, scared and even go through a panic attack. Seeing these emotions actually made me like her as a character, feel her pain, worry for her.
The moment where she goes through a panic attack, I tried my best to help her because at that point I got attached to her and wanted to her calm her down as soon as possible.
This is storytelling at its best.
One of the funniest moments of the game for me is when Badeline got so mad to the point where she come out her conversation bubble. I did not expect that and was really amused.
The soundtrack of this game is also really good. Since the art style was going to be in the 8-bit style it would be natural the music would be in this style too. I have to admit it yet again, this is the first time I got to experience the 8-bit music and properly listen to it.
All I have to say about the soundtrack would be how the composer Lena Raine did an excellent job with the soundtrack for this game.
Every song that is being played when you are in any of the places in the Celeste Mountain in any moment, perfectly captures the moment and also represents that respective place.
Even if you are in a chase sequence or even a boss fight the music does well to keep us on the edge us on the seats
One of my favorite songs in the game would be “Confronting Myself” and “Reach for the Summit“, where former is a Badeline boss theme and the latter one of the chapter themes.
Celeste is an emotional game about a girl who is determined to climb a mountain despite the that rest of the world, as well as physically and mentally (and I’m being literal here) is against her, which also deals with self reflection and personal growth in a high-octane perfect masocore gameplay that goes perfectly well with an excellent 8-bit soundtrack behind a gorgeous pixel paintings.
The game does touch on mental health issues and they are portrayed really well within the plot, gameplay, and soundtrack.
I do recommend this game to people who want to try out the indie games or even 2D platform genre or even curious about how the game portrays mental health.
I have to admit it. Before I played it, I did have my share of doubts about the game, more in the sense of “How did Celeste get nominated for Game of the Year at The Game Awards 2019.”
After playing the game, it was clear as day as to why it was there with the rest of heavy hitters.
Celeste truly a Masterpiece and a must play indie gem.