It’s hard not to draw some comparison between Hellblade and Celeste. Not as games, of course, they couldn’t be more dissimilar in that regard. But as a window into the worlds of mental illness many of us may never understand, they’re unrivalled. Senua’s Sacrifice is far more enthralling as a commentary than it is a game, whereas I’d argue Celeste is the opposite. It lacks a lot of the subtlety that made Hellblade so gripping; a lot of Celeste’s metaphors are so on the nose you could see them with your eyes crossed.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t echo a profoundly real and wonderful message because it does. It just does so in a clumsier fashion than you’d hope, mostly due to the fact that the core gameplay is so good, you’ll be left looking back at it for the fantastic game that it is (from a platforming perspective), rather than a highly emotional journey. As a glimpse at the inner turmoils of depression, Celeste does well enough, but it may be better remembered as a fantastic platformer when it’s all said and done.The game follows Madeline, a tortured young woman, on her quest to rediscover her self-worth. She intends to do this by reaching the summit of a mystical mountain which houses all kinds of manifestations. It’s here that she battles many demons, including her own. It’s a simple plot, though its message does reverberate once the credits roll and, unlike many games of the same ilk, the characters are real. There’s a nice moment when Madeline has a heart to heart with Theo, a budding photographer she meets during her ascent. A lot of the dialogue in this scene rings true and grounds the game for just long enough to have a lasting effect.
The most impressive thing about Celeste is how its gameplay is given context through the story. There’s a great weight and a real sense of reward in helping Madeline scale the mountain. I rode each breakthrough just as I felt her desperate lows.Celeste clocks in at a healthy five or six hours despite having less than ten levels, though this is bound to skew based on skill level. As a tricky, twitch-platformer, Celeste is very much in-style and it lives up to those that paved the way for it. It’s got the character and style of Shovel Knight and the ball-crushing difficulty of 1001 Spikes, though it never feels insurmountable. It’s another one of those games where persistence pays off, as you are constantly learning and adapting to the ever-changing terrain Celeste, the game’s namesake mountain, throws at you. It does a great job of constantly introducing new mechanics, but an even better job of building a world around them, measuring obstacles and milking every millimetre out of the gaps Celeste demands you cover.
It’s not all that painful if you stick to the linear path up the mountain, though when you go off the beaten track in search of Celeste’s form of collectibles, nourishing strawberries, it gets a little hairier. Though these screens often require expert timing and poise, the game’s forgivable checkpointing system takes the inconvenience out of death, allowing you to glean a lesson out of each without the fear of being set back.For a game that relies on precision, I did find it didn’t handle the best in handheld mode. The Switch’s thumbstick isn’t the most helpful tool in the shed when it comes to pulling off the finicky mid-air moves and I did very much prefer using the Pro controller when I could.
Celeste is a stunning game from start to finish. Even beyond its masterful level design, Celeste’s wonderful art direction seems effortlessly charming while its hypnotic score, composed by Lena Raine, ranges from ethereal and soothing to frantic as a means to emphasise Celeste’s most challenging minutes. It’s absolutely one of my favourite scores of the year, of any medium.
THE NINTENDO SWITCH VERSION OF THIS GAME WAS PRIMARILY PLAYED FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS REVIEW. A DIGITAL COPY OF THE GAME WAS PURCHASED BY THE AUTHOR
Celeste not only joins a long list of phenomenal platforming royalty, but it stands as a mighty pillar among the very best of them. Its message is clear albeit clumsy, though that doesn't detract from its very real and relatable cast of flawed characters. It's challenging in ways many games aren't while managing to maintain an endless supply of magic.