And here we have yet another overdue review that I have been planning to get for quite some time. Specifically, this review was requested by former patron Winter. While they have since canceled their pledge due to financial difficulties, they were the first patron of mine to meet the current requirements for a review request, which require someone to be a patron for more than six months and contribute at least $120 total. Yes, this is a steep requirement, but it also ensures that those who are supporting me are doing so because they either really care about me or my content. Also I have tendency to take a long time getting to requested reviews, but I do plan to honor these commitments even when a patron in question is also an abusive ex (no, that’s not Winter, but that is the case with another patron).
As for what my excuse for taking so long this time is, it’s that I had initially tried to play the Steam version of Celeste several months ago (which Winter also gifted me because they are a total sweetheart), but I had some issues with the controls that made the game virtually unplayable to me. Specifically, I had this problem where, when using a PS3 controller, the game would just stop reading my button inputs for a second every other minute. While 1 second doesn’t sound like much, Celeste IS a platformer that requires split second timing and accuracy.
I know for certain that this is a bug in the PC version of Celeste because I have never had this problem when using controllers for other platformers. Whether they were other indie platformers on Steam, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 being played on an emulator, or even the 2016 predecessor to Celeste that was made in four days for a Game Jam and is included as an unlockable in the base game itself, they all worked fine. I’ve tried asking around various forums and even tried contacting the devs themselves, only to receive no response. While I’ve only had a few other people tell me that they’ve experienced the same problem, the fact that this has not been patched almost three years after release is honestly kinda shitty, and is why I’m going to recommend you go with one of the console releases, unless you are especially adept with keyboard controls.
So because of that, I ended up needing to buy the Switch version with my own money for the purposes of this review, and I’m glad I did because this game was an amazing experience. If you have heard of Celeste, then you probably know it for its relentless difficulty, or for the fact that the main character is a trans girl. Strangely enough, Celeste was rather subtle about this in the base game. It never tells you directly, but there are a few moments that can lead a savvy enough player to the conclusion that Madeline is a trans girl.
I was initially going to criticize the game for this decision because subtle representation allows for transphobes to dismiss any evidence that the main character is a trans woman so they can avoid questioning any of their preconceived prejudices, and that defeats the entire point of trans representation, especially when trans people in media is as sparse as it is to begin with. Hell this even applied when the DLC first came out that revealed Madeline was trans by featuring a trans flag on her computer. While this was enough to make it obvious to decent human beings, it ignores the fact that transphobes are stupid as hell and will engage in as many mental gymnastics as possible to avoid acknowledging the obvious.
But of course, this changed when the lead developer not only confirmed that Madeline is canonically trans, but started going by Maddy Thorson, which could hint that Madeline could be a sort of quasi self insert protagonist. THIS is how you respond to morons who try to weasel their way out of accepting that a character from a game they like is trans, you shove it in their face and make them soil their panties in disgrace and deal with the existential dread of knowing that they emotionally connected with the evil transgenders. Not any of this “leave it up to interpretation so the transphobes don’t get mad” bullshit.
And what really makes this revelation perfect is that being trans is not Madeline’s signature character trait. She’s a well rounded character whose struggles with severe mental illness and self doubt are something that can be relatable to a lot of people. A major theme of this game is coping with intense anxiety, and pushing through to achieve your goals despite the overwhelming odds against you.
The story is fairly simple, Madeline has set her mind on deciding to climb Mount Celeste no matter what is thrown at her. She has decided to climb it purely for herself because she needs something to commit to. It isn’t some story about someone rescuing a princess or saving the world, it’s instead about the idea of self betterment, and about confronting one’s own inner demons.
And at first, this game seems to take the typical route of portraying the negative aspects of one’s personality as a literal demon that needs to be fought and slain. This changes little over halfway through the main story where it is revealed that the solution isn’t simply shutting out and getting rid of your “bad side” but rather by embracing it and using it to your advantage. In this case, “Badeline” is an obvious stand in for mental illness and traumatic responses.
Those who know me personally can probably guess that I heavily related to Madeline’s character arc, as I have also struggled with severe trauma from past life experiences. Most notably, I have borderline personality disorder, a heavily stigmatized mental illness that occurs as a result of longstanding traumatic experiences. It is characterized by intense paranoia, fear of abandonment, and hypersensitivity. It’s basically a defense mechanism against abuse that ends up sabotaging interpersonal reactions because you now view every new person as a potential abuser, at least until you hurt someone you care about through your own paranoia. At that point, you view yourself as an abuser. As someone who is undeserving of love and care, who is dangerous to others, and who can never change.
It goes without saying that I felt a strong connection with this game’s story and seeing Madeline’s development. The entire story is beautifully told not only through its writing, but also in its art style, its animation, and its breathtaking musical score. I’ve talked a lot about how I love games that can tell a story or immerse the player in its world through its gameplay, and Celeste is perhaps the most excellent example I’ve seen of this.
There isn’t actually a lot of dialogue throughout this game, but the story is told through its gameplay and visuals. Seeing Madeline leap across deep chasms while the strong surge of wind pushes her back speaks for itself about how determined she is, and how everything is being thrown at her. This is in addition to the art style just being beautiful to look at. And then there’s that absolutely awe inspiring soundtrack. Lena Raine did a phenomenal job on the music for this game. The music isn’t just pure bliss to the ears, but it enhances the raw emotion of this game to even greater heights. So many of these tracks will stick with you by the time the game is over with, and it’s hard to imagine this game without them.
So everything about this game has been superb up to this point, and I can say that the gameplay itself is as well… as long as you stick to the main story. Celeste is a challenging 2D platformer that has often been compared to the likes of Super Meat Boy or I Wanna Be the Guy. In short, it means you are going to die a lot, and the game will tally up every time you die in the game. Unlike those two games however, Celeste actively encourages the player to be proud of the progress they make and how they hone their skills as they continue through. This sets it apart from the dozens of by the numbers platformers made to emotionally wear down the player and frustrate them until they lose their mind.
That’s not to say that Celeste will not do that if you decide to attempt any of the game’s optional stages however. The initial eight chapters offer hard yet fair challenges that an experienced gamer can still feel satisfied with, while also pushing less experienced gamers to git gud enough to complete the base game. Given the highly emotional story, it is sure to make the game as rewarding as possible to those who stick through it to the end. Also there are unlimited lives and frequent check points, so you don’t need to worry about losing lots of progress (unless you are masochistic enough to go for the Golden Strawberries, which require a no death run to obtain).
This changes with the introduction of “B-side” stages, those being alternate variations of the initial eight chapters with the difficulty ramped up a fuckton. Some of these levels were fucking nightmarish in their difficulty, and I can’t say I had fun with them. What can I say? I just don’t think spending two hours on a stage that would be over in five minutes with no deaths is my idea of a good time. Thankfully there is an optional assist mode with various settings that make the game immensely easier, including one to outright make the player immune to deaths.
I can say that I have beaten every B-side stage without using this mechanic, and it was tiring as hell. And this is coming from someone who got all gold time relics in Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy. Your reward for beating all of these levels is to unlock the C-Side stages, levels that decide to take this game’s difficulty to even more ridiculous levels, and by “ridiculous,” I mean imagine I Wanna be the Guy taken up to eleven. I took one look at the first C-Side stage and instantly NOPED right the fuck out of it. I was so worn out at the time that assist mode didn’t even cross my mind, and I just looked up the remaining levels on Youtube.
And even after all that, the C-Side stages are not even the final challenge offered to the players. While D-Side stages are at least limited to fan mods for those with way too much free time on their hands, there is one final challenge in the form of the final DLC chapter “Farewell.” What is interesting about this level is that, unlike the B-side and C-side stages, Chapter 9 actually adds more of that beautiful and emotional storytelling to the mix, and it’s absolutely beautiful if the player makes their way through it the old fashioned way.
But the level design is absolutely insane, enough so that the mechanics required for the player to master would normally be limited to professional speedruns in most games. Any other developer would have considered these mechanics glitches, but here we have Maddy Thorson making them a required part of a professionally released product, thus ensuring that only a select few will see everything this game has to offer without using assist mode.
Celeste is certainly a unique case when it comes to games I’ve played. I technically only enjoyed about 1/3rd of the game’s content overall, but that 1/3rd made all the difference. Celeste is easily worth playing for the main story alone, as it’s not only fun, but there’s also the breathtaking atmosphere and emotion of it all. And as for the rest of the content, I wouldn’t even say that it’s badly designed or anything, it’s just very fucking hard.
If one keeps at these levels and pushes through until they beat them, then one will get better at the game over time and their skills will increase to the point that those first few chapters will become second nature to them. And there are a fair number of people who get attached to games and want to completely master them and clear everything the game throws at them. Celeste has more than enough to offer these people, and despite the absolutely absurd difficulty of these levels, I’m not surprised that some people are dedicated enough to play D-side mods.
As for myself, I have too much on my plate to spend that much time to master the game. Running a game review blog kinda requires that I’m not spending seven months mastering a single game after all. But Celeste is certainly more than worth a look at the very least, and maybe if you like what you see, you may just decide you need to climb this mountain for yourself.
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