At the end of the first day of her attempt to climb Celeste mountain, Madeline sits down and lights a campfire. Flames crackling and sparks rising against the darkness, it’s a moment of respite in a world defined by relentless, delirious challenge. We’ve been here before, of course, but, even if the nod to Dark Souls isn’t intentional, it’s entirely appropriate. Celeste offers ingenious delights and gruelling punishment. To master it, even partially, is to feel like you’re really achieving something.
If the game’s beautiful pixel art characters and landscape don’t necessarily prepare you for the rigour that lies ahead, the lineage should. Celeste is from the creators of Towerfall, but while that game puts glorious platforming at the service of the single-screen party battler, creating a world where precision can look very similar to chaos (and vice versa), Celeste spins it out into a grand single-player adventure perfect for speedrunners. Madeline, battling demons that will probably be entirely familiar to many players, wants to climb a mysterious mountain. Between her and the summit lie ruined cities, ghostly hotels, jungles of glinting poisonous glass, mirror shrines, valleys beset by stormwinds and much more. She has no ropes or pitons or ice hammers, merely a decent jump, the ability to climb most surfaces, and a multi-directional air dash. That first level – the one that leads to that campfire – twists these elements together in exhausting, exhilarating ways. The game’s remaining levels – and there are more of them than you might expect – subvert all expectations.
Even when Celeste is playing things straight it’s a wonderfully challenging proposition. A platform will start to move when you jump onto it. Moments later, a gap will seem uncrossable until you realise that you can hurl yourself further if you use the moving platform’s momentum to provide an extra shove. Carefully placed gems allow you to refresh your air dash without first hitting the ground. Pretty soon you are chaining moves together so confidently – or with the wild abandon encouraged by the fact that the game saves your progress at the start of each screen and offers endless restarts – that someone peering over your shoulder might think Celeste is a game about flying between platforms rather than jumping.
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