Saturday, March 28, 2020

Celeste (PS4)

In the mid-2010s, Maddy Thorson (nee Matt Thorson) and Noel Berry developed Celeste, aka Celeste Classic, in a four-day game jam for the Pico-8 fantasy console. The game’s popularity, enough to become one of the most popular games on the Pico-8, was enough to justify developing it into a full game with over 200 screens across eight Chapters (as opposed to the original’s 30 screens). This version of the game released in 2018 to rave reviews, with critics calling it one of the year’s top games. After hearing all the praise, I was one of those who decided to go for a physical copy through Limited Run Games, only to wait several months for the DLC Chapter, Farewell, to release so the discs could finally be printed and shipped. Soon after I got my copy, I found the opportunity to play it and persisted through a difficult, but rewarding experience.

A young woman named Madeline begins climbing Celeste Mountain, ignoring a warning from an old woman. Along the way, she meets another traveler, Theo, and must battle against obstacles intent to stop her, both natural and mental, including a physical manifestation of her own anxiety.

The story is fairly minimal, as Celeste puts a greater emphasis on its gameplay, but I appreciated what was there. It’s well-paced and is enough to provide context for Madeline’s quest and make the characters and plot memorable, while also not getting too much in the way. Everyone is well-written and the game tackles the issue of anxiety in a way that I hadn’t seen in a game before, even creating an interactive event out of it at least once.

Madeline feels anxiety during her climb.

Of course, the main meat of Celeste is its gameplay, which is also very strong. The game is a platformer that centers around one main mechanic, Dashing, and pushes it to its absolute limit. Every screen is built around exploiting some aspect of this mechanic in way or another, so the player is kept constantly on their toes and consistently presented with new challenges that test them in new ways. An important rule of Dashing is that Madeline can normally only use it once at a time, represented by her change in hair color, and can only replenish it by touching the ground, collecting a diamond in midair or transitioning between screens. Naturally, a good percentage of screens exploit this aspect of the mechanic, as well as Madeline’s ability to jump and climb. Along the way, the player can also pick up advanced techniques like Wavedashing and Wallbouncing.

Celeste is divided into eight Chapters, each presenting a unique gimmick to further push the player’s abilities and help them stand apart from each other. It starts off simple with platforms that act like conveyor belts, but later gets more complicated with continuous gusts of wind and monsters that relentlessly pursue you and attack on sight. Similarly, the various obstacles Madeline has to overcome go from spikes and springs to bubbles that alter your trajectory and locks with keys.

Wind is a prominent gimmick in one Chapter.

The most notable aspect of this game, however, is its difficulty. Though it starts somewhat easy, Celeste gets increasingly difficult the higher you climb up the mountain, often comparable to Super Meat Boy. Apart from the complexity of the level design, part of the difficulty comes from the sheer number of screens. When you die, which happens very frequently, the game tries to mitigate frustration by allowing you to start over at the last checkpoint within one or two seconds. While I appreciate this feature, some of the screens are comparatively lengthy and can require long combos that need to be done in one go with twitch reflexes. When you do finally get past a particularly difficult screen, however, you feel a huge sense of accomplishment that drives you to continue. Celeste also keeps track of your death count, but encourages you to take pride in it, as it means you’re learning.

It gets harder from here.

While Celeste is difficult, it also offers an Assist Mode, designed for players who can’t keep up. The options in this mode, which can be accessed at any time, include Infinite Stamina, Invincibility, Dash Assist and altering the number of Air Dashes Madeline can perform. I don’t have experience with this mode, however, since using it permanently places a small stamp with blue wings on your save file. I did consider using it at times, but since I didn’t want a permanent mark of shame on my save file, I felt motivated to persist with the normal difficulty level and eventually beat the game.

Of course, if you’re a glutton for punishment, Celeste offers some additional challenges to really push your skills. On some screens, you’ll find a Strawberry. To collect it, you’ll need to navigate through traps, which require a higher than normal amount of skill, and carry it with you until you can touch solid ground. Sometimes the Strawberry will be a Winged Strawberry, which flies away as soon as you Dash. Collecting Strawberries increases your score and doesn’t unlock anything, but it does change the ending (there are no bad endings).

Some hidden screens, which feature a unique challenge involving alternating platforms, will also allow you to collect a Cassette Tape. This unlocks that Chapter’s B-Side, a more challenging version of that Chapter with fewer screens and 8-bit remixes of the game’s music. If you’re skilled enough to find and complete every B-Side, you’ll unlock C-Sides, which are even more challenging.

Cassettes add additional challenge and replay value.

The player can also collect Crystal Hearts, which are found in hidden screens through accomplishing certain feats and then obtained by Dashing through them. Completing B- and C-Sides will also respectively unlock red and gold Crystal Hearts. While collecting these seems innocuous at first, they are also required to access Chapter 8, including its B- and C-Sides, as well as the second half of Chapter 9. If you’re a completionist, then you’ve got a lot of sore hands ahead of you.

If that wasn’t enough, however, there Golden Strawberries, which appear once the player has completed Chapter 8’s B-Side. Touching the Golden Strawberry at the start of the Chapter will make it follow the player for the duration, but dying even once will make it disappear. This means that in order to actually collect it, you’ll have to complete a perfect run of the entire Chapter.

If that still isn’t enough, completing Chapter 8’s C-Side will unlock Variant Mode. This mode operates similarly to Assist Mode, but also allows the player to tweak the difficulty level even further, including, but not limited to, altering the game speed, 360 Dashes, No Grabbing and Super Dashing.

As an added bonus, the player can find a hidden room containing the original Pico-8 version of Celeste in its entirety. Finding this room is easy, but actually getting to it requires the player to backtrack at a certain point in Chapter 3 rather than exit a certain room the normal way. Once the player finds and plays this version of Celeste, however, it will permanently unlock it as an option in the main menu so you can play it whenever you want.

While I did find Celeste an overall rewarding experience, I’ll admit that there were some annoyances I couldn’t really ignore. One level introduces a gimmick where touching a feather turns Madeline into a comet-like object that the player can freely control until either the time runs out or they initiate a Dash. Controlling Madeline in this state takes a little getting used to, but it’s always a bit touchy, which can unintentionally cause the player to die and start the screen all over again.

Some specific screens are also an absolute pain to get through. Sometimes its due to how the level is constructed, but Chapter 8 includes a gimmick where the stage can switch between fire and ice at the flick of a switch, altering behaviors of several objects as well. Since this Chapter also has constantly moving fire/ice balls, it’s also generally based more around timing than any other Chapter in the game. The timing can actually be so tight, in fact, that you need to start moving in a specific way the exact moment the screen starts or else you might as well die, especially when advancing walls of fire/ice are involved. This came to a head near the end of the Chapter, where an advancing fire/ice wall and elaborate level design with strict timing forced me to adapt on the fly and learn the muscle memory entirely through dying. I must have died at least a couple hundred times before finally reaching the end of the screen.

Not the screen I got stuck on, but a sign of what to expect in Chapter 8.

What didn’t help me on that screen, and a few others, is that the game doesn’t explain certain concepts very well. Either you have to go to B- and C-Sides to formally learn advanced techniques or you have to look up certain quirks that aren’t inherently apparent. In the context of that specific screen, for instance, I had to look up the fact that you can increase your jump height off an ice ball by holding down the jump button.

The biggest annoyance for me, however, was the final boss fight. While other bosses were appropriately challenging, this one was just draining. You have to do some increasingly difficult platforming that’s already hard enough without having lasers or orbs fired in your direction, but then it just never seems to end. There’s no indication, unless you look up a map, of how many screens you’ve already gone through and how many were left. I’d feel differently about this boss, maybe even found it awesome, if it at least had tighter pacing.

Other bosses, however, feel challenging enough.

Now, I feel like I should address here that while my copy of the game did come with the Chapter 9 DLC on the disc, I didn’t end up playing it, at least not very much. Although completing all the A-Sides of the game is enough to access it, the level of skill required to get through Chapter 9 assumes that you’ve at least completed the B-Sides of the previous Chapters (in fact, the developer had originally considered locking access to Chapter 9 behind all the C-Sides). On top of that, I learned that accessing the second half of the Chapter required me to have already collected 15 Crystal Hearts, which would necessitate a lot of extra work that I knew I didn’t have the time or patience to commit to. Maybe one day I’ll attempt to get through it, but for now I’ll be content with watching it.

Outside of the technical aspects, I really liked the art style of the game. The retro graphical style captures the spirit of the original Pico-8 version while updating it to feel livelier and more colorful with more detailed sprites. Traditional artwork is also used to liven up dialogue boxes and help transition between Chapters. This artwork has an attractive art style that suits the tone of the game very well while also allowing the characters the chance to properly emote.

The music by Lena Raine is also very fitting for the tone and style of Celeste. There’s a good amount of variety in the score, as the tracks are appropriate to both the Chapter and situation. I don’t really have any complaints there, as it’s simply fantastic. I do, however, have an odd note about the vocalizations. Sounds, rather than full voice acting, are used to indicate speech, choosing also to follow the Banjo-Kazooie style where it’s multiple sounds spliced together (as opposed to Undertale, which repeats the same sound). Normally, this specific style would get on my nerves, but I appreciate that Celeste also managed to use it to convey different tones, emotions and vocal ticks.

Celeste is a retro-styled platformer done right. The story and characters are engaging and memorable, the score is well-composed and the gameplay is finely crafted. There are some annoyances, of course, but the difficulty is still mostly fair enough that you feel rewarded for your persistence. If you’re a fan of challenging platformers, you’ll find plenty to like about Celeste.

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