Celeste is the latest effort from Matt Makes Games, the team responsible for one of PS4's best multiplayer games, TowerFall Ascension. The bow and arrow brawling is well loved, in part because of the responsive and satisfying movement. Doubling down on the strength of TowerFall's platforming, Celeste is all about precisely hopping your way through treacherous gauntlets as you scale the titular mountain.
You play as Madeline, a girl determined to reach the summit, though you won't learn why until later on. Using her jump, mid-air dash, and ability to climb walls, you'll be traversing through seriously tricky environments. Occasionally we struggled with the dash; you can use it in any of eight directions, but there's a fine line between them, leading to some deaths caused by dashing the wrong way. Generally, though, the platforming is very smooth indeed, with very simple controls allowing you to learn the basics very quickly.
The moveset at your disposal may be small, but the developer has done an excellent job of creating levels that truly test your skills with a wide range of obstacles. Platforms that only move when you touch them, baddies that chase you down, and orbs that hurtle you across the screen are just a few elements that'll put you through your paces in unique ways. As soon as you best one set of hurdles, they're swapped out for fresh ones that keep you constantly learning.
The game is split into chapters, with small, intricate levels knitted together, keeping the action flowing from start to finish. The learning curve feels just right, too; by the time you reach the final stretch, you'll be very adept at jumping and dashing, but you'll always face a stiff challenge. The default difficulty is tough going, levels besting you dozens if not hundreds of times before you finally conquer the chapter. Thankfully, instant restarts mean you're thrown straight back in to try again, the game imparting that classic "one more go" mentality. There are one or two small difficulty spikes, but really, it all boils down to your own skill; death can be frustrating, but it rarely feels unfair.
If you are struggling, Celeste features an Assist Mode that allows you to turn on various modifiers. You can slow the game speed down, give Madeline infinite dashes, or even turn her invincible. It's a neat way of letting players of any skill level finish the game on whatever setting they like. This is a platformer in its purest form, but where the difficulty could've been intimidating for some, here you're able to circumvent a lot of the game's challenge.
Of course, if you take away the need to be skillful and precise, what's left? Well, Celeste is well worth playing through whether you use Assist Mode or not thanks to a wonderful story. We won't spoil anything here, but we get the feeling Madeline's journey will resonate with a lot of people. During her climb, she'll come across a few characters that will both help and hinder her; an evil doppelganger tries to sabotage your quest, and a fellow mountaineer named Theo crops up at various points to help Madeline out while struggling with his own demons. It's a very pleasant surprise to see a game like this tackle some sensitive subject matter, and to do so rather eloquently.
For many, the main draw will be the precision platforming action, and there's a good amount on offer here. The main story will take you a good few hours to play through, but each chapter is stuffed with secrets. Strawberries reside in hard-to-reach places, hidden rooms, and alternate paths, simply acting as a tantalising secondary challenge. There are also cassette tapes to collect that unlock B-Side versions of chapters, which are even more difficult than the regular levels, and plenty of other items and easter eggs squirrelled away for you to find.
Not only does Celeste play like TowerFall, it looks like its predecessor, too. The chunky pixel art is basic but lovely, and the end of each chapter sees some wonderful artwork adorn the screen. Performance is rock solid as well, with only one or two tiny hiccups at one of the game's more action-packed set pieces. The music, though, is gorgeous, mixing electronic melodies with mellow piano tracks that we never grew tired of hearing. Unfortunately, we did encounter a strange audio bug during one particular section of the game; the music and sound effects would stutter dramatically, overlapping each other into an almost unbearable cacophony. Hopefully this can be ironed out with a patch, as the audio presentation, as we've said, is otherwise excellent.
Celeste is a wonderful precision platformer that does far more than simply challenge your dexterity. While there's plenty of intense screen-hopping to enjoy, it's offset by a well-told, personal story that softens the hard edged gameplay with some great slower moments. What's more, you can enjoy the story even if you're struggling with the platforming using the Assist Mode to bend the game's difficulty to your liking. The action is super smooth (though we did have to battle with the dash on occasion), there are lots of secrets to uncover, and it looks and sounds great. Even with some rare bugs, fans of both a steep challenge and a heartfelt narrative will find a lot to like about Celeste.