Celeste (Switch) review
"The only problem with Celeste is Celeste itself"
Hoo boy... The story of Celeste is a metaphor for depression. And to be frank, that put me off the game for quite some time. Look, if that's your thing, good for you, but personally I neither need nor desire for any story more complex than "turtle kidnaps princess" to get in the way of my pure platforming bliss. And I feared that, with all the younguns out there who love talking about mental illness, the overwhelming critical praise this game has is primarily due to this story rather than the game itself. But I can look past any impact that may have, and review Celeste on the platforming in the game alone.
Actually, screw that. It's rant time.
See, the major problem with this game is that the desire to tell a story conflicts with the structure of the game itself. Celeste is a platformer focused on challenging, precision-based gameplay a la Super Meat Boy. Each screen is filled with spikes and pits and other novelties, and you are expected to die multiple times on each screen as you muddle your way through the obstacles. Thus, checkpoints are extremely generous, and gameplay essentially becomes a set of discrete challenges to overcome one by one. This is in contrast to a more relaxed platformer like Mario (in which the entire level is meant to be a seamless experience of several smaller obstacles) or more atmospheric platformers (like most Metroidvanias) where exploring the entire world as a whole is the goal. There's a reason many of these precision platformers, like Slime San or N++, are essentially just a set of 100+ levels rather than a cohesive world. Because the obstacles in front of you are so challenging, all of your energy and focus is on completing those obstacles. You don't have the time or brainpower to think about what came before or anticipating what comes next.
And yet that is exactly what Celeste tries to do. Rather than several discrete stages, it is broken up into 7 chapters (initially), many of which can take over an hour to complete. Fine, there are mid-chapter checkpoints if you save, quit, and return, but honestly they aren't clearly marked and I didn't realize it until several chapters in. This means that each chapter feels grueling to play the first time, as you have no idea how far you are and still have to go. That may be fine in most games, but again, you are 100% focused on the moment-to-moment action. Everything else is a blur; with the challenge in front of you, you don't care about any cohesion or reaching a specific milestone. You just need to get past this one. And so eventually, you start dreading new screens when you've been on a chapter too long and just want it to end so you can get to a good stopping point. The purpose of having these large chapters is supposedly to create a narrative, cohesive feel, but that is the exact opposite of the experience when you actually play! If their plan was to marry the Meatboy-esque challenge to an atmospheric, story and emotion driven platformer, it failed. It's a marriage that is simply doomed from the start by being incompatible.
But it gets worse, because the game ALSO wants to be exploration based. There are side screens to pick up optional strawberries (the main collectible), and each chapter includes two secret items that are required to unlock post-game stuff. But again, all of your energy is on the moment-to-moment challenges; you aren't thinking of the structure or layout of the level. One chapter requires you to move backwards through several screens you already went through to get one of these secrets; are you really going to remember that? Even worse, another one requires you to exploit what at first glance appears to be a programming oversight that you would never need in the entire game! Why would you even think to experiment like that when it would never ever come up in the challenges laid out in front of you? And naturally, you are sometimes faced with a choice of two seemingly equal paths. But you have no idea which is the path to completing the level and which is the path to the collectible until you already pass the platforming challenge, meaning it is essentially a 50/50 chance of discovering the item. And, of course, because these chapters are so long and you are not focusing on the structure of the level but rather the individual challenges, you probably won't remember which direction you went the first time around if you have to go back and pick up the item you missed. There is a reason why the moment-to-moment challenges in exploration-based games are usually pretty light or easy to bypass - it is to encourage exploration and to keep backtracking from being frustrating. And again, the complete opposite is happening here.
This attempt at a narrative structure also hurts the flow of the game as well. Normally, you have steadily increasing challenge. But here, as each chapter is based around a theme, the challenge is not always consistent. One of the later chapters is a dark and spooky place, but the emphasis on atmosphere and slowly lighting up your way does not mesh with platforming challenges. Which just meant the level was either boring or frustrating in trying to find your way rather than the interesting platforming you are expecting or even the atmospheric feel the developer was aiming for. But the worst aspect, honestly, is the ending. The last level is obviously supposed to be a final test, the most challenging location of the bunch, where you must put all of your skills to the test, right? Well, the first half is kind of a stripped down version of that, I suppose. But the last half is... pitifully easy. Almost easier than the first chapter. I suppose the narrative purpose is that your character has overcome her demons or whatever and thus can progress, but it left me feeling hollow. For a narrative in which reaching the peak is supposed to be a huge accomplishment, it ended up being an afterthought.
Oh yeah, and the story is lame too. It's the worst type of Saturday Morning Cartoon Very Special Episode, a trite, glurge-filled exposition. Hey, maybe you'll disagree, and maybe my annoyance was magnified by the other issues, but it wasn't even worth the compromises the game made for it!
Fine, rant over. And review basically over too because, well, other than the structure, it actually is a very good game, just as you have heard. Your moveset - jump, mid-air dash in 8 directions, and wall climbing - feels fun, and you'll get the hang of it soon enough. There are plenty of environmental objects to enhance your moves, often giving you huge momentum boosts or, more importantly, resetting your dash. Thus, later levels are more about hitting the next dash reset item while over a giant pit, leading to lengthy sequences of jump-dash-dash-dash-dash. The momentum boosts take some time to get the hang of, but are usually compensated by not having to get it perfectly right, leading to the possibility of last-second course corrections to reach the end that feel quite satisfying to pull off. I can't say that I've played a ton of these precision platformers, but the moment-to-moment platforming in this one is probably the best of the ones I've played.
And I will give them credit that the more experimental nature did allow for a few nice aspects. For one, the structure allows for a feeling of accomplishment - ie, beating the game - while still allowing for insanely hard levels. If it's just 300 levels in a row or whatever, you end up playing until you hit a wall, get frustrated, and quit. But the main story levels are challenging but still within reason, allowing you to at least complete that. Meanwhile, the far more brutal B Sides (and C sides) await you if you want more. Likewise, the freeform level design means that the developers are free to mix things up. Sometimes it's the traditional single screen of pain that you have to make across, other areas are a marathon of continual jumps with no areas to rest. It allows for more freedom of level design, and helps mix things up so that you aren't always performing the same maneuvers. So despite my rant, there was still some good that came out of this approach.
But what little good there was didn't outweigh the flaws, and this marriage made in hell should have been annulled. I realize that this is an excessively negative review of what is, on the whole, a very strong game. But that's because I felt perpetual frustration at all these decisions surrounding my playthrough of what should have been a fantastic platformer. When I was focusing on playing the game itself, on the particular challenges in front of me, I was having a grand old time. But every time I pulled away, or every time the game flipped the script, I wished it was something different. I wished I could enjoy the game and the game alone, instead of having to put up with a dumb story and wondering if I'm heading in the right direction or just wishing the chapter would end. I still enjoyed it for what it was, but it just made the mountain that much more difficult to climb.
Featured community review by mariner (June 02, 2021)
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