The mountain. Stronghold of the gods. The place where tablets of stone are handed out and memorable sermons are held. A timeless symbol of challenge, struggle, overcoming - and the clarity and insight that await those who make it to the top. Also known as "the Dark Souls of geology". Uphill, downhill. Whenever life is tough, and nothing works out the way we hoped for, hills and mountains seem to be in play - at least in Celeste. In this game, you must climb a mountain. Can you do it? Perhaps, but not without effort. Not without multiple defeats, continuous despair, frustrated table-smashing and countless detours to the abyss. What kind of mountain are you trying to climb, anyway? The one of stone, with snow on the top? Or the one hiding inside yourself, overwhelming and intimidating. All times of distress and struggle are, in a sense, a mountain climb.
Getting back down to earth, however, Celeste is a challenging platformer from the good folks behind the excellent and altogether chaotic TowerFall: Ascension. The developers seem to have a thing for stuff that goes up or down, and the pixelated graphics are clearly a continuation of their previous work. What's more is that the player character's height, weight and general feel should be immediately recognisable to fans of TowerFall. This time, however, there's no couch rivalry or friendship-breaking multiplayer, but Celeste instead offers a short but intense journey through hundreds of challenging platform sections.
The controls are incredibly simple. You can jump, climb on walls, and perform a short dash in one of the eight general directions. You can only hang on a wall for a short amount of time before falling, though, and the dash is only recharged by landing on solid ground. As such, the overarching challenge of the game, in broad strokes, is planning out the correct route through spikes, flames, and bottomless pits, and then executing said plan successfully. There are platformers where the rules are laxer, the goal vaguer, and the potential for player expression greater. In Celeste, however, there's usually only one right way to do things: it's all about observation, concentration, and precision.
That's not to say that the game is strictly linear, as here, as in other similar titles, the player moves through a series of semi-static area. Each screen comprises a separate and self-contained challenge, and when you die during a challenge you're not only revived immediately - you are also placed at the beginning of that particular challenge. In other words: you are never asked to successfully complete the same challenge twice. There's a sort of critical path that will take you closer to the summit, but there's usually plenty of opportunities for a detour in other directions in search of more challenges. The reward for such additional struggles is a series of sparkling strawberries. They serve no purpose other than to ensure bragging rights, however, other secrets are spread throughout the levels, including cassette tapes that unlock much more difficult "remixes" of standard levels.
It's a tough journey, all in all, with frequent failures and ensuing outbursts of anger. Celeste doesn't hold back, and your repeated death sentences are carried out without mercy. Some parts of the game even seemed too difficult, but were they really? We got through them, after all. More importantly, we never got stuck twice in a row. An excruciatingly difficult challenge is usually followed up by an easier one, so the momentum is never fully lost; after a spike in difficulty, a short plateau emerges. Then another spike. Like climbing a mountain. Maybe it's an expression of individual skill or sheer circumstance, but we suspect it to be a case of polished and well-balanced game design.