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Monday, September 23, 2019

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough: Celeste is a 2D Platformer with Heart

Title screen

Celeste released to pure critical acclaim, even being nominated for multiple “Game of the Year” awards in 2018. But on the surface Celeste looks like any other 2D platformer, so why did it get special treatment?

So many 2D platformers released today feel like they’ve missed the mark. They usually depend on unique one-note gameplay mechanics to get noticed without giving other parts of the game the polish or attention they need. Celeste avoids this mistake—its gameplay feels a bit subdued, just being a simple platformer where you can jump, dash, and climb. Celeste’s gameplay is well designed, though, and has a lot of hidden depth to it. But that’s not even the game’s greatest strength. Unlike most platformers, the most interesting part of Celeste is its story.

Celeste tells the tale of a young girl named Madeline who decides to climb Celeste Mountain. That is a straightforward plot premise, but much like the gameplay, it has a hidden and unexpected depth to it. As the story unfolds, you learn more about Madeline, mostly in her interactions with the other characters you meet on the mountain. In doing so, Celeste tackles relatively serious mental health issues like depression and anxiety, with Madeline being at the center of it all.

Opening Cutscene

But while depression is where Celeste derives most of its themes, it doesn’t allow that to make the game depressing. The game keeps a lighthearted tone throughout, highlighted by more emotional moments. The writing is witty and charming, making each member of the relatively small cast feeling wholly unique from each other.

Both Celeste’s gameplay and story are expertly designed to be deceivingly simple, with multiple layers of hidden depth behind them. This alone would be enough to make Celeste a good game, but what elevates it to be a great game is how the gameplay and story work together. Both add meaning to each other.

Celeste is a challenging game. While it’s not about pixel-perfect platforming (at least in the primary levels), you will see Madeline die more than you’d like too. This could easily cause frustration, but the game minimizes this using two methods. One is the checkpoint system (when you die you’re unlikely to lose more than 30 seconds of progress), which is complemented by the game’s lack of a lives system. Second is the gameplay’s ties to the story. Celeste focuses on Madeline coming to terms with her problems and overcoming them. It’s a nice parallel to the player overcoming the game’s difficulty and dying hundreds of times.

Gameplay

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