Snake Pass review
There’s always something to be said for games that test your mettle.
Typically, that’s reserved for the likes of Dark Souls, the outrageous Turbo Tunnel in Battletoads, and of course Ghosts ‘n Goblins. It’s not a badge of honour you’d normally level at games within the platformer genre. But, surprisingly, Sumo Digital’s latest offering, Snake Pass, very much fits that billing – more so than you’d initially think. For a game that’s ostensibly happy-go-lucky and has a light story revolving around an intruder who’s wreaking havoc on the residents of Harmony Foothills, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Snake Pass would be your consummate walk in the park. Or slither, rather.
Underneath the game’s fresh-faced, care-free exterior lies a deceptively tricky puzzler that commands an adept understanding of physics relative to a snake’s body. You see, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill platformer with a standardized set of controls – instead, you play as Noodle, our fretful serpent, in absolution. Using the left analogue stick for movement and R2 for acceleration, you must mimic a snake’s wavy motion in order to pick up speed and move around; wrapping yourself up and scaling a bamboo shoot in order to get to higher ground, all the while being conscious of your entire body and the coiled distribution of its weight.
You know, snake physics aren’t something you’d typically care to consider but when there’s also a hummingbird companion named ‘Doodle’ who can lift up your tail at a moment’s notice it’s perhaps best to just roll with the punches, or boulders as is the case in Snake Pass. And that’s the key factor in play at all times with the game’s moment-to-moment gameplay: a mesmeric go-with-the-flow quality that permeates the majority of the experience as you slither from side to side gathering speed; a languid slalom that manages to lull you into a peaceful state when all the mechanics click and sync slightly with the beautiful music. In fact, it almost lulls you into a false sense of security that’s then abruptly interrupted by some of the more challenging obstacles from the second world onward.
Make no mistake, there is bit of a difficulty curve at play here beyond the first four levels (there’s fifteen in total of varying length – the main task of which is to collect three coloured gemstones to open a portal) – especially if you’re looking to pick up everything, including the elusive five-piece Gatekeeper gold coin set housed within each level. In some of the more demanding areas – where the precarity of your bamboo plant traversal is punctuated by molten lava, bottomless pits, and egregious gusts of wind to name but a few – the verticality and scaling can become a little finicky and you may find yourself dying quite a lot. Checkpoints are plentiful, sure, and well-placed the majority of the time, but when you’re faced with an ascent that’s split into three sections all contingent on your aptitude in a sort of be-all and end-all fashion, it can become quite frustrating to fall at the last hurdle and have to start again. Worse still, Noodle gets decidedly more anxious the higher up he gets – it can’t be good for his little heart or sanity, surely.
Given the delicacy of the controls, Snake Pass’ camera can become a little bit of a nuisance in close quarters, too, especially if you’re trying to collect one of the game’s trinkets below the surface of a level. For the most part it’s absolutely fine, mind – with the sort of free-roaming range you’ll come to need once you have to negotiate a particularly tricky expanse. Nevertheless – and to circle back for a moment – it’s the game’s rather unforgiving mechanics that could prove troublesome for a number of players. It’s funny actually, you could be plugging away at a particularly tough section for a period of time – clamouring towards an extended pole as you can hear Noodle’s audible trepidation, for instance – all the while your patience is running thin, to the point where you actually want to take a break for a while.
And then, you’ll do it. Your mood shifts – you’ll take a breath, recalibrate and refocus and then catch wind of a musical loop in the song of the level, and you’ll find yourself smiling: your head bobbing away all of that frustration. What was the big deal anyway? It’s this sort of juxtaposition that makes Snake Pass feel special in many ways, though it is odd to consider a mood shift borne out of complete frustration as an actual positive at the end of the day. It does have a lot to do with the soundtrack to the game in fact – created by David Wise, the mind behind the music of Donkey Kong Country and Battletoads, it really is positively wonderful. An ambient, catchy pan flute-inspired collection that conveys the colourful nonchalance at the heart of Snake Pass perfectly. Wise’s present-day scores always seem to evoke the halcyon days of developer Rare at its peak and the music for Sumo Digital’s first independent title is no exception.
Though Snake Pass’ music is a triumph, its controls tout and unwieldy, and its world richly awash with vibrancy and detail, it’s the narrative that feels a little under-served throughout. Despite its eventual pay off landing surprisingly nicely, the game could’ve really benefited from some NPC interaction in spots, perhaps to break up some of the more taxing segments, though there is a story explanation as to why that’s not the case. You do still get spates of dialogue towards the end of a world’s levels but a little more exposition could’ve lent more weight to the disturbances within the land of Haven Tor.
Aside from some niggling pitfalls – many of which will be mitigated or exacerbated by your level of patience – Snake Pass is a success; a delightful throwback to the classic puzzle platformer of yonder that levels a keen eye on trying to expand modern control sensibility. It’s a commendable effort that will undoubtedly frustrate some, but it’s the charm and serpentine serenity of Noodle, and of course his partner Doodle, that will undoubtedly win out the day for most.