Snake Pass is a unique adventure that sets the foundation for a great potential franchise.
My journey with Snake Pass nearly came to its end in the first hour of my extremely rewarding seven-hour adventure. I could not get my snake protagonist, Noodle, to do even the most mundane tasks. Climbing even the smallest structures resulted in countless deaths, and I nearly walked away from the game entirely. But, just as I was about to accept $20 well wasted, the controls clicked and I found myself never wanting the journey to end. Snake Pass isn’t a perfect game by any means, but its unique gameplay, vibrant worlds, and excellent score have me dreaming of a sequel.
Name: Snake Pass
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch/PS4/Steam
Publisher: Sumo Digital
Developer: Sumo Digital
Release Date: March 28th, 2017
Gameplay: Think Like a Snake!
From the minute you pick up Snake Pass, it’s clear that traditional platforming concepts won’t help you collect the three keystones you need to advance to the next stage. Noodle can’t jump, for one, and there are no power-ups scattered about to make your life easier. You have to move like a snake to succeed, and that makes for an incredibly unique experience.
Snake Pass is at its best when you’re zipping through the intricate bamboo obstacle courses set-up throughout the game’s 15 stages. Maneuvering Noodle requires a lot of dexterity and skill, but, once you’ve mastered the controls, the result is thrilling. Whether Noodle is sliding up a boulder to reach a hard to snare collectible, or stretching its neck to grab a keystone, the moment-to-moment gameplay in Snake Pass is just straight fun.
Levels are sectioned off into four varied worlds. There’s nothing too creative here: a jungle, water, fire and sky world. But the gimmicks found in each world all add a unique challenge in their own way, and they never grow stale. The sky world introduces wind that can easily knock Noodle off course, while the water world adds swimming mechanics. Perhaps if these worlds were longer they would have grown boring, but each consists of just three or four levels.
In terms of level design, Snake Pass is a masterpiece. Throughout this six-hour adventure, you’ll find areas that seem genuinely impossible to complete. Once you figure out how to get through them, however, you’ll find it easy to replicate. Every challenge has a solution, and although the tools the game gives you to solve them are simple, they are tough to master and refine. Overcoming tough challenges made me a better Snake Pass player, and that in itself felt rewarding. Collectables are well hidden and genuinely tough to grab, and I loved revisiting old stages to search for what I missed. Every level has at least one really difficult item to find, adding replay value for perfectionists.
Most impressive is the perfect balance Sumo Digital has struck in allowing players to explore without having levels feel empty. There’s always a new challenge right in front of you in Snake Pass. You’ll never find yourself just slithering along the ground searching for something to do. The levels are compact, but still give players the freedom to explore wherever they want, whenever they want. In most stages, you can go after keystones in any order, although a logical path from point to point does generally exist. It’s the perfect balance of player freedom and guidance. Also helpful is the fact that keystones are big and glowing, so you’ll always know where your main objective is.
Still, in order to enjoy this game you have to develop an understanding of its controls. To pick up speed, Noodle must slither back and forth. That’s pretty simple, but climbing is another animal entirely. You can press A to lift Noodle’s head, placing it on ladder rungs, pillars, levers and more, and by pressing ZR his body will follow. While that may sound easy, putting the pieces together to scale cliffs, find hidden collectibles, and ultimately escape each stage can be very challenging. Until you get a handle on movement, you’ll constantly feel as though gravity is an enemy too fierce to topple.
It doesn’t help that the camera is far from ideal. Even once you get down the basic controls, the camera frequently adds unnecessary challenge. It can be difficult to see the next rung Noodle needs to reach at times, and maneuvering the camera with the right stick manually changes the direction you need to hold the left stick in order to stay on the bamboo rungs. The time it takes to recognize where you need to position the control stick very often gives gravity just enough time to mess up your weight distribution, which usually leads to death.
The good news there, however, is that death isn’t a big deal. Checkpoints are scattered throughout each of the stages. Throughout the first three worlds, all the challenging areas have checkpoints just in front of them, so you don’t have to go through repeat obstacles just to beat a stage very often. On the other hand, collectibles you find won’t be saved unless you hit a checkpoint. In a way, this makes sense. Part of the challenge in Snake Pass isn’t reaching a tough to find collectible, but getting back to solid land afterward. But sometimes I’d try to string together two or three tough areas without hitting a checkpoint, fail on the last one, and have to do the others again as well. It would be nice to have a few more checkpoints located near these tricky spots, especially because a lot of those deaths are the result of the camera shifting at the worst possible time.
It’s important to emphasize that, outside of the camera, the basic controls are actually really good once you get them down. But there is definitely a learning curve here that will be different for every player. Some of the people I’ve shown Snake Pass to picked them up in five minutes. For me, it took an hour. Staying patient and practicing on the early stages is the best way to get the movement down.
Those negatives aside, Snake Pass is one of the most rewarding games I’ve played moment-to-moment. Once you’ve got the controls figured out, the game is a sight to behold. Watching Noodle wrap around the top of a ladder, stretch his neck out to snag a collectible, then gracefully zip down the ladder is a wonderful experience. The game also lends itself to speed runs, and I could see a lot of players adding hours and hours to their gameplay clocks trying to set personal bests for a time.
Presentation: Eye-catching and Inviting
The world of Snake Pass is vibrant and colorful, and reminded me a lot of the classic 3D-Platformers. In particular, the worlds of Spyro, Donkey Kong 64 and Banjo-Kazooie sprang to mind several times throughout my journey with Noodle and his bird companion Doodle. Colorful visuals, a very animated character duo, and an excellent David Wise score harken back to the days of yore.
Wise’s soundtrack is great as always, and the music reminded me of Donkey Kong in more than just tone. The water world’s music might as well be called Aquatic Ambiance 2.0. The flute mixes things up a bit, but the overall groove just screams Donkey Kong. It’s one of my favorite tracks in the game and goes very well with the overall chill vibe the game exudes.
Perhaps the game’s greatest visual achievement, however, is how welcoming it is. I took my Switch into Philadelphia while playing Snake Pass and was stopped twice by people who wanted to get a look at the game. I let these people try the game for themselves and their responses were identical: “Wow… now, this is cool! I’ve never played anything like this!”
In terms of story, there really is none. Someone has closed the gates that connect the worlds and Noodle and Doodle must fix each gate. That’s pretty much it for the story, although the game does end on a cliffhanger that eludes to a greater threat.
Playing on Switch: Minor Performance Issues Don’t Overcome Convenience
I hesitate to even include this in my review, because it doesn’t effect my overall score for the game, but there were a few frame drops I experienced in my Snake Pass playthrough. The game never grinds to a halt, and the drops don’t effect gameplay at all, but they do appear. Unreal Engine 4’s impressive tech does help the Switch version hold up against the PS4 and PC versions of the game with a few minor graphical downgrades. Check out this article from Eurogamer for specifics.
Still, Snake Pass is the type of game that really benefits from portability. Its levels are short enough to be explored in brief 10-15 sessions, making it a perfect game for a train ride. Personally, I think this makes the Switch the best platform to play Snake Pass on, but the game is so good that any platform will do it justice.
Slithering to Greatness
Snake Pass is a one of a kind game from Sumo Digital. It’s atmosphere, control scheme, and well hidden collectables make it one of my biggest surprise games of 2017. A bad camera is the only significant complaint I have, although that is definitely a problem in a game like this. Still, those brief moments of frustration don’t change the fact that this is one heck of a game for just $20. There’s a lot of room for this concept to grow, and I look forward to more Noodle and Doodle adventures in the near future.