Written and uploaded by Drew Beyer // Edited by Andrew Busch // All images from Snake-Pass.com
I’m not very good at being a snake. I add this to the ever-growing list of strange life lessons I’ve from gleaned from video games thanks to Snake Pass, a recent indie title. I’m not entirely sure what to do with this information, but I’m glad I have it. Thanks, Sumo Digital!
On paper, Snake Pass reads like a game designed for me. It features a bright, cartoony world, deliberately evoking Rare games of the mid-nineties like my beloved Banjo-Kazooie. You control a adorable little snake named Noodle, and snakes are one of my favorite animals. Finally, the game bills itself as a platformer, a dying breed these days, which I consider a personal tragedy as a huge fan of platformers.
However, after slithering my way through all of 15 of Snake Pass’s levels, I think the game lied to me. I don’t consider it a platfomer so much as a puzzle game. Specifically, Snake Pass is my favorite kind of puzzle game, in which the entire game is in and of itself a puzzle. Instead of presenting you with a series of static logic puzzles in the vein of Professor Layton or similar games, Snake Pass challenges you to conquer the far more organic puzzle of figuring out how to reach all the various items in each sprawling level with the limitations of a snake. The controls remind me of Octodad, in that they’re incredible frustrating at first because they operate on snake logic instead of game or even real world logic. I applaud Sumo Digital for giving us a true puzzle game, even if the result isn’t quite as perfect as I hoped it would be.
It’s hard to explain what makes Snake Pass hard yet satisfying to play. Basically, you only control Noodle’s head and must manipulate the rest of your body through a combination of lifting and lowering your head, controlling your forward and side-to-side motion, and tightening and loosing your grip. The system takes some getting used to, but it works. Mostly. The physics can be inconsistent, which certainly complicates an already difficult game. It’s also not for everyone, because part of training your brain to think like a snake involves copious failure.
Make no mistake, as cutesy as the world of Haven Tor might appear at first glance, don’t be fooled. Look at Noodle. What do you see? Red on yellow. Remember your childhood snake rhymes? Kill a fellow. You’re going to die in Snake Pass, you’re going to die often, and it’s usually going to be your fault. Luckily, the game understands that you’re used to having legs, so it introduces elements slowly enough so as to not overwhelm the player. Each of the four worlds introduces a major elemental mechanic as a hazard, so there’s a tangible sense of progression as the levels get more deadly and more spiraling. The difficult of the levels meshes well with the difficulty of the controls themselves. The game rewards you for getting better at being a snake by giving you bigger, more complex playgrounds in which to flex your muscles.
In addition to a jump button, there’s another major video game trope missing from Snake Pass– enemies. All of the obstacles in Snake Pass are maneuvering challenges, which makes sense given the whole “teaching the player to think like a snake takes time” thing. The game might be relaxing if it weren’t so hard to move around as a snake. The lack of enemies does mean the game ends on a bit of an anticlimax- there’s no awesome boss waiting at the end of it all, no ultimate test of all the skills you’ve accrued, just time trials for all the stages you’ve already beaten. I don’t regret spending the $20, because it’s much longer than it looks due to how much time you’ll spend dying, but there’s not a whole lot of content here.
There’s also no real story to speak of. The game offers an excuse plot about stolen stones and magical gates, but it’s not really important. It’s also never intrusive, so the narrative is neither a good or a bad thing, just a thing. The stories you remember from Snake Pass, will be your personal stories of success and failure, not what Sumo Digital presents to you.
On the aesthetic front, as I said the game unfolds across four main worlds, which are pleasantly realized through Unreal Engine 4, although there’s not a tremendous amount of variety on display. While the game looks great and runs well, the graphics are pretty same-y throughout. All fifteen levels basically play out across a series of floating islands with different color palettes and a variety of specific hazards. Those islands have a vaguely tribal theme, but there’s mostly verdant grassland. There’s definitely room to branch out, especially sticking to the snake conceit- snakes have adapted to glide between treetops, slither through dunes, all sorts of things. I hope that Snake Pass 2 brings some new biomes to slither around in, like deserts, swamps, or rainforests.
Noodle, on the other hand, needs no improvement. The little guy is absolutely bursting with personality, from the grunts he makes as you guide him through obstacles to the faces he makes as he’s falling off the world or collecting an item. He’s too adorable. It makes me feel bad for throwing him off so many cliffs, impaling him on so many spikes, and dropping him into so many pits of lava. Sorry, little guy. You deserve better than me.
So in conclusion, Snake Pass oozes charm and challenge while channeling the early Rare aesthetic just as the Yooka-Laylee hype train reaches terminal velocity. I definitely think it’s worth your time, even if it’s just to experience what it’s like to be a snake. Sumo Digital builds a great foundation here, and I’ll definitely be keeping my eye out for the sequel.
Buy, Borrow, Pass:
Buy this game if: You want to know what it’s like to be a snake, you’re interested in puzzle games in which the game is the puzzle, you really want something else to play on the Switch.
Borrow this game if: You’re not sold on the idea of inherently difficult controls, you’re not sure one good game idea can sustain an entire game.
Pass on this game if: You’re easily frustrated or obviously if you have a crippling phobia of snakes.