Snake Pass feels like an oddity, out of time and place.
That doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t exist, rather that it has taken aspects from the past – that video games have taken for granted – and brought them back. But unlike other games that look to the past, Snake Pass hasn’t held itself back as a result.
Sumo Digital have technically created a platformer, but that genre signifier does Snake Pass a disservice. Whilst it does contain the elements that are typical of the genre – especially those from the mid-90s to early 2000s: friendly faced animal protagonist with a small sidekick; necessary and optional collectables; lush and colourful worlds; and a pleasant soundtrack to back it all – Snake Pass is all about snake physics.
The loading screens (which are only when a level loads) occasionally reminds you to “think like a snake”, and it is possibly the best advice the game can give, after explaining the slightly unorthodox controls. The aim of Snake Pass is to collect three different coloured gems – because of narrative reasons – in each level to open the gate to the next level of a world.
Each world has a different theme – earth, water, fire, and wind – and contains three to four levels. Along the way are also optional collectable wisps and golden coins. These serve no purpose towards finishing the game, but they do provide players with an additional challenge if they want it; also, there are trophies/achievements associated with them of course.
At first many of these collectables (both required and optional) are easily obtained simply by exploring the level, but as the game progresses these get increasingly more challenging to pick up. This is where snake logic becomes essential.
Controlling Noodle the snake (who, fun fact, is vegetarian) takes some getting used to, which is quite unusual for a platformer, given how intuitive they need to be. To move forward requires holding down the right trigger, but this being a snake, it needs to move in an “s” shape to gain the momentum necessary to propel itself. This might sound arduous, or something that could have just been programmed for Noodle to do automatically, but it’s remarkably easy to adapt to, and the game wouldn’t work any other way.
Sumo Digital gives the player so much control over Noodle, including pressing ‘x’ (in the PS4 version) to move Noodle’s head upwards, and holding down the left trigger to tighten Noodle’s grip. This level of control is essential for traversing across the levels which increase in complexity as Noodle advances through the game. Even water areas are surprisingly easy to navigate because of the control afforded to the player. Basic puzzle mechanics are also in the game and can be found dotted throughout.
The real puzzle, though, is the environment itself, and only a snake can successfully wind its way through; with a little help from bird sidekick Doodle.
Each level is a combination of floating land masses, and it is the act of navigating between them that creates the necessary danger. With this danger also comes frustration, yet to the game’s credit, this is not the result of cheap level design nor poor controls. There are plenty of save points found in each level, and whilst there are times where another save point here and there might’ve helped, their absence does artificially add to the difficulty and result in more careful planning as to how to proceed.
Poor Noodle will die hundreds of times in Snake Pass (there are a couple of trophies/achievements with Metal Gear Solid inspired names tied to this to ease the pain) sending the player back to the last save point, minus any collectables since saving, but this just provides a new opportunity to try a different approach. Whilst there is an ‘intended’ approach across some of the structures, that is not the only approach, as sometimes a less risky – albeit more challenging – approach might be available to try after having failed to succeed with the ‘intended’ path.
This freedom extends to the overall progression of most levels as well. Three different gems are needed to complete each level, but in many of the levels, there is no set order in which to get them. This leaves it up the player to decide how they want to approach the level, allowing for more flexibility and freedom. It is always clear where each gem is – a beam of corresponding coloured light shines from them – but aside from that, the game doesn’t hold the player’s tail directing them where exactly to go. Plus, the collectables provide added incentive to explore and find hidden areas.
It can be reductive to merit the worth of a game based on its length, but Snake Pass doesn’t overstay its welcome. Its 15 levels, across four worlds, provide the perfect amount of time to get used to snake physics and enjoy what can be done with them in a creatively constructed environment. Finishing the game can be the end of it, but if you want to carry on, the game provides players with a new ability to ease the locating of any remaining collectables. Given the challenge that just obtaining these collectables can provide gives the game added depth for those that want it.
One final thing to keep in mind – in this climate of retro revivals – is that no one asked for Snake Pass. There wasn’t a crowdfunding campaign or public pressure; just some people at Sumo Digital who wanted to make a genuinely unique game about a snake called Noodle and his bird sidekick, Doodle.
It is reassuring that a game like this can still exist in the current video game market. Sumo Digital isn’t your stereotypical, small ‘indie’ dev (although they are independent), instead, they are comparable to the AA studios that used to be plentiful during the 90s, ones that would create popular titles on behalf of the larger publishers. Sumo is still carrying that torch, making titles using established IP for large publishers like Sony and Sega, and those games are necessary to keep the studio running, but it is great that in between they can find time to put their resources towards something familiar yet new.
Snake Pass takes the nostalgic aesthetics of 90s/00s platformers, but applied it to contemporary gameplay and presented it in a package that can appeal to all. Bright colourful worlds wait to be explored, and plenty of collectables are available to be devoured at whatever pace the player wants, if at all. Noodle’s plentiful deaths might become too much at times, but perseverance is its own reward, as Snake Pass gets its mechanics right in a satisfying way that negates an almost complete lack of story motivation. Snake Pass is a pure experience with a simple goal of providing innovative gameplay that increases in complexity without becoming overcomplicated nor succumbing to tediousness.
Plus, Noodle might just be the most cheerful snake in video games, contrasting that of the medium’s most famous Snake.
The temptation with Snake Pass might be throw the controller down in frustration and walk away, when faced with sheer befuddlement at the controls and the absurdity of wiggling Noodle around some tricky environments. But if you persevere with it – and you really should – you’ll find the gameplay ‘clicks’ surprisingly quickly. And once it does, Snake Pass is a thoroughly enjoyable riff on the retro 3D platformer, brought to life in charming style and with a genuinely innovative approach to traversal and problem solving.
PS4 version reviewed, code provided by Sumo Digital.