No matter your taste in games, it would not be an overstatement to say that every year, we are inundated with a deluge of fantastic experiences. Overstatements abound, however, in the odes penned by marketing departments, aggrandizing their subject with claims of ground-breaking, innovative features that redefine a mechanic, a genre, nay, gaming itself! In reality, of course, as with any cultural expression, most games walk down well-trodden paths and offer only incremental improvements in familiar genres.
Occasionally, there comes a game that truly is novel. It may defy genres, or mix them in a new way. It may present a fresh take on a well-known genre by bring a new mechanic to the table, or by removing one of the genre’s central mechanics. Snake Pass is of the latter kind, being a 3D platformer where you’re a snake and must slither your way across obstacles and hazards, notably without being able to jump.
How do snakes move, again?
You’re playing as Noodle, a brightly colored, cartoonish snake in an equally brightly colored, cartoonish world. The basics of controlling Noodle is easy enough to grasp, though certainly easier if you try it yourself or see it in action. As the game teaches you during the first level, you use the left stick to point Noodle’s head in the X/Y plane, hold A to lift Noodle’s head up, let go of A to let gravity do its job and bring Noodle’s head down, and finally, you press the right trigger to make Noodle move in the direction he is facing. Well, the horizontal direction, at least; there’s a very short limit to how far Noodle can move vertically without any support. Additionally, though you only directly control the head, you have to consider the rest of the body, too, which can easily drag you down and make you fall if you’re not careful.
With the tutorial level over, the game mostly gets out of your way, leaving you to figure out for yourself how to use the basic controls to perform more complicated movement patterns required to traverse the challenges that await you. And challenges abound. The game’s 15 levels are full of obstacles (mostly of the woodey-climbey variety) and instant-kill hazards (most of the spikey-ouchey or falley-abyssey variety). At a minimum, in order to proceed to the next level, you must collect three Keystones (colorful, glowing, easy-to-find rocks). As with any 3D platformer, however, there are of course other collectibles: Each level has 20 blue orbs and five gold coins, which can present quite a challenge if you’re up for it. You are thus able to choose your own difficulty, as it were, by choosing whether to hunt for those elusive items that are either hard to find, hard to reach, or both.
Snake Pass is easily the most inventive game I’ve played in a while.1 It’s refreshing to try out a completely new mechanic, and Snake Pass certainly delivers in this regard. I can wholeheartedly recommend the game just for that experience alone. However, Snake Pass is by no means a perfect game.
Repeat ad nauseam
I would like to say that “Snake pass is a game that explores what it means to be a 3D platformer where you can’t jump”, or that “Snake pass explores the concept of moving and thinking like a snake”. The truth is, however, that Snake Pass doesn’t really explore all that much. Sure, the obstacles get more difficult as the game progresses, but they are still more or less of the same kind as in the first levels. With a few exceptions, densely spaced stationary bamboo sticks with “safety supports” located over solid ground gradually turn into sparsely spaced moving bamboo sticks with no safety supports located over a bottomless abyss.
All of this contributes to the game feeling a bit repetitive. If you have played the first handful of levels, you have seen most of what the game has to offer. The game continually gets more challenging after this, but rarely presents anything new. Add to this the fact that the levels generally look and feel very similar (even across the four different “worlds” or environment types), and you may end up throwing in the towel halfway, as I did.
Even the music gets repetitive. The soundtrack is composed by David Wise, of Donkey Kong fame.2 The tunes are bright and melodious, though on the simple side and certainly not able to hold a candle to the variety, complexity and energy of his previous compositions (e.g. in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze). Each level in Snake Pass generally takes from 15 to 60 minutes depending on your skill and how much you want to collect, and all four worlds in the same “environment” use the same song, meaning you’ll be hearing the same fairly simple background music loop for a couple of hours. I ended up getting so tired of the music that I played without audio – a first for me.
A bit on the tedious side
But perhaps worse than not living up to some imagined potential, the game is plagued by certain patience-testing mechanical and technical issues.
First and foremost is the game’s checkpoint-based save system. Each level has certain checkpoints you can slither over at any time to save your progress. If you die, you respawn at the last checkpoint you activated, with all the collectibles you had when you saved. This system is, unfortunately, a bit on the unforgiving side. You will fail a lot in Snake Pass, and it is annoying having to lose all your collected items since the last time you saved. It’s not that you lose that much progress, it’s more that when you die, you have to re-collect all the completely unrelated safe-but-cumbersome-and-boring stuff you picked up in the meantime, which isn’t challenging or rewarding, just tedious. As a result, I almost consistently avoided any risky collectible until I had slithered all the way back to the nearest checkpoint.
This backtracking exacerbates another problem, namely that slithering on the ground is slow and boring (as opposed to navigating obstacles, which is slow but challenging/rewarding). There are also some recurring puzzles that are simply just cumbersome instead of fun, such as pushing large balls through a kind of obstacle course and into holes.
On the technical side, the camera was often hard to control properly, particularly in tight spaces, leading to several completely avoidable deaths and retries.
And finally, if you’re the completionist type who spends a lot of time finding all orbs and coins in all levels as you go, you’ll probably be happy when you complete the final level and are awarded with… *drumroll* Snake Vision™, which makes it easier to go back and find all the orbs and coins you didn’t miss.
You may have noticed that this is a very critical review. That is intentional; Snake Pass is a very imperfect game, and there aren’t many games I have retired partway through. I found that Snake Pass got more difficult, but not more rewarding or fun. Your mileage may vary, of course.
Does this mean that I didn’t enjoy Snake Pass? No, certainly not. Again, it’s easily the most inventive game I’ve played in a while. I had great fun the first handful of levels, and have no problem recommending it to others just based on that. Heck, you may even enjoy the whole game. The novel mechanics and imaginative take on the 3D platformer alone makes Snake Pass worth experiencing.
Snake Pass is a very inventive game that unfortunately doesn’t explore its novelty all that much and quickly gets repetitive. I’d still recommend trying it out, though.