Save for Rare’s Snake Rattle ‘n’ Roll and the eponymous diversion that was built into many mid-2000-era mobile phones, snakes rarely earn the role of game protagonist. Although unfriendly roles in everything from the Bible to Raiders of the Lost Arc likely haven’t helped their reputation, at least some of the software-based snubbing might stem from their system of movement. On the surface, slithering doesn’t seem to be a likely choice for a control system. After all, most platformers have bipedal leads, who are adept at running and jumping.
Which makes the recent release of Snake Pass such a remarkable effort. While the recent PlayStation, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC release apes the brightly hued aesthetics and effervescent charm of ‘90s hop-and-bops, an innovative input method provides distinction. Although Snake Pass isn’t without moments of frustration, it also provides a sense of playfulness, allowing players to slink around fifteen varied environments with carefree abandon. The terms ‘sandbox’ and ‘playground’ get thrown around often by public relation reps, but Snake Pass channels the elation of a recess period, when youth was spent swinging from money bars and jungle gyms.
Much of Snake Pass’ effectiveness is rooted in the simplicity and verisimilitude of the control scheme. Essentially, players pilot Noodle the Kingsnake’s head, while your body obediently follows. An in-game tutorial explains the basics, and before long you’ll learn that travelling in a straight line is the slowest path to your destination. Instead, you’ll learn to make serpentine motions, shifting back and forth across each playfield, mirroring the sharpened cadence of a gold-medal Olympic swimmer as your quickly skulk across the level.
Two buttons raise and lower Noodle’s skull, permitting the protagonist to move onto different elevations. And while Noodle can swim, he’s unable to slither up vertical walls. Instead, he must coil around environmental objects, wrapping his entire body around things like bamboo poles, lest gravity will get the best of our serpentine associate. For taller ladders, this meaning vigilantly threading Noodle around each rung, with players able to use a trigger button to exhibit a boa-like grip around the structure. Players can also call upon Doodle a hummingbird to lift your anterior. Unfortunately, he’s not strong enough to keep Noodle out of all binds.
Given the lack of adversaries and a liberal checkpointing system, controlling Noodle can be a lot of fun. While amassing the required number of keystones is easy enough to permit younger players to enjoy Snake Pass, those seeking loftier challenges won’t be at a loss. Beyond the aforementioned gems that unlock additional levels, there are also twenty blue wisps and five gold coins strewn about each level- the latter requiring serious snaking skills to collect. Given Noodle’s constrained control scheme, success in Snake Pass doesn’t usually occur by solving challenging puzzles, but through perseverance and cautious play. But once the platforms begin to become mechanized and perilous objects like spikes increase in number across the latter levels, the title becomes challenging enough to test skilled gamers.
And yes- infuriation will inevitably arise. A single errant move on a tall scaffolding is enough to send Noodle plummeting to the ground below, and often players can’t do anything to stop the decent. Things can also get wonky when the camera decides to block your view with excess foliage at the most inopportune times. With such a fundamentally different control scheme, tribulations are almost unavoidable. Fortunately, the only setback is time, so when Noodle falls into the great abyss, he’s spawned at your most recent checkpoint. On this upside, this encourages players to take risks. Often, you’ll climb to a lofty part of the stage and spot a blue wisp on the horizon- possibly close enough to launch Noodle careening toward the collectable, like a scene out of a Blue Planet episode. This moments represent Snake Pass at its best.
Employing the fourth iteration of the Unreal Engine, the title manages to channel the look of a Pixar film. Noodle has a perpetually derpy face, tongue resting on the side of his mouth, like a dog on a balmy summer day. Given a decent GPU, you’ll see faint scales and a hinting of glisten, without the type of sheen that would make him look plastic. Environments exhibit detail, whether it’s patches of grass with individual leaves or cobblestones with moss poking from between the cracks. Crank the quality up and you’ll be able to produce a sixty-frame-per second output on modest rigs, making the game feel just as slinky as its star. Snake Pass’ last bragging right comes via the David Wise-crafted soundtrack. Selections are as tuneful as an Ed Sheeran number, albeit with lighthearted flute and xylophone-based instrumentalization, making headphones or a solid sound system a prerequisite.
While a physics-based snake simulator sounds like it could be a convoluted mess, Snake Pass does many things right. The emphasis here is on discovery and navigation, and creating a setting that’s teeming with antagonist could have propelled the title in the wrong direction. While the lack of any Yoshi-style ingestion is missed, developer Sumo Digital wisely kept it simple, extending lush milieus that beg for exploration. For adopting that structure, Noodle gets an easy pass and an emphatic recommendation.
Snake Pass was played on the PC with review code provided by the publisher.
Platform: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Developers: Sumo Digital
Publisher: Sumo Digital
Release date: March 28th, 2017
Launch Price: $19.99 via Steam, PSN, XGS, and eShop