Playing a 3D platformer without a jump button is a strange experience. When I first started Snake Pass, I felt lost without the warm blanket of a double jump. How do I get to that floating platform across the chasm? How am I supposed to change direction after I screw up my initial movement? And just how am I to obtain that arbitrary hard-to-reach shiny collectible?!
Answering these questions is easy once you realize that Snake Pass requires you to not only move like a snake, but think like a snake. Initially, I struggled to adapt to my lack of legs (I’ve grown quite attached to my limbs, you see): falling from the top of high peaks, slithering straight off rocky cliffs, and slamming into walls were sights seen far too often–making much of the mid-game more frustrating than enjoyable. But somehow, things clicked, and slinking up a pole to reach an objective became a natural and strangely beautiful movement, and one that distinguishes Snake Pass as a platformer like no other.
You play as Noodle, a vegetarian snake, joined by Doodle, your hummingbird companion. Like Yooka-Laylee, Snake Pass has clearly been inspired by late 90s platformers such as Banjo-Kazooie, but rather than simply retread what has come before, its central mechanic aims to innovate. Unfortunately, while Noodle and Doodle have cute names and appear full of character, their voices and personalities–or lack thereof–don’t quite have the charm of the aforementioned Rare mascots or other popular mascot creatures.
The joy, then, must come from Snake Pass’s mechanics. Make no mistake, this is a game about momentum, and about ‘feel;’ about how well developer Sumo Digital can translate being a serpent onto a gamepad. Initially, this is taught well, with easier obstacles and smaller enclosures allowing you to get to grips with your new boa constrictor body. You’re afforded the time and a safe environment to learn how to wrap your body around poles, how to accelerate across flat ground (you actually have to move side-to-side), and how to successfully climb upwards. Unfortunately, the mid-game’s difficulty curve is steep. There are no enemies in Snake Pass, but each of the game’s four main worlds introduces new fatal, obstacles; ravines, spikes, lava, and more stand between you and three keystones, which you need to collect to open the exit portal in each level. At this stage, you’re still acclimatizing to life on no feet, and yet Snake Pass expects you to run before you can wriggle.
There are other problems, too. Your airborne friend Doodle is supposed to be able to pick up your tail end to give you an upwards boost, but he’ll frequently refuse to help when called upon. I now have a mild hatred towards hummingbirds as a result.
The camera’s positioning is also an issue, as it often picks the wrong angle to show you as you’re attempting to curl yourself around the next piece of connective bamboo. Far too often you’ll need to manually move your viewpoint, and combined with the separate buttons for forward movement, lateral movement, vertical movement, and gripping, all of which are frequently being pushed at the same time, it can feel like you’re tying yourself in a knot.
However, when your serpentine abilities catch up with the difficulty curve a little further in, Snake Pass transforms. You learn which movements to pull off to stay wrapped around a peg–when to tighten your muscles, when to lift your head up, and when to realize the game is up and it’s best to skip to the next moving platform. As you improve, the momentum you build in gliding up and over obstacles can lead to some wonderful sights–there’s something instinctively satisfying about seeing a snake’s tail chase after its head, especially knowing you were the choreographer. And that’s helped by the vibrant character and environment art, the latter of which accentuates each world’s natural beauty, while the changing color palettes make each level appear distinct from the last. This is a game whose sense of motion is palpable, with platforms whizzing by and moving reptilian stripes attracting the eye–and yet I often found myself gazing at a distant treeline or glowing collectible orb. Maybe I wouldn’t have died so much if I’d been paying attention…
Snake Pass’s artistry extends into its soundtrack. Each track fits its world perfectly–ramping up tension when necessary–but mostly the panpipes and steel drums add to the exotic peace already hinted at by the game’s appearance. It meant that even in that difficult middle period, even when I was frustrated at having died at the same obstacle for the fifth time, I rarely wanted to chuck my controller out the window.
At times, then, Snake Pass can be a wonderfully relaxing journey through some beautiful habitats. The late game switches into an engaging and challenging puzzler, requiring some deft flicks of the left stick, but one that can feel immensely gratifying when you elegantly slalom your way over a narrow assault course that’s suspended over lava. It’s the middle third, when the game expects too much of you far too soon, that causes the momentum to stutter. Nevertheless, Snake Pass is a quirky puzzler that innovates while simultaneously evoking memories of your favourite platformers of yesteryear–just don’t expect to grow into your new skin overnight.