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Snake Pass review

When we snake we do it right, gettin' slithered.

Does someone at Sumo Digital hate children?

I’m not asking that question out of malice. I just can’t think of a more reasonable explanation for the identity crisis that defines Snake Pass, the studio’s new serpentine platformer-of-sorts.

We’ve got, in one corner, the whole thinly veiled Banjo-Kazooie shtick. Colorful visuals, vibrant music, a duo of cartoon animals with matching names: Noodle the snake and Doodle the hummingbird. In the other corner, we’ve got gameplay that, at least on occasion, will make you think about just cutting off all your fingers because they’re worthless pieces of garbage that won’t do what you tell them to and oh god why did you even agree to review this game why did you even start playing games in the first place this is ultimately your parents’ fault for buying you that Genesis.

In other words, Snake Pass may look like a kids’ game, but it sure doesn’t play like one.

The culprit here, really, is the desire to do something wildly different for a platformer. Rather than centering on walking, jumping, or anything else that will be vaguely familiar to bipedal players, Snake Pass goes all in on the snake thing, presenting a control scheme designed to replicate how limbless reptiles actually get around. By default, the left stick doesn’t actually move your body, but merely points your head. If you want to move, you’ll need to hold down the right trigger—and if you want to do more than inch forward slowly, you’ll need to learn to swing your head back and forth to slither, contorting your body into the familiar S shape. In lieu of jumping, you’ve got a button to raise your head up just enough to slither onto smallish ledges.

And if all there was to Snake Pass was snaking your way around on flat surfaces, it would indeed be fairly simple to grow comfortable with those controls. Fairly boring, too. But like any platformer, the real substance of the experience comes from the level design, which relies heavily on obstacles built from lashed-together bamboo that build up into the air and out over fatal drops. You’ll spend the whole game trying to master the art of climbing by wrapping your head around tightly enough so you won’t fall off—aided by a grip function on the left trigger that coils your body more tightly—and then reaching for a higher rung.

It’s odd, because Snake Pass is, on some level, as simple as you might expect at first glance. No obstacle is so complicated that you can’t immediately visualize your plan of attack. Even in the later levels, when they start moving, the timing is never so punishing that your reflexes come into play. Instead, the challenge is pulling off the numerous button presses, trigger pulls, and finessed rotations of the stick you know you need. It’s all in the execution, and that can prove brutally frustrating at times.

In that respect, I’m inclined to compare Snake Pass to games like QWOP, Surgeon Simulator, or Octodad, which all tap into a basic truth of game design: The “best” control schemes generally rely on an enormous layer of abstraction, reducing complex tasks to a simple button press to empower players. The closer you get to direct, granular control over a character, the easier it is for players to fail spectacularly, which is why all three titles I mentioned above are first and foremost comedies making fun of their own shortcomings.

Snake Pass feels similar, albeit to a much lesser degree, but the difference here is that it’s all played fairly straight. Noodle may be a goofy-looking character who makes cartoonish faces while he’s falling to his death, but the focus is less on unintentional comedy and more on the standard gameplay accoutrements of a classic 3D platformer. You’re expected to explore the levels, make your way from checkpoint to checkpoint, and nab collectibles along the way—three mandatory ones per level to open the exit, with a couple dozen more optional ones for added challenge. There’s even a unlockable time trial mode with some fairly punishing goals. There are real challenges to surmount and real objectives to accomplish, and when you fail at the control scheme—or when it feels like the control scheme fails you—there’s real frustration in failing.

Perhaps the biggest shame in all this is that Snake Pass actually does an excellent job of fully exploring its concept with some clever design. The levels build out a three-dimensional grammar as well as the greatest platformers, keeping the variety coming with a mix of different gimmicks and light puzzle elements. If I were only grading for craftsmanship, for artistry, Snake Pass would likely get very high marks, but that’s never the whole picture. The worth of the underlying idea being supported by that artistry matters, too. Imagine that Vermeer spent his entire career painting dog butts. They would no doubt be technically amazing, meticulously framed, and masterfully lit works. They would also still be dog butts.

That comparison—Dutch masters, canine asses—is probably both too kind to Snake Pass‘s highs and too harsh on its lows, but I hope the general sentiment is still clear. This particular mix of control scheme, design rubric, and aesthetic feels a bit too thin and too mismatched to serve as a strong foundation for something of substance. The game doesn’t overstay its welcome by any means, but it’s also short and abruptly concluded. (Each world has four levels, except the last, which only has three. It’s hard not to read that as an admission that the design ran its course ahead of schedule.)

Sumo has built a game that quite brilliantly explores fiddly, overly direct control of a snake in classic 3D platformer–inspired gameplay, with a strong graphical and musical aesthetic that’s the perfect update of its ’90s inspirations. But it’s the mix of those different elements that is itself the problem, leading to an experience that feels as jumbled and forgettable as it does admirably competent in the delivery. Even when you make the best of a less-than-great idea, you’re still going to fall short of greatness.

★★★☆☆

Snake Pass is a competent and boldly innovative take on the classic 3D platformer, but the game suffers from an overly fiddly control scheme that doesn't match the inviting, pick-up-and-play fun of the genre.

Developer
Sumo Digital
Publisher
Sumo Digital
ESRB
E - Everyone
Release Date
03.28.17
Snake Pass is available on Xbox One, PS4, Switch, PC. Primary version played was for PS4. Code/hardware was provided by Sumo Digital for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.

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