Snake Pass

PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One

EDGE - - GAMES -

Think like a snake. That’s the one-line pitch for Sumo Dig­i­tal’s first orig­i­nal prop­erty: a fleshe­d­out ver­sion of an in­ter­nal game-jam en­try from de­signer Se­bas­tian Liese, who con­ceived a rudi­men­tary physics-based plat­former around the un­ortho­dox move­ments of a ser­pen­tine pro­tag­o­nist. It’s also the only in­struc­tion you re­ally need in the fin­ished game: at first you’ll wish Sumo of­fered you a lit­tle more guid­ance, but when you’re in trou­ble, it’s sur­pris­ing how of­ten fol­low­ing that sim­ple mantra works a charm.

That’s be­cause, de­spite its colour­ful, kid-friendly looks, Snake Pass treats its sub­ject with the kind of pro­found re­spect and at­ten­tion to nu­ance you’d more com­monly find in a sim­u­la­tion. But then it is a sim­u­la­tor, af­ter a fash­ion. Noo­dle, the dopey-look­ing ser­pen­tine star, slithers for­ward at a pon­der­ous pace when you squeeze the right trig­ger, un­til you re­mem­ber that snakes don’t move with their bod­ies in a rigid line. Shift the left ana­logue stick left and right and you’ll glide along at a much faster clip, build­ing up mo­men­tum that sees you zip over flat ground and lets you ne­go­ti­ate bumps and slopes more eas­ily when you raise your head by hold­ing the X but­ton. It’s rare to be af­forded con­trol over the neck mus­cles of a game char­ac­ter, but then Noo­dle is no or­di­nary plat­form­ing hero.

It wouldn’t be a plat­former with­out pre­cip­i­tous drops or lethal haz­ards, of course, and it’s in get­ting past th­ese that the busi­ness of think­ing like a snake be­comes a good deal tougher. First, you’ll need to loop around the poles that stretch up to higher ground or across chasms, twist­ing your body and lift­ing and drop­ping your head at the right time to en­sure you don’t slip off. Feath­er­ing the right trig­ger is key to more del­i­cate ma­noeu­vring, while grip­ping with the left lets you an­chor your lower body, tight­en­ing any slack loops that might cause prob­lems as you as­cend.

Imag­ine the si­mul­ta­ne­ous in­puts in­volved in that process, and you’ll un­der­stand why it never quite feels nat­u­ral – even if that’s the whole point of the ex­er­cise. And while at times your move­ments will be stac­cato and awk­ward, on oc­ca­sion you’ll find mo­ments where it all clicks into place and you’ll see Noo­dle grace­fully glide up a net­work of poles to a high plat­form with­out in­ter­rup­tion – even if, as you trig­ger the check­point at the top and grin in sat­is­fac­tion, you might not be en­tirely sure how you did it.

It’s a game with a high skill ceil­ing, then, and any player with the de­ter­mi­na­tion to prop­erly master those idio­syn­cratic con­trols and strangely au­then­tic-feel­ing physics will find plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties to show off in the game’s sprawl­ing, elab­o­rate lev­els. They’re split into four fa­mil­iar biomes – earth, wa­ter, fire, air – but they’re as bright and char­ac­ter­ful as any­thing Sumo has de­vel­oped for Sega, even if the bog­gle-eyed lead and David Wise sound­track mean this is the se­cond game this month to have us pon­der­ing what might’ve been had Nin­tendo not sold Rare. Within each, you’ll need to se­cure three mag­i­cal stones to open the exit gate, with 20 blue wisps and five golden coins (which tend to re­quire feats of ex­cep­tional dex­ter­ity to ob­tain, or oth­er­wise re­ward thor­ough ex­plo­ration) set as op­tional goals. And they are op­tional: sen­si­bly, Sumo doesn’t gate off later lev­els be­hind a cer­tain num­ber of ei­ther col­lectable. You can progress with the stones alone.

You’ll prob­a­bly be glad of that, since the dif­fi­culty es­ca­lates sharply. For the most part, the chal­lenge is firm but fair, and the physics are for­giv­ing enough to let you get away with the odd mis­take. In­deed, Snake Pass is of­ten at its best when it lets you fudge your way through its more test­ing sec­tions. You don’t al­ways have to fully en­gage with the in­tri­ca­cies of wrap­ping your­self around each pole and tim­ing each stretch to the next with metic­u­lous care. In­stead, you might keep the trig­ger held down and jam the ana­logue stick this way and that, send­ing Noo­dle slid­ing awk­wardly across the top, be­fore mak­ing a fi­nal, des­per­ate lunge that just about car­ries you to the other side. Ei­ther way, you’ll be left flushed with ex­hil­a­ra­tion. But, some­times, it leaves you with pre­cious lit­tle mar­gin for er­ror, and once or twice its chal­lenge feels need­lessly hos­tile. A lengthy, check­point-free sec­tion at the end of the sixth stage doesn’t so much de­mand you knuckle down and master those con­trols as tempt you to throw your con­troller across the room: it’s one of the most sud­den and ag­gres­sive dif­fi­culty spikes we’ve en­coun­tered in a long time. But more fre­quently it’s the cam­era that spoils things. It’s atro­cious in un­der­wa­ter sec­tions, though as those se­quences tend to­wards se­date ex­plo­ration rather than ex­act­ing plat­form­ing, it’s a tol­er­a­ble kind of prob­lem. Not so much later on. The fi­nal chap­ter com­bines vi­cious gusts of wind with nar­row ledges and mov­ing plat­forms: hardly the most en­joy­able haz­ards to over­come, but it’s the cam­era that proves the only in­sur­mount­able ob­sta­cle. We rel­ish a chal­lenge, but once too of­ten Snake Pass fails to pro­vide one of the most cru­cial tools you need to con­quer it.

Still, it’s surely the best game ever to be named af­ter a Der­byshire road, and Noo­dle, de­spite his dopey wail­ing (which is at least use­ful in alert­ing you when his lower body isn’t hooked around any­thing) is won­der­fully re­alised. With a much bet­ter cam­era and less of a fond­ness for gra­tu­itously fussy chal­lenges – and a ten­dency not to com­bine the two – this could have been a mi­nor clas­sic; in­deed, there are enough mo­ments of im­mense grat­i­fi­ca­tion that we’d have no hes­i­ta­tion rec­om­mend­ing it to any­one quick to learn and slow to anger. Yet we’re equally con­fi­dent that those who don’t have the pa­tience of a snake will come away with a feel­ing closer to blessed re­lief than pride.

The chal­lenge is firm but fair, and the physics are for­giv­ing enough to let you get away with the odd mis­take

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