PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One
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