3D platformers are hard to come by these days. I’m not talking about your typical action-adventure titles with light platforming and collectables as ancillaries, but games that stand on these as foundations: collect-a-thon 3D platformers. While Nintendo keeps the genre beating faintly with the likes of Super Mario 3D World and the upcoming Super Mario Odyssey, Knack was honestly the most recent attempt in the mainstream scene to revive the days of Banjo-Kazooie and Spyro the Dragon, but it faltered with its linear levels and repetitive combat. However, with a surprising sequel on the way, remasters of the Crash Bandicoot trilogy, and indie developers taking things into their own hands with Yooka-Laylee and A Hat in Time, 2017 is shaping up to be a strong year for the beloved genre. Snake Pass is a sssplendid ssstart to rekindling its ssspirit.
It’s immediately apparent that this isn’t your average collect-a-thon 3D platformer because you don’t hop and flip around on two legs. In fact, your character doesn’t have any limbs. You play as Noodle: a sleepy, easygoing Coral snake (“red on yellow, kill a fellow”) lazing about in the sky realm of Haven-Tor. However, his hummingbird friend Doodle frantically warns him that someone is scattering the Keystones that give life to this place. It’s up to this unlikely duo to restore balance by returning them to their pedestals and, of course, acquiring some collectibles along the way.
A simple premise guides the basic gameplay concept. You slither across four Realms consisting of 15 levels by scaling rocks, coiling around loads of bamboo poles, and swimming in crystal blue waters. You do this by shifting the direction of Noodle’s head with the analog stick (controllers are optimal) while lifting it up and down when need be. Other buttons control his forward movement and another dictates whether he grips an object he’s wrapped around, which can be used to hang from cliffs to obtain items off the edge. As you can imagine, it’s frustrating to adjust to this new way of platforming as you fumble figuring out how to, say, get that gold coin suspended around but a couple bamboo poles.
After a couple hours, you’ll come to appreciate just how novel Snake Pass is while it lasts, and it’s helpful that your feathered friend can partially come to the rescue by lifting your tail if you can’t quite get over a hump or are about to fall. I can’t imagine how hard it was to program and fine-tune the controls, but for the most part, they work incredibly well. For a game that’s so slow-paced, I couldn’t believe how many times I was gritting my teeth in tension as I inched my way along perilous sections.
In terms of originality, developer Sumo Digital should be praised for such a unique take on a classic genre that feels so right for it. Titles like Portal and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons are known for frying your brain with puzzles and controls (respectively) that have never or rarely been seen before. Snake Pass will be primarily remembered in a similar vein with its platforming, but that’s not to say such bold ideas are executed without fault. While there’s a sufficiently increasing level of difficulty with puzzles and obstacle courses, I feel like some of the former's elements involving moving boulders or turning platforms could've been developed into more layered and advanced puzzles. Also, with the ability to raise Noodle’s head in a constant upward motion, I was able to “cheese” a good amount of tough platforming sections by simply launching him across chasms when I was halfway across. I was able to bypass slowly coiling across these areas with this strategy, which I think took some of the intended challenge out of the experience. Much of the gameplay starts to blend together near the end as there's only so much you can do with the gameplay, so I hope a sequel would add more mechanics to switch things up.
I was worried many of the levels would have the same, small linear layouts while I was in the beginning areas of Bol-Dor's Realm but was pleasantly surprised to see they increased in size. You can also approach some levels in any order you wish to obtain each of their three Keystones, which provides some of that nonlinear feeling missing in 3D platformers like this. For the persistent observers, you won’t be disappointed by how hard many collectibles are to find, which will have you scavenging the maps to figure out what you missed. Some are obvious and easy to acquire, but completionists will get a good run by stressing their snake skills.
All of the Realms you explore are visually defined by the Greek elements of earth, water, fire, and air. Sog-Gee’s Realm is replete with waterfalls amid the greenest grasses that you course through, and Cyn-Derr’s Realm is arid and stony with lava lakes scattered all about. There’s a pleasant, whimsical quality to all of the environments’ artistic direction, and Noodle is just about the most adorable snake to ever exist, so your heart will break every time you bring him to his untimely death. There’s some nice touches to the Unreal Engine 4-powered game, such as a wet sheen on Noodle when he resurfaces from underwater and rays of light pouring through tree branches. It’s also worth noting that there’s something supremely satisfying about watching the physics of Noodle’s serpentine form slide and scale the environment; there’s nothing wonky about how he looks when he moves around. The locked 30 frames per second is a tad disappointing though on the PlayStation 4, and while some textures and animations for things around you can look a bit off at times, the colorful, cartoony style is a treat that largely overpowers those negatives.
Each of the 15 levels takes about 20 minutes to complete, but if you’re tantalized by the collectibles as I was, expect to double that playtime. You’re looking at about 6-9 hours total with this in mind, and Time Trials and collectibles you missed are great incentives to finish what you started. All the while, you’ll be listening to a soundtrack composed by the legendary David Wise, behind the scores for the Donkey Kong Country games and (in conjunction with Grant Kirkhope) Yooka-Laylee. While there’s only one song per Realm (meaning it’s on loop for 3-4 levels in a row), they’re long and infectiously charming enough to maintain their appeal. The composer’s iconic mastery over memorable melodies and thick ambiance persists here, which will often leave you with a grin on your face.
This is the kind of experimental fun I expect from the indie scene. Sumo Digital not only pays homage to the collect-a-thon 3D platformer but also brings something fresh to the table with its unique gameplay. Its vibrant visuals and playful music invoke a childlike innocence as well, and while some of its challenges lack intended luster and can become a bit repetitive as you move onward, I wouldn’t pass by this snake.
Snake Pass was reviewed on PlayStation 4 and is also available on PC, Xbox One, and the Nintendo Switch. It was reviewed with a code provided by the publisher.
Snake Pass is a charming delight with imaginative platforming. Some obstacles can be cheesed and puzzles could’ve been developed further, but its collectibles, overwhelmingly cute style, and playful music prevent its novelty from shedding too much.(Review Policy)
- Creative, Unique Platforming...
- Enticing, Well-Placed Collectibles
- Lovely Soundtrack And Visuals
- ...But A Bit Repetitive Near The End
- Puzzles and Platforming Could Be Fleshed Out
- Minor Texture And Animation Quibbles