PAX East had a ton of great games at this year’s event, that much is certain. Standing out in that condensed environment is incredibly difficult, even for larger companies, but a few managed to grab my attention. Snake Pass was one such game that really stood out to me, probably mostly due to me getting to actually play it during my press appointment with Sumo Digital. I only got to play for about thirty minutes or so, but I couldn’t get the game out of my head. There was nothing else like it and comparing it to another game seems like a bit of a waste. Now that the game has released, I’ve spent much more time with it and I can now give my thoughts on this gem of a game, even if there are a few flaws worth mentioning.
Snake Pass on the surface is a tribute to the collect-a-thon games of the N64 era, a style that is starting to come back in popularity with titles like Yooka-Laylee. However, there is a ton more going on than simple collecting. Players must actually think like a snake, coiling around objects to climb and slithering to move along the ground. This is done with an incredibly simple control scheme that maps moving forward to the right trigger, while grip is mapped to the left. The snake’s head can be moved and directed with the left stick, while camera controls are mapped to the right stick, as usual. The ‘Y’ button has the snake’s bird friend pick him up and the ‘A’ button will lift the snake’s head. Other than that, the rest of the buttons do things like pull back the camera, center it behind the player, and make different facial expressions for fun screen shots.
While this control scheme may not seem complex at all, the application of this tool-set is pulled out with the game’s level design. Each level is basically an obstacle course in which the player must find three keys to open the gate that leads to the next stage. Along the way, they’ll collect coins and wisps as rewards for tackling more challenging areas or performing a strange stretch. These stages start out by coaxing the player into learning how the snake moves, giving them plenty of chances to fail in a relatively safe space. On screen prompts also point out what buttons do what, but most of the game’s skill is acquired through repetition and application taught by the game’s levels.
This approach to level design creates a curve of skill that slowly increases as more time is put in. As I played, I found myself calculating what to do before doing it, knowing the limitations of being a snake pretty well by the end of the game. Skill-based games are definitely a staple of classic design and Snake Pass takes those lessons and applies it to its unique approach to platforming. Later levels really challenge the player by adding things like spike pits, lava, and wind that blows the player off balance. Luckily there are plenty of checkpoints strewn about each stage, so I rarely felt punished by the game’s steady increase in difficulty.
Snake Pass does remain a challenging experience, even though its design oozes cute and fun. Later levels test what the player has learned in earlier stages and for some, this could lead to a ton of frustration. Once again, checkpoints are handy and I did find myself backtracking a few times to ensure I didn’t lose progress. Dying in Snake Pass loses the items picked up on that run, meaning if a checkpoint hasn’t been touched in a while, it can really set completing each level back a bit. I will say that there are some aggravating moments in the final world, a set of dastardly stages that involve strong winds that can blow the player off of their perch. I found the wind to be a bit unforgiving and there are some spots that feel like leaps of faith. However, this is just a single blemish on otherwise brilliant level design.
Those looking for a fun little romp through a Rareware-inspired world will find a lot of good times in Snake Pass. Our two buddy characters are playing off of what made Banjo and Kazooie so lovable, even though our heroes Noodle the snake and Doodle the hummingbird don’t have as much speech. Their designs are super cute and I spent plenty of moments just hanging out on a branch, watching Noodle’s expressions and Doodle’s sporadic movements. Doodle also can provide helpful hints, often perching on the next obstacle to coax the player. There’s also the inclusion of a villain crow character, but so little is seen of him that there’s not much to experience in his character. Rebuilding the gates never felt like a dire need, just a way to move on to more obstacles.
Playing in the background of each stage is a truly magical soundtrack put together by David Wise, who is most known for his work on Donkey Kong Country 2. Each world has its own theme and each tune is incredibly well written and catchy. Snake Pass may live on in history as having a masterful soundtrack and I can honestly see myself loading it up while working on a project for years to come. Starting up Snake Pass for the first time spread a smile across my face, as this music pairs incredibly well with the visuals, hitting all of my nostalgic memories all at once.
One of my favorite things to do while playing this game on my Switch was handing the game to someone who knew almost nothing about it. Watching them learn how to play and experiment with the controls is not only funny, but intriguing to me. Watching the reactions of my sister making a risky leap or my work buddy trying something I hadn’t thought of was a ton of fun. Snake Pass is definitely a game worth sharing with others. Maybe some sort of cooperative play could be added to capture this even better.
The biggest point of criticism that many players will come to find is the game’s overall length. Snake Pass can easily be beaten the first time through in less than ten hours and that’s including getting all the collectibles strewn throughout each stage. Personally, each level took about 20-30 minutes and I didn’t play a whole bunch in a row. This was a game that I wanted to pull out to pass some downtime at work or wake myself up of the morning with some puzzle-like stages and a hot tea. This worked exceptionally well as a Switch title, although I did find a few visual hang ups in TV mode. Early players did have to suffer through some strange Joy-Con rumbles that happened after every pick up of an item, but that has since been fixed with a patch as well as some improvements to the visuals.
The game’s final moments do come pretty abruptly, leaving me to believe that there is either a sequel planned or some sort of additional level pack in the works. We get to see the crow at the end, not being a dastardly villain at all and is instead just a misplaced character in whatever is happening in this world. The ending is less of solving the issue of Noodle and Doodle’s world being torn apart by an unbalance of power and more a plugged in wrap up. I literally felt my head pop to the side like a confused dog as I finished that last level, questioning if this was the actual ending or not. Yet, the credits rolled, solidifying this finale.
I will add that as of this review, I have not gathered every item in the game. I merely finished each stage as they were presented. I may go back later on to grab these collectibles though, as I found the game extremely enjoyable. Plus, beating the game adds a special vision that lets the player see items through walls. This makes tracking down hidden items much easier if anything for later playthroughs.
At the end of Snake Pass, I just wanted more. More levels to play, more secrets to uncover, just any excuse to keep playing other than to get all the shiny bits. What would be cool is to see this idea expanded upon for a more organic environment. Imagine what Snake Pass would be like with the level approach of Banjo-Kazooie or Super Mario 64, letting Noodle climb trees instead of bamboo structures. It would feel much more natural and a lot larger than this trial-based level set up. I will say that there is nothing quite like Snake Pass. Once I got the hang of it, I relished the game throwing new challenges at me to test my mastery of the simple mechanics.
Snake Pass is an absurdly unique game that takes the feel of retro platforming to make something unforgettable. Yet, there are a few things that would make this game so much better. Here’s hoping this is elaborated upon either with a level pack or a sequel.
Snake Pass is available on Steam, Xbox One, PS4, and Nintendo Switch. A digital code for Nintendo Switch was provided for this review.