On the surface, “Snake Pass” by Sumo Digital doesn’t appear to be an engaging and substantial puzzler. But after 15 levels of tense and strategic slithering and climbing, I have come to decide that not every good indie needs a thorough lore-filled story to keep a gamer’s interest and establish itself as one of the best experiences of this console generation.
Story Sets the Stage, but Falls Short.
Upon selecting a save slot and beginning your “journey,” you are presented with an overall basic and generic story: Noodle (the snake character that you fully control) and Doodle (his mostly useless hummingbird sidekick) need to traverse each level’s unique platforming challenges to find three displaced gems/stones which you then use to restore the teleporter and henceforth move on to the next world. Noodle must navigate through inanimate obstacles, such as bamboo posts and common terrain objects (rocks, ledges, etc), by using what I’ve dubbed as “snake-physics,” including slithering and wrapping his long body around anything in his way. While searching for the key pieces, you’ll also notice that each area has 20 blue orbs (or balls of water, wisps, who knows) and 5 “gate coins” that you can optionally collect. Completing each set of 4 levels (except for the last set, which has only 3) reveals the “Gate Keeper,” who will then give you a stone tablet-looking gift. Each set (or realm) represents a different elemental force – earth, water, fire, wind – and as such their levels are appropriately themed. The gifts are then used at the end of the game almost as analogues for the colored gems/stones to unlock a final portal. To prevent spoiling the albeit unsurprising and unexciting ending (story wise), I’ll end my synopsis here.
The only way I can explain my disappointment with the story is to call it a missed opportunity, which can be elaborated in two separate ways. For one, I felt no true connection to the protagonist duo, even though, in my opinion, the stage was set perfectly for me to fall in love with them. From the onset, you are introduced to Noodle and Doodle as a dynamic pair looking to overcome winding bamboo platforming puzzles together as a team, even though Doodle’s role is to simply lift the end of Noodle’s tail. Instead, Doodle is essentially “just there” until the later wind-themed levels that require his lifting “expertise.” I only used him a handful of times before then, and even in those cases it felt very forced. Also, even though they are supposedly friends, essentially no dialogue exists between them throughout the entire experience, as short snippets at the beginning and end are largely forgettable. I admit that perhaps my expectation of a “Ratchet and Clank”-style partnership in a shorter indie game was wishful thinking, but at the least some sort of playful banter would have been welcomed.
Challenging Collectibles, but for What End?
Another disappointing omission in the story progression pertains to the aforementioned optional collectibles– they are essentially meaningless. While true that grabbing these presents a greater challenge (especially the gate coins) and extends gameplay significantly past my base 5 hour completion playthrough, I wish that Sumo Digital had incentivized accruing them by using them for unlocks such as Noodle’s color/attire customization or new abilities. Learning new moves, especially cooperative maneuvers, inherently adds depth to gameplay and plot progression while also deepening the relationship between the characters. Instead, the platforming mechanics stay essentially unchanged throughout the game, deepening my desire for an RPG-style skill tree or skill shop for which the collectibles could serve as currency/skill points. One could argue that new moves would dilute the core gameplay mechanic of slithering/climbing using the near-perfectly executed “snake-physics,” but I feel that they could possibly counter the abrupt increase in difficulty that occurs around 60% through the game due to new environmental obstacles. Nevertheless, the later areas were beatable using the same abilities you start with, so this gripe may or may not matter to your personal taste, especially since this is a puzzle-platformer at heart.
“Snake Physics” Make for an Unforgettable Platforming Experience
Now a little more about the controls and core mechanics: this is an area where the game truly shines and hooked me enough to play though its entirety in one sitting. Acceleration of Noodle requires holding the right trigger (or R2 on PS4) while using the left stick to move his head. While holding the right trigger, you also need to move Noodle’s head in a serpentine “band and forth” fashion to reach maximum speed, which pleasantly increases the authenticity of the Sumo Digital’s creative vision. To raise Noodle’s head, you hold A (or X on PS4), allowing Noodle to reach new heights. Many of the portal gems are high above the ground on tall structures, so writhing around bamboo shoots by combining A, RT, and movement of the left stick is uniquely challenging in a way that you have likely never experienced. Furthermore, holding left trigger (or L2 on PS4) allows you to wrap even more tightly around bamboo, which then gives you more freedom to precisely place Noodle’s head for his next move or prevents you from falling and starting a particular “puzzle” over again. This is an integral part of the later areas that introduce elemental variables like wind and fire that can punish wrong moves by knocking you off the level or burning you to death. Luckily there are checkpoints spread throughout each level to save your progress, though their placement is very hit or miss. In some levels the checkpoints are logically placed based on natural progression, while in others you are required to backtrack a bit much to prevent frustratingly repeating difficult sections. That said, I feel that Sumo alleviated this problem at the right time, specifically during the last third of the game where it becomes exponentially more difficult and the challenges become more timing-precise. To summarize, I cannot stress enough how unique the platforming movement is in this game. It is one thing to produce a game with unseen mechanics, but it’s another thing altogether to execute them in a way that makes sense, doesn’t feel superficially placed, and works so well that it could be the sole reason you add the title to your library.
Colorful Visuals Complimented by Unreal Engine 4 Physics
In terms of visuals, the game is a gorgeous mix of colors, clarity, and shading. The graphics are certainly cartoonish in nature, but because it is built on Unreal Engine 4, the game features lush atmospheres and great shadows. Thanks to the Xbox Play Anywhere program, I was able to enjoy this game and Xbox One and PC, and performance besides framerate was very similar. Console versions of the game (including Nintendo Switch) aim for 30fps while PS4 Pro and PC aim for 60fps. While I enjoyed the smoother framerate on my PC, I don’t think “Snake Pass” loses much if anything at lesser framerates on console. As is true with other games/genres that feature different framerates on different platforms, controls felt more responsive at the faster framerate. In this particular case, however, I did not feel that gameplay was hindered significantly at 30fps. When considering UE4’s contribution to environment physics, I particularly love how the grass parts and water moves in response to Noodle’s slithering movements. These seemingly minor inclusions demonstrate Sumo’s attention to detail and aid in player immersion more than one would expect. I think the cartoonish and contrastingly-colorful presentation of Noodle versus the background elements is perfect for this type of game, but I can’t help but think that Sumo’s graphic designers could have done more to create customization options for either snakeskin camouflage changes or fun accessories like hats, clothes, etc (see above discussion of missed story opportunities). These options could be meaningless to you, however, and if so, this game gets my full recommendation at its launch price of $20 USD. You may be a little more guarded about a full-price purchase if you desire a substantial story in every game you play.
But even though I discussed at length my problems with the story not reaching full potential, I couldn’t let those problems prevent me from enjoying the unique challenge that is “Snake Pass.” While my score reflects a deduction for not improving the story with meaning/purpose for the collectibles, I still think the nearly-flawless utilization of unique “snake-physics” and the evolution of level design based on elemental themes separate “Snake Pass” from many indies of this generation.