In an age where cutesy 3D platformers are a dying breed, fans of the genre tend to take whatever they can get in order to fulfill that need to relive the glory days of Nintendo 64 mascot titles. While I sense a resurgence of this genre with the successful Kickstarter campaign for games like Yooka-Laylee, fans of 3D platforms are still thirsty — me being one of them. In comes Snake Pass, a unique platformer from Sumo Digital, the folks who brought you such games as Little Big Planet 3 and Sonic All-Stars Racing: Transformed. Snake Pass breaks the platforming conventions by delivering a unique experience but at a cost. Can Sumo appease the platforming fans while also delivering a fresh experience at the same time? Let’s take a look.
First off, I want to mention that Snake Pass is on just about every platform on the market. You can purchase the game digitally on Playstation 4, Xbox One, PC and Nintendo Switch. The cool thing here is that Snake Pass runs on Unreal Engine 4 and includes some incredibly vibrant colors and detailed environments. Seeing a multiplatform, Unreal Engine 4 game appear on the Nintendo Switch for the first time is exciting for the industry and for this reason I will be reviewing the game on the Nintendo Switch.
Snake Pass is a platformer unlike anything you have seen before. Instead of running around on foot while jumping, climbing and bouncing around the environments, players instead control a snake named Noodle who is accompanied by a small bird named Doodle. Players will traverse the environments slithering around the world by holding the right trigger button and sliding back and forth using the left analog stick to pick up momentum and move forward. By holding the A button, players can direct Noodle to lift his head and coil around objects. The goal is to collect three glowing artifacts in each of the 15 stages that open up a portal to the next stage. In order to accomplish this, players will need to slither up walls, bamboo polls and in bodies of water while weaving their body around objects in order to climb to new heights. Other objects can be collected that are hidden within each stage for competitionists, such as blue orbs and well hidden coins that are very difficult to reach.
Let’s go ahead and get the graphics and performance out of the way. Snake Pass looks fantastic on either platform you choose, but it does take a few noticeable hits on Nintendo’s newest platform. While the core experience is fully intact (excluding a time trials mode that was omitted but coming soon via a patch) on the Nintendo Switch, the other versions of the game benefit from a much cleaner presentation and sharper textures. Backgrounds are much more detailed on the PS4, PC and Xbox One with a slight blurriness to them on Switch; however, the texture work and environments still look solid with a consistent framerate that dips rarely below the 30 mark. Switch owners get close to what they would receive on the other consoles, so do not let the horsepower of the other platforms deter you from purchasing Snake Pass on the Nintendo Switch if the platform and portability appeal to you.
In terms of art direction and visuals, Snake Pass is a very charming looking game. The physics feel great, slithering through lush fields of grass looks nice, and the ancient Amazonian art direction fits the bill well. Noodle himself is as adorable as a snake can possibly be. Animations for Noodle are quite life-like and his facial expressions and reactions to situations in the game are cute. The soundtrack was handled by Rare veteran David Wise (of Donkey Kong Country fame) and happens to be one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard this year in gaming. Even though several music tracks tend to repeat themselves, Snake Pass’ score is catchy and magical, proving that David Wise still has the skill to craft amazing video game compositions.
Here’s where things get a bit hairy for Snake Pass. The gameplay starts out very strong, giving players simple puzzles and scenarios to solve that introduce them to basic mechanics in the game. Throughout the first two or three stages, Snake Pass is relaxing and enjoyable to play. Once I hit the 4th or 5th stage, things take a turn for the worse. It becomes apparent that the complex control scheme in Snake Pass starts to become an exercise in frustration as the level design becomes devilishly difficult to the point where I had to turn the game off and cool myself down before I decided to snap my Switch in half over my knee. I found myself trying to wrap Noodle around sets of elaborate bamboo pole positions that required me to climb high towers that would result in falling over and over again while I play finger Twister uncomfortably on the Joy-con controllers. This wasn’t a result of the Joy-cons either; it’s the fact that I have to use so many buttons in conjunction to one another that makes it hard to grasp the control scheme in tough situations. I found myself fumbling and getting pissed off much more than I would have liked. Doodle even helps out by giving the player direction and also holds an ability to grab Noodle’s tail and help prevent him from falling to his death; a feature I ultimately found useless.
As an aid to help players get through tricky situations, the game incorporates a checkpoint system that players can slither over that will temporarily save their progress before continuing on. The problem with this checkpoint system is that everything you collect after hitting a checkpoint and falling to your death or landing on fields of deadly pikes will be lost. Since many of the items can be super difficult to collect, dying and being sent back to a checkpoint pad while losing all of that hard work can be infuriating. Not to mention that many of these levels can be pretty large and time consuming, which results in a lot of lost progress after death. Currently there is no way to save your progress in a stage, so if you have to stop playing in the middle of trying finish a stage and exit the game, you have to start everything over again. I highly recommend utilizing your console’s sleep capabilities that allow users to resume progress until after you finish a stage before closing the game. Snake Pass has no enemies or anything that will kill you aside from falling off of the stage or landing in a spike strip, so at least that alleviates some of the frustration.
Developers at Sumo Digital decided to include an Easy Mode control scheme to help younger players and those frustrated with the default controls out while playing Snake Pass. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t notice the easy mode really helping matters much since the game can still be horribly frustrating with or without it. The downfall of Snake Pass is ultimately the complex nature of the control scheme mixed with the weighty physics. While I enjoy the unique take on a platformer and appreciate doing something we haven’t yet seen in a video game, I also feel like Sumo Digital failed to really make the controls intuitive enough to make the game stay consistently enjoyable. Once the difficulty ramps up, which is pretty early on mind you, I found myself cursing at the screen more than actually sitting back and enjoying myself as much as I did when I first started playing the game. Snake Pass has a control scheme that’s easy to grasp but incredibly challenging to master and by doing so it throws up a big wall of difficulty that I feel most players will never get past.
I always appreciate a game that breaks from the mold and attempts something fresh, and Snake Pass is very much that, but at the end of the day I felt the controls mixed with brutal level design hinder the experience overall. Snake Pass is a great attempt at delivering a unique platforming experience to players who are seeking out a late 90’s platformer style of game. Yes I found the game oftentimes very frustrating to play, yet I still appreciate what the game has to offer and recommend it at the $20 asking price. All I ask is to bring a stress ball along. You’ll need it.