Platform: Xbox One (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Windows PC
Developer: Sumo Digital
Publisher: Sumo Digital
Release Date: March 29, 2017
Here’s a question you’ve probably never thought about before: Why hasn’t someone ever made a game starring a snake with authentic serpentine physics?
Turns out a fellow named Seb Liese had been thinking about exactly that. And he decided to do something about it during a Game Jam – an event at which groups of programmers and designers try to create games in just a few days – sponsored by U.K.-based Sumo Digital. Liese’s snake game won the top prize. What’s more, Sumo decided to transform it into a fully fleshed-out digital release for both consoles and PC, complete with an upbeat score composed by acclaimed platformer soundtrack guru David Wise.
That game is now available. It’s called Snake Pass. And in a strange way it explains why – in the medium’s half-century history (as far as I can tell) – there’s never been another game founded on a mechanic meant to mimic realistic snake physics: Because moving like a snake is way hard.
It looks deceptively easy, though.
Its colourful stages are generally composed of warm green grass, cool water, and grey stones. Our hero – a wide-eyed and grinning serpent named Noodle – doesn’t constrict, bite, poison, or engage in any other aggressive behaviour. He just explores the world looking for various collectibles, including a trio of gems (usually found high up on some stony precipice) necessary to unlock each stage’s teleportation gate.
These colourful stones serve as Noodle’s primary motivation, but the real object of the game is to master his movement. You can press a trigger to make him start moving slowly forward, but if you want him to pick up the pace you’ll need to gently rock the control stick back and forth to make him slither. You can also press the A-button to raise his head, which will help him slide over low obstacles.
Those are the basics. And they’re not too hard to master. The real challenge comes in climbing. Most stages feature intricate networks of bamboo poles and pegs. Noodle uses these as leverage to climb to higher spots. But working out how to take advantage of them can be dastardly tricky. You’ll need to deftly weave Noodle’s body around them, methodically using the left trigger to constrict his body at key moments, gripping and releasing poles while maneuvering his head up and around new holds.
It doesn’t seem that hard at first. But the difficulty quickly spikes as we’re forced to climb higher and transition between different types of ladders and lattices. Mess up, and Noodle will flop back down to the ground. You’ll be forced to repeat the whole process again. Or, worse, he’ll tumble down a crevasse or fall into a pit of spikes, causing him to respawn even further back, erasing even more of your work.
All of my play sessions ended with sore hands and a headache – an indication of how tense I’d been and how hard I’d been fighting the controls while trying to slither my way up to Noodle’s goals.
I suspect my physical discomfort was also partly due to an uncooperative camera that only seemed to provide a proper perspective on Noodle’s movement around half the time. I found myself unintentionally craning my head at odd angles in a vain effort to get a better view. The camera can be controlled manually, but at the cost of taking your thumb off the button controlling head movement – which can have dire consequences, depending on the situation.
The difficulty I faced in controlling Noodle led me to quickly give up trying to hunt down any of the game’s collectibles beyond the required gate stones, which are challenging enough to get to. Also working against our natural impulse to collect is a fatal design decision that sees the player stripped of everything picked up since the last checkpoint whenever Noodle perishes. That sort of punishment made the game’s golden coins lose their lustre in short order.
My impulse to avoid challenging traversal wherever I could is telling. In most platformers, the running and jumping – the movement – is a huge part of the fun. It makes you feel skilled. In Snake Pass, movement amounts to a big fat ball of stress over which I rarely felt like I had firm control. Or at least that was my experience. And that makes it hard to recommend – certainly for the kids towards which it seems to be aimed, and even for die-hard 3D platformer fans.
I love that Liese and Sumo Digital took a risk on such an unusual and innovative core mechanic, and they deserve props for their authentic simulation of snake movement. But from here on out I’ll take my serpents anthropomorphized, with legs and arms and sproingy tails.