I don’t know why I wanted to try Snake Pass specifically. It just kept showing up on my Twitter feed after it came out and eventually I just had to try it myself. Honestly I didn’t really know what to expect when I first started it. It was hype alone that got me interested. Sadly like with so many other games before, the hype failed me. Snake Pass, developed and published by Sumo Digital Ltd., is a game you want to be good but it just isn’t. It does so many things right, but the finer mechanics of the gameplay just kills the whole experience. Before you read any further, know that this is a game with lots of potential that almost gets it but lacks the mechanical finish needed to make this a game worth buying.
I was very happy with the visual tone of Snake Pass. It’s a beautiful, child friendly experience pulling inspiration from games like Donkey Kong, Banjo Kazooie, and Super Mario Sunshine. It has a very similar style to the recently released Yooka-Laylee. It pulls its cultural aesthetic from native South American culture, I believe Mayan, and recreates it in a vibrantly colored Nintendo style. Bright colors of all types and a mixture of both high and low quality textures.
Some things look absolutely amazing, like the grass. You can literally count the blades waving in the wind. Other things look good, but not great like the dirt and wall textures. They look fine, but don’t have the same level of cartoony realism that the grass and insects have. And some things look a little cheap like the deep backgrounds. These are hand drawn canvases that show mountains and other distant natural masses. The slightly open world levels are in a constant state of motion. Your hummingbird friend is constantly moving around as are the insects all over the level. The game is meant to seem like you’re in a set of ancient ruins that have been taken over by the natural world over time. Sumo Digital Ltd. did a good job with this overall. The collectibles look pretty good too and in true Banjo Kazooie style, are pretty out of place. You can collect magical keystones, coins, and big floating drops of water. The latter two make no sense in this setting, but neither did music notes back in 1998.
They did a great job with the snake as well. You play as a lazy snake named Noodle. He looks like a Scarlett Kingsnake, in my opinion. I liked that he’s actually got a texture to his skin. It doesn’t show up as well on land, but when you’re in the water, which is really nice as well, you can see the scales in detail. I also had a lot of fun with his face. You can change his expression with the d-pad and it is actually really funny. If you sit idle for a while he’ll fall asleep and the hummingbird will flutter across the screen to bother you, giving them both just a bit more character than they already have.
The menus look good as well. The game uses hand drawn images coupled with a few key modeled 3D objects. Even the title screen has this. The games uses a very readable block letter font in white, blue, or orange depending on what you’re reading. The hummingbird talks to you in text boxes using the same font in blue. While this game comes off as an indie in a number of ways, it definitely looks like a bigger budget game that you’d see on a Nintendo console. Overall I was very happy with the graphics. My only complaint was the bars in the options menu. They look like any other bar based meters but they don’t work at a one to one scale visually. The bars for both volume and brightness look like a set of small bars but going right or left adds or subtracts more than just one bar visually. This made it weird and forced me to have to count the whole thing rather than being able to just see what the levels were set at. Luckily the default settings work great so this is only a technical issue with no serious consequences.
I decided to change my usual order with this one and address gameplay later on. So let’s move on to sound. As with the graphics, the sound in this game is pretty solid. It’s a nice soundtrack of upbeat, but not overwhelming, tracks. It reminded me a lot of playing Super Mario Sunshine or watching the animated version of The Jungle Book (1967). The tracks are perfect for the visual tone and setting of this game right from the title screen. Different levels have different tracks as well so the audio experience doesn’t get stale. The effects are good as well. This is a game where you play as a lazy snake with very few other influential characters. For most of the game it’s really just Noodle, the hummingbird, and bugs. Yet the game has a fair amount of effects. It’s the little things that give this game’s sound character. The hummingbird’s wings flapping. The chirping and flapping of bugs. Sounds for collecting things and completing levels. Noodle also has some Link style verbal expressions. He often yawns or yells when he falls to his death. Is it realistic? No. Does it work well in Snake Pass? Yes. You can set the volume levels of the music and sound effects from 1 – 10 separately in the options menu. This game gets high marks for sound as well.
This is one of those level based puzzle games, but it actually has a story. Noodle doesn’t talk. The whole game is expressed through text boxes that show the hummingbird’s dialog and occasionally that of Tiki spirits. The hummingbird expresses the situation and tells you what to do kind of like how Rocket talks for himself, for Groot, and to Groot simultaneously in Guardians of the Galaxy, but there’s not nearly as much dialog. The hummingbird will also give you clues when you get stuck. The story isn’t Uncharted level, but for a straight level based puzzle game any plot is nice to have when compared to most games of this genre. And the story here is a legitimate story that develops over the course of the game. There is an actual antagonist, a problem, concerned bystanders, and a resolution. Most importantly, the plot is developed over the course of the game. Not just at the beginning and then at the end if you can beat all the levels. You’re actually playing a game with a story, all the way through. The loading screens also provide you little hints about how to approach the game. Considering the genre, I was happy with the writing, but this isn’t a game you pick up for the story.
Literally the only part of this game I had real issue with is the gameplay, but sadly that’s the most important part for a level based puzzle game. Snake Pass is definitely original. It takes an interesting approach in how it tries to create the experience of being a snake. One of the first hints the game gives you is “think like a snake”. I’ll admit that they did a really good job of implementing the movement of a snake in a realistic way. The problem is that it’s so realistic that it hurts the overall gameplay experience. The controls require a number of mechanisms to be used simultaneously. You can choose between the “default” and “easy” button layouts but they’re only different by one button. The game is made up of a series of levels each with an exit gate. To open the gate you need to collect the three keystones and reach the gate. There are also 25 water drops and five coins in each level but these are not required to move forward. There are checkpoints placed in the levels that you can touch as many times as you want. There are no enemies but you can die by falling off the stage. When you die you respawn at your last checkpoint. You lose any collectibles you picked up after you touched the checkpoint so it’s smart to go back to the nearest one every so often to save your progress. The levels are open world, allowing you to slither and climb over most of the stage. But the worlds themselves are floating islands so it’s not like you have an unlimited number of places to explore. The collectibles are hidden all over the place and often hard to locate. The bigger problem is that too many of them, especially coins, are just too hard to reach safely.
You use R2 to move forward while simultaneously steering with the left stick and moving up or down with X and O. O only really comes into play when you’re swimming. You can move freely over water, but if you want to go under water you have to hold O. You can stay under water and over water for as long as you want. The real issue in this game is climbing. It makes sense but the controls don’t work smoothly enough for the system to be consistently good. You’re a snake so you can’t just climb straight up things. You move vertically by wrapping around things and moving upwards while doing it. If you don’t keep a grip you’ll end up dropping back down or off the level depending on where you are. This all makes sense, but climbing is way too hard to execute. Especially when you’re trying to grab all the collectibles. They placed so many coins in locations that require downward and horizontal climbing. The gameplay doesn’t handle either of these things well. You always end up falling even when you’re actively trying to wrap around things to keep your grip. This forced me to skip a lot of optional collectibles.
Climbing up is a bit easier, but once you get to some of the later levels even the mandatory upward climbs get too difficult. You have a grip button which is supposed to keep you stable on your current bar, but it doesn’t work well. You end up slipping off most of the time even when actively using the grip. One of the biggest problems with the climbing is that you have to maneuver the snake around every pole to make your way up manually. This wouldn’t be a problem is the movement wasn’t so sensitive and the camera so misleading. Too often do you try to wrap around a pole only to end up moving in front of it and missing altogether, causing you to fall. You feel like you’re moving the stick correctly, but the game says you missed. They should have implemented a system where the game recognizes your intended maneuver based on trajectory and proximity and auto assisted with the climbing, because it never feels like a skill issue once you actually get the hang of the climbing. It’s always missed maneuvers because of the camera. You can move the camera manually, but you don’t tend to turn it while you’re climbing a thin structure that’s center screen. No other game asks you to do that so it’s very unintuitive. And because of the gravity in the game, you don’t often have the ability to sit still while you realign the camera in the middle of a climb.
The puzzles get hard fairly quickly. By the second world I was already dying over and over and falling constantly because the difficulty of obstacles had risen substantially from the first world. The respawn loading is almost instant though so at least there’s that. There are only 15 levels, but I didn’t make it to the end because I got fed up with the climbing and finally rage quit. The sad part is that I really wanted to like this game. I like the concept and everything else about the game is really good. But Sumo Digital Ltd. decided to go Dark Souls when they really should have gone Sly Cooper. For concept this game gets high marks, but for execution they put too much focus on realism and sacrificed fun.
There’s actually a decent amount of replay value considering there are only 15 levels. The game has 34 trophies including a platinum. They are for various things such as dying a lot (Dark Souls) and collecting items. There are also 12 hidden trophies. After you complete a world, all the levels in that world gain a time trial mode. This is about unlocking and reaching the gate as quickly as possible. The bonus collectibles don’t matter. There is a specific time you have to beat to get the time trial completion award. The game shows you how many collectibles you’ve found in the level select screen and pause menu. What’s really nice is that the collectibles don’t reappear in the levels when you revisit them. If you return to a level, only the stuff you missed will be there, making the process much more efficient. Each level has an online leaderboard for the time trial mode as well. If you don’t care about the bonuses and trophies, each level shouldn’t take you more than five to ten minutes, assuming you don’t spend an hour stuck on the same climbing obstacle. Meaning that the whole game should only take the minimalist player a maximum of three hours. If you try to do everything it will take you considerably longer, but I doubt you put in 20 hours. I think the $20 price tag is too high. $10 is fair, $15 might be tolerable. $5 is a great price. But again, you may not end up finishing it because of the faulty climbing system.
Snake Pass is literally a bittersweet symphony. In a lot of ways this game takes the all too common 2D puzzle game and improves the model in every way. It has great graphics and sound, giving you the same feeling you got as a kid playing RARE titles. Well if you’re old enough anyway. There’s actual writing, which is very rare for this genre. But the writing is also not bad, making its presence even more satisfying. And there’s a fair amount of replay value, but not so many levels that it gets annoying like many of these puzzle games they churn out today. Really the only problem with this game is the climbing mechanics. But they’re the key component of the gameplay and thus a deal breaker. If not for this solitary issue, I would happily have called this a must buy, but that would be a terrible recommendation in this game’s current form. I genuinely hope Sumo Digital Ltd. adds in a patch to make the climbing more intuitive and properly functioning. I’d even take an easy mode setting if it made this game actually playable. I gave this game a six because of how low I scored it for gameplay, but if it wasn’t such a problem this would have easily gotten a seven from me.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to [email protected].
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