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Indie Game of the Week 67: Snake Pass

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Sometimes I feel I set myself up for disaster with the choices I make for this feature. I've made it abundantly apparent in the past that, while I continue to give physics-based platformers such as Human: Fall Flat or Octodad: Dadliest Catch chances, I usually walk away feeling aggravated by how arbitrary they can feel and how paper-thin their gameplay is beyond "we've made it that much more awkward to complete these otherwise simple challegnes by adding a bunch of limitations and weird controls you have to fight against to progress". Snake Pass strongly resembles those games with its serpentine platforming - one of the only platforming games I know of where your main character lacks legs or feet - and yet it manages to surpass its gimmicky premise. I really love this game, and I'm going to struggle to put into words why when it continues to bash me with its difficulty and weird control scheme. But hey, I'm a paragraph into a review for the game, so I might as well try anyway.

Snake Pass comes to us courtesy of the profoundly busy UK developers Sumo Digital, who have worked on numerous racing games, Sega games, Sega racing games, and with various other major publishers on all sorts of projects. The vast majority of their work are big-budget "AAA" games, making Snake Pass something of an anomaly, but it's clear after playing it for a few minutes where the inspiration came from to make this otherwise peculiar take on the 3D platforming genre. The first hint are the game's colorful and cutesy graphics, which invoke a certain era of a certain British developer when they were king of the heap as far as platforming was concerned. The second hint is the sublime soundtrack from David Wise, who channels his legacy of chill Donkey Kong Country jungle beats for this new tropical hero. Snake Pass was evidently created with the same degree of affection and appreciation for Rare's Nintendo 64 output that callbacks like Yooka Laylee or A Hat in Time exhibit, but unlike those games smartly tries to modernize the genre in a way that presents players with a wholly unique set of challenges to overcome.

Levels are short, but they can be tricky to navigate and still have enough nooks and crannies for some carefully-concealed lucre. Vantage points like this help for scanning (as well as make for some pretty vistas).
Levels are short, but they can be tricky to navigate and still have enough nooks and crannies for some carefully-concealed lucre. Vantage points like this help for scanning (as well as make for some pretty vistas).

Your serpentine hero is unable to jump up to new heights or cross gaps in a single bound, but can instead rely on its contiguous body and grip strength to pull itself up and across obstacles by slithering around them. You learn the cadence of the game fairly quick during the early levels with some handy tutorials for basic controls and then a set of "learn by doing" obstacles to defeat with the tools you've been provided. You learn that coiling yourself around wooden posts is the best way to stabilize your forward momentum, or keep from falling if there's a chasm beneath you, and likewise you pick up how to recover from 80% of your body dangling off a ledge, or how best to navigate across an ambulatory contraption, or the best time to reach out to grab collectibles hanging in mid-air. For as unusual as these snake controls are, it's an intuitive system that - while not always simple to command - at least has a consistency that makes the frequent deaths that much easier to bear. As does the game's frequent checkpointing: as a game built around manipulating a precarious environment to find collectibles (there's three separate groups, but only the smallest set of three gems is compulsory) and getting back to solid land, it can't provide the usual kindness of auto-saving after every collectible found. What it does instead is provide an ample number of checkpoints, which can be continually revisited to save whatever collectible progress you've made. You rarely have two or three sets of climbing frames between you and the nearest checkpoint, so even if you end up spending an hour trying to snatch the same coin, it doesn't feel like you've wasted too much time getting back to where the action is. Balancing high difficulty with frequent enough checkpointing (or small enough levels, as would be the case with something like Super Meat Boy or N++) is the most vital balance issue to get right in a game like this, and I was heartened that Snake Pass nailed it.

Personality-wise, I feel Snake Pass owes a small debt to Snakebird. Not just because of the similar premise of slithering around to solve diabolical puzzles, but more the easy-going attitude, cheery frustration-assuaging presentation, and little splashes of humor that goes into the characterization of your otherwise mute snake protagonist Noodle. It's one thing to make snakes cute - I've no issue with the creatures myself, living in a country where barely any of them are venomous, but I imagine it's a task as difficult as making spiders and bugs cute - but another to inject a lot of character in them with their facial expressions without giving them some typically sibilance-heavy dialogue. Noodle has a laid-back countenance for the most part, but this changes whenever they appear to be in peril - such as holding onto a platform with just their neck muscles, or falling into an abyss. It reminds me a lot of the way the Snakebird creatures would adopt worried expressions if the next move will invariably kill them, not only invoking a humorously sympathetic reaction from the player but also giving them direct feedback that their current course of action is doomed to failure.

How can you hate something this cute? Even if it keeps falling off the SAME DAMN POLE AGHHHHHHH
How can you hate something this cute? Even if it keeps falling off the SAME DAMN POLE AGHHHHHHH

The aspect I was prepared to hate the most - the difficulty, and how I'd frequently have to repeat the same instance until lady luck shines down and all the desperate physics wrangling fell into place - is greatly mitigated by the game's checkpointing and how quickly I acclimatized to maneuvering around these levels with the mindset of a snake. Like many off-beat physics simulators, the game began after programmers were messing around with the capabilities of the UnReal engine and struck upon a novel concept for a game, but in Snake Pass's case it feels like a lot of work went into building a silly notion into a well-considered, polished professional product, and it's more than I can say for most of them. I didn't anticipate I'd be into it this much, especially with the amount of times I've died so far, but between its smart design and that warmly familiar presentation I'm glad I didn't decide to forsake all games built on exasperating physics nonsense.

(Disclaimer: I played the Switch version of the game.)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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