Wot I Think: Excellent physics-puzzler Snake Pass

Smarter than half a dozen BioShocks despite looking a bit like it fell from a lost GameCube promotional disc, Snake Pass [official site] is an animal physics game without the slapstick comedy that often entails. (Tail, like a snake has).

I’m not sure if it’s best referred to as a platformer or a puzzle game. The main activity in Snake Pass is progressing from one platform to another, but where historically (hiss, like a snake) platformers involve high-speed bounding from place to place, this is about slow-speed slithering, climbing and clenching. You’re a snake, see. Snakes don’t jump, apart from in that bit in David Attenborough when one of them snatches a hummingbird out of the air or something.

Snakes crawl. Snakes squeeze. Snakes wrap their long, legless bodies around things. So, what you need to learn here is how to be a snake. It’s an excellent (eggs, like I’m 90% sure snakes lay) concept and smartly delivered, despite the superficially kiddy skin (skin, like snakes shed).

Just to cover the appearance quickly before I slither (slither, like… no, I guess you got that one already) off to talk about how it works. It’s attractive and cheesy in equal measure. The Unreal engine gives the tropical theme park-esque environments a lovely lush sheen, while the few characters that there are are on the sub-Disney side of things.

Which I don’t begrudge (grudge, like snakes have against mongooses) at all, but simply feel that its hey kids! appearance is somewhat at odds with how bastard hard this thing can be. That said, I suspect the average 10 year old is infinitely better at games than I am. Anyway, I’d file Snake Pass’s aesthetic under ‘inoffensive’, and am simply satisfied that it doesn’t interfere with the smart, challenging physics-puzzling.

Snake Pass is, like all platformers, all about movement. Movement here is very different from the norm, due to the lack of legs (legs, like snakes lack). Even simply moving forwards over even terrain is glacially slow – to pick up speed, you need to rhythmically turn left and right, creating the s-shaped crawl that snakes are known for (s-shaped crawls, like snakes are known for). Thing is, you won’t spend much time at all on even terrain, and more commonly have to apply that thinking to crawling along or, crucially, up poles and other constructions that invariably hang precariously over fatal drops. (Wilhelm screams, like snakes don’t actually do).

With judicious use of directional controls, the key trick is wrap yourself around something so you won’t simply fall off it, then inch along or up. There are moments when this becomes a natural, steady flow, the snake looping effortlessly around a series of poles as your hands dance gently across the controls, and others were progress is minute and stressful.

As well as pure movement, also in the mix is a ‘grip’ button that locks part of the snake’s curled form in place, boa constrictor style, and one that calls a near-constant bird companion to lift your tail in the air in order to prevent its weight from dragging you down to Earth/into a bottomless chasm. Doing well at Snake Pass usually requires a sustained fluidity of control in addition to sussing out where you need to go and how not to fall off it – i.e. both dexterity and logical thinking.

If it sounds fiddly, it is. If it doesn’t sound fiddly, it is. But not bad fiddly. In some ways it puts me in mind of a more accessible take on GIRP and CLOP – consciously mapping controls against convention and instead with an interest in more accurately replicating reality. Smiley vegetarian snake and islands full of cheery mystical relics aside, that is. It’s one of those games where you can be deep into it and your mind switches into working on its wavelength – everything feels natural – but the next time you play, it feels like trying to ride a bike with your head.

I dig both states, the former because I feel in the zone, the latter because seeming small achievements like getting to the top of this short tower or that plateau feel absolutely immense. It can hurtle into real difficulty though, like pulling levers in mid-air or timing a series of falls just so, and I’ll admit to moments of acute frustration.

I like Snake Pass best when it allows multiple, ad hoc-feeling solutions to the core challenge of how to get over there or on top of that, and a little less when there’s only one, precise way to do it and it takes me potentially dozens of attempts to do so. But it’s that sort of game – either you want that persistent challenge or you don’t.

Most of all, I marvel at how well it’s done snakes (snakes, like snakes). This could, as I say, have been all comic pratfalls and Goat Simulator destruction, but instead it’s an extremely careful study in how snakes navigate their bizarre bodies around, then transplanted into broadly well-done puzzle-places. I feel in awe of how well-realised this is, almost more than I actually enjoy it. I really do enjoy it though, so much so that I ended up picking it up for my Switch too (making it only the second game I own for Nintendo’s latest toy). Snake Pass gets an easy pass from me.

Snake Pass out now on Windows for £15.99/19,99€/$19.99, via Steam.

From this site

38 Comments

  1. Ghostwise says:

    These puns rattled me.

  2. mechavolt says:

    I’m enjoying it so far. Getting the gate keys is relaxing. Getting all of the glowing blue things isn’t particularly difficult, but there are a handful that are hidden well or slightly challenging. The coins, though, some of those are stupidly difficult for me, and I hate them with a passion.

  3. Baseplate says:

    If I have a extreme fear of snakes, will I enjoy this game?

    Just watching the video makes my stomach hurt. Weird, isn’t it?

    • Otterley says:

      If it’s a proper phobia it will probably be too gruesome, cuteness notwithstanding. I used to have really bad arachnophobia and couldn’t play some games because of it. Cartoonish spiders weren’t quite as bad, but I would never have played a game of eight-legged QWOP.

    • Caiman says:

      Conversely, it may actually help. The main character, Noodle, is so incessantly charming and inoffensive, it’s hard to imagine it striking fear into anyone, especially as he voices cartoonish fear as he’s wrapped round a particularly precarious perch. He’s also a vegetarian, if that helps.

  4. Chappers says:

    Histor’s eye parody?

  5. Hypocee says:

    So thankful to RPS for telling me this existed a week or two ago. Gonna buy it twice, I think.

    When people jump into hyperspace about Interactivity and Art in game design, this is one of the paths I always think about – the experience of being differently embodied. Don’t get me wrong – most of my favourite and most important games don’t even have a concept of the player’s presence. Most of the rest involve being a unit vector – a gun, a spaceship. The remainder from that? Mostly biped bodies.

    But out on the fractal fringe, there are these burning specks on my mind. String Thing. Gish. Pendulumania. Often World of Goo. Mushroom 11. That particularly tweaked stick figure swinger I only knew as doublewire.swf. Games which place a mind into a body for which different things are possible and impossible; games which can temporarily change what is natural.

  6. AshkEl says:

    What controller did you use to review it? Is it a purely joypad game, or are mouse and keyboard a viable option?

    I watched a dev video on how it controls and they were using a joypad, but I don’t have one and need comment on this before I consider buying it.

    • Hypocee says:

      I’ll note that I watched a dev interview where they said essentially, ‘We’ve done what we can with KBAM, they work, but it’s hard to make them feel good. We recommend a pad.’

      I’ll note that the preview build all the preview videos and LPs were made from included levels 1, 4 and 13 of 15. In all of that I didn’t see anything that required speed and precision in movement. It looks like you’re unlikely to find yourself blocked by controls because this game isn’t fundamentally about execution challenge.

      But on the other hand (which snakes lack), it is very much about the moment-to-moment experience of being integrated with the character’s movement, of which you’ll lose something by swinging the camera back and forth rather than curving your ‘neck’. How much is lost, that’s pretty subjective.

      With apologies because you’ve probably heard this before, I see acceptable PS3 pads, which double as Windows pads, for 5 and a half quid on Amazon. What if you added that to the price of the game?

      • LionsPhil says:

        Uf, I watched the first few minutes of the “how does the movement work” video, but it’s presented as “two guys on a couch” where inevitably there’s the one guy who knows what’s doing who I actually want to hear, and the other guy who ruins everything by interruping him with inane I-love-the-sound-of-my-own-voice commentary.

    • Ragnar says:

      If you do not yet have a controller, I highly recommend the Xbox One gamepad.

      It fixes the terrible D-pad of the 360 pad, it feels more ergonomic than the PS4 pad and 99% of PC games automatically recognize it and change the button prompts accordingly, and you can use it wired with a cable or wireless via Bluetooth or the corresponding wireless dongle.

  7. Ninja Dodo says:

    I’ve been playing the first couple levels of this and it is grand! Stuff like this is why games are wonderful.

  8. April March says:

    That was a beatiful litany of horrible puns. Classic RPS there. I have to applaud Alec (like a snake can’t).

  9. DinoSteak says:

    Most fun I’ve had with a “platformer” in a great big long time. It’s a masterclass of level and sound design (albeit a sparse one) and the soundtrack is perfect. Very original and intuitive game, I’m about halfway through.

  10. Premium User Badge

    Seyda Neen says:

    It’s like you guys want me to stay poor.

  11. Premium User Badge

    Aerothorn says:

    So given how much you liked it, why is this not an RPS Recommended game? Is that reserved for games that are Bigger/More Important?

    • Otterley says:

      Well, Bomb Squad Academy and Orwell are recommended, so there’s probably a different reason.
      (Also Afghanistan 11, not sure what that indicates, though ^^)

    • Premium User Badge

      Seyda Neen says:

      I always guess that at least two or three RPS staffers have to play a game and like it for it to be given a recommended stamp, so if only Alec has tried this it won’t be ‘recommended’. But that’s a guess without much evidence.

    • DelrueOfDetroit says:

      I’m pretty sure they just forget most of the time.

  12. Otterley says:

    The cuteness is a bit overwhelming. I’m hoping for some Fang & Venom DLC, or at least some voles to constrict. Ooh, perhaps a cobra hood?

  13. LionsPhil says:

    Oh, hey, Sumo Digital! Those were the guys who did that Sonic Racing one, which probably explains why this has colors other than brown in it.

  14. Caiman says:

    I love this game, but yes it is hard. Actually, it’s quite easy at first, but getting those coins is seriously challenging. Trying to get the first two on the very first level (not required, unless you’re a completionist) really teaches you the hard way how to control Noodle in difficult situations. I died many, many times (and got an achievement for it) but then suddenly it clicked, and my enjoyment of the rest of the game so far has quadrupled. It’s a joy mastering a challenging system and seeing yourself get better at it, if you have the patience to get past the initial feeling of being utterly crap.

  15. BIKINIstate says:

    I was pleased to note that devs Sumo Digital are from Sheffield, which is linked to Manchester by a road through the Pennines called Snake Pass. I like to think that they had the idea for the name before they had the idea for the game, like “Touch of Frost”, or “Doc Martin” on TV.

    Still looking for that life.

    Edit: From Wikipedia regarding a hostelry on said road “The Snake Pass Inn was originally called the Snake Inn, but is now named after the pass itself, which in turn was named after the pub.”

  16. Buggery says:

    It’s a lovely, lovely game, which is good because it hides how bastard hard it can be. Very good though. I bought it on the Switch because it felt right there

  17. The Bitcher III says:

    It’s a snake game – check
    It’s a platformer – check
    It’s got a fiddly camera that is actually an integral control – check.

    Repeatedly caught myself twisting and bending my upper body and arms as if the x360 pad was VR / motion control, and what higher recommendation is there than that?

    There is also something glorious about the simple joy of climbing to the top of tiny 3D worlds and peering down at the whole level.

    I’ll even forgive the developers for this contender for ‘most acutely facepalm inducing-est loading screen message of all time and forever’:

    ‘Did You Know? Noodle is a vegetarian.’

Comment on this story

XHTML: Allowed code: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>