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.