If there was one aspect of game design that I wish most games would stop taking for granted, it’s movement. Movement is such a fundamental aspect of interacting with a game that most of the time we don’t even think about it. I mean sure, many games make traversal a fun thing to do. Games like Assassin’s Creed, Batman: Arkham City, and most recently The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild all have incredibly fun traversal mechanics but the basic act of moving still remains the same: hold a stick or press a button to move in a direction. This approach to movement is so deeply ingrained in the gaming community that a game like Snake Pass isn’t so much a breath of fresh air as it is a roof-ripping hurricane.
Snake Pass is a stark reminder of just what developers could be (but not necessarily should be) doing with movement systems.
Looking at my notes after putting the game down, there was a clear progression of emotions during my first hour or so with Snake Pass. At first it’s novel. Then it’s tedious. Then it’s brilliant. Then it’s frustrating. Eventually, it becomes varying permutations of those feelings and you’ll never quite feel the same thing for too long.
The elevator pitch for Snake Pass would be that it’s a game where you have to think like a snake to succeed. The low-level mechanics of being a serpent lie at the very core of this game. Simply moving forward by holding a trigger, for instance, is a painfully slow affair, which makes sense because you’re essentially a big long chunk of muscle. But if you also wiggle the right stick (used to control your head) left and right while moving forward, you’ll start slithering instead of crawling which is significantly faster and, compared to just going forward, pretty much to only viable way to get around if you wish to get anywhere in time. Another trigger is used to grip tightly to whatever object you’re wrapped around, and a face button is dedicated to lifting your head up. No single element of the controls here make any sense, but together they form a fantastic ludic language with which to understand how to mind of a snake might work.
It’s just so incredibly smart.
Slithering across the ground feels great, but wrapping yourself around pillars and weaving through bamboo poles to stabilize yourself while climbing is downright genius. There is definitely a learning curve to Snake Pass and it’ll take some doing before you really feel like you’ve mastered this whole Being A Snake thing. And it’s only when you feel like you’ve attained mastery over the mechanics that the real test of skill begins.
See, as novel and interesting as Snake Pass is, it’s also crushingly difficult. Platforming is tricky, puzzles are hard, death comes quickly, and checkpoints are sparse. Losing over 20 minutes of collecting things because of a single slip-up isn’t an uncommon occurrence here. The obstacles in Snake Pass don’t so much get tougher as they do get bigger. So you don’t have to get better at being a snake so much as you have to be good at being a snake for longer and that can lead to some hair-pulling moments later down the line. The feeling of walking a perpetual tightrope is exacerbated by unforgiving (but perfectly realistic) physics where the hardest challenges are not tests of skill, but patience and perseverance.
Your primary motive for putting yourself through this is collectible hunting. Each of the 15 levels in Snake Pass as 3 keystones that you need to progress to the next level. In addition to the keystones, each level also has 5 coins and 20 orbs which are completely optional unless you want 100% completion. The coins are invariably found along the hardest platforming paths while the orbs are just a little ways off the way you need to go.
Neither of them are important as they have no rewards tied to them but an end-of-level completion statistic, which means it wasn’t long before I started to completely ignore them and just focus on finishing each level.
This emphasis on nebulous collectibles is my biggest gripe with Snake Pass. Scanning every nook and cranny wouldn’t be such a chore in something like, say, Yooka-Laylee, but given how tricky and tense it is to just move around in Snake Pass, having to retread entire levels to get one or two collectibles feels straight up torturous. Beating all the levels grants you the ability to see all the hidden collectibles in all the levels, but if you’re the kind of person who got through the game once ignoring the optional stuff, you probably aren’t going to go back for them.
My other big problem with Snake Pass is the camera. On several occasions, the view would be just off enough to make me miss one ounce of micro-movement needed to make it to a platform. Again, slight camera foibles can be overlooked in a game with looser platforming mechanics but the camera in Snake Pass is always at odds with the precision that its platforming requires. In several situations, it’s possible that you’ll have both index fingers on a trigger, your left thumb on the left stick and your right thumb on the face button that lifts your head up. If such a situation also requires you to move the right stick to adjust the camera, there is something clearly wrong here.
With all that said and done, none of these admittedly frustrating problems ever manages to dull the enjoyment that Snake Pass brings. Over time, you get used to the camera inconsistencies and learn to anticipate niggling annoyances in your journey. I just wish that journey was a little bit shorter because the sheer act of moving through it is so much fun.
At the end of the day, none of those negative points will affect Snake Pass‘s legacy. This isn’t a game that will be remembered for its frustrating camera or meaningless collectibles, but for its quirky aesthetic and ingenious movement mechanics.
Snake Pass was reviewed on PS4 using a review code provided by Sumo Digital and on Nintendo Switch using a copy purchased by the reviewer.