Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Snake Pass

During 2017, 3D platformers saw a resurgence in interest, due in part to indie developers exploring new options with the genre. Of the more well-known attempts at reviving the genre, the one that received a lot of attention was Yooka-Laylee, developed by former members of Rare, a British developer known for such titles as Banjo-Kazooie, GoldenEye 007 and Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Having no nostalgia for Rare’s titles, however, I found myself more interested in two of its competitors, Snake Pass and A Hat in Time, the former of which I would pick up as a free giveaway through Humble Bundle. With this in mind, I thought that Snake Pass’ main gimmick of a platformer without jumping really allows for some innovative ideas, but I’m not sure I would have liked it as much if I had paid its $20 asking price.

In Snake Pass, a mysterious intruder has stolen the Keystones that allow travel around the realms of Haven Tor. When the hummingbird Doodle discovers this, she awakens her best friend, the coral snake Noodle, to retrieve the Keystones and restore Haven Tor to its former glory.

While the game’s narrative has a rather minimal presentation, it’s fitting for gameplay-focused title and its purpose of motivating the player through completing the game. Completing each realm offers some semblance of world building, as each of the four realm’s guardians bestows a treasure onto Doodle and Noodle, all of which are relevant at the end. Though suitably light-hearted, the ending still felt anticlimactic considering the buildup to finally encountering the one who has disrupted Haven Tor.

Like other gameplay-centric titles, the main meat of the game likes in the core mechanics. In this case, it’s a platformer where instead of jumping around, Noodle moves like a real snake and each of the fifteen levels is based in understanding and exploiting this concept. Moving forward at a good speed requires serpentine movements and reaching new areas involves coiling around and gripping onto different objects that are either stationary or in motion. In certain situations, the player can even have Doodle assist Noodle by lifting his tail in the air. Certain areas require swimming, though fortunately the controls work well and Noodle can’t drown. Some puzzles may also require pushing balls into holes or coiling around switches and levers to permanently alter the level to Doodle’s advantage.

Doodle has a versatile body.

What helps keep the gameplay fresh, however, is that each realm has its own gimmick that their set of levels takes full advantage of. These gimmicks are mostly themed after the elements, including a jungle realm, followed by water, lava and wind. However, they also gradually introduce unique hazards, like deadly spikes, that carry over into later realms.

While advancing to the next level only requires collecting the three Keystones in each level and returning them to their proper place, players can also challenge themselves by collecting two other optional collectibles, twenty Blue Whisps and five Gatekeeper Coins. These collectibles are typically placed in hard-to-reach places and can easily require full mastery of the mechanics from the most persistent players. Despite only having fifteen levels, the game also adds its own replay value through time trials for speedrunning each level and an arcade mode where players try to earn points within a certain time limit. Beating the game also unlocks Snake Vision, which helps Doodle locate missing collectibles as long as he’s idle.

As much as I enjoyed the idea behind Snake Pass and enjoyed the unique approach to level design brought on by Doodle’s mechanics, the execution of those ideas felt rough. The game’s platforming elements naturally get more difficult and stretch the player’s abilities, but some sections require enough precision that they can feel more frustrating than fun, especially if you continuously die to the same hazards or fall mid-climb. The checkpoint system alleviates this, but only so much, since they can have pretty inconvenient placement. Additionally, while checkpoints do save progress, they only save up to the last interaction, meaning that if you complete a difficult platforming challenge to get a Keystone and then die, you have to collect it all over again. The wind gimmick in the fourth realm also frustrated me the most, since falling into bottomless pits is a lot more common unless you master the grip mechanic and while Doodle can help Noodle across certain gaps, Noodle’s head is usually inexplicably pointed toward a pit when he lands (once he nearly fell off the edge by himself).

Things can get especially hairy if you're going for the Guardian Coins.

Fortunately, Snake Pass is at least great to look at, with an appealing and expressive cartoony art style, especially for Noodle, and some impressive environmental designs. I also liked that while the voice work was very minimal, even more so than a Rare game, Noodle and Doodle were pleasant on the ears. David Wise also produced a good score that captures the lighthearted tone of the game and sticks with you while playing.

Snake Pass has a lot to offer with its clever outside-the-box approach to mechanics and level design, though the experience itself isn’t always pleasant and only the most dedicated players will get a lot out of it, especially since you can beat the entire game in about four hours. If you’re on the fence, consider waiting for a sale.

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