Manoeuvring a character from platform to platform is a staple in video game design, a mechanic that has kept player interest since Super Mario Bros. conquered the world, all the way up until modern times. It continues to make headlines today and it doesn't seem to get old, however, game design is a creative business, and therefore platforming in and of itself has also become a foundation on which to build other mechanics and ideas. For example, Braid gave us the ability to manipulate time, Fez gave us the gift of manipulating the 2D world, and Uncle Scrooge's cane in Duck Tales gave us a bit of bounce. Simple platforming is not enough; you have to reinvent the wheel to a certain degree, you have to experiment in order to recapture fans' love of platforming.
The latest developer to attempt to do so is Sumo Digital. In Snake Pass you're... well, a snake, which funnily enough represents a unique challenge in gathering the necessary orbs to progress from level to level, as your physique requires special considerations. You see, snakes are long, and they need to slither, using their wits to scale even the simplest of obstacles. Sumo Digital obviously thought that this might represent a fresh take on the usual platforming challenges, but what they've ended up doing is simply making everything feel slow, uninteresting and well, a bit backwards, this despite the fact that it may sound hilarious on paper.
No doubt some of you will take a look at Snake Pass and think that this is platforming combined with the amusing physicality and humour of say Octodad or Manuel Samuel. It's not, though. It's not funny, nor is it self-aware, it's just a platformer where you're a snake. Both games mentioned above are based on the the very essence of unpredictability, and they expect you to sit around with your loved ones in the living room, hilariously failing to perform a simple task because being an octopus in a suit makes everything harder than it has to be. It's aware of its shortcomings and uses it to create comedy and satire. Snake Pass is, despite its animal-like, Banjo-Kazooie inspired appearance, a serious game, where you have to strategise and think - it's not meant to be silly, and as you may begin to suspect, it's not a great game either.
The game is divided into levels, where each level requires you to locate a number of blue orbs, or keystone fragments, in order to open the exit. Furthermore, there are special coins that act as collectables, which represent the hardcore objectives, that only true snake masters are capable of reaching. These orbs are obviously placed up high, or somewhere a snake would have difficulty reaching, and so the game's main premise is for you to use your wits to slither about and wrap yourself around supporting structures to reach them. These structures are never truly creatively constructed, and are more often than not simply a fence of bamboo, a rock formation, wrapping yourself around a tree-branch to prevent you from falling into the abyss below, and so on. Sure, additional mechanics, like your hummingbird friend carrying you over jet streams, are introduced in later levels, but primarily you scale structures slowly in order to progress.
And that's about it, not that a simplistic approach is any indication that there isn't quality. Just look at Super Meat Boy, for example, a game that excels in offering tight, visually distinct and mechanically sound platforming. Snake Pass doesn't offer any of this, though, so let's break that down point by point. First off, the platforming isn't supposed to be tight, but we'd argue that it's simply too slow to be entertaining, even when you take the more methodical approach into consideration (of course, some of you might like this aspect). Reaching an orb, which would be a stroll anywhere else, can now feel like a chore, and requires you to spend time wrapping yourself around supporting structures every time you have to climb. It's simply not an entertaining mechanic, and more often that not, the snake's body doesn't react or shift its weight the way you expect.
You're even required to slither in order to move around a given level, and that means holding a trigger and swerving about with the analog stick. Even doing this, like with a classic car you've done up yourself, unforeseen stoppages are a part of the experience, and it frustrates even more so when you're used to snappier traversal. The idea of using a snake's unique physique might alter the platforming formula enough to carve out a niche for itself, but in reality it never justifies itself, and there's a constant sense of frustration.
Secondly, platformers, and especially platformers with a certain gimmick or mechanical addition, are a popular sub-genre these days, and as engines like Unity or Unreal Engine 4 (which Snake Pass is created in), have become easier to purchase and create with, we're seeing a rise of specialised platformers on consoles. That makes the pressure of creating something visually distinct all the more urgent, and Snake Pass doesn't have the visual persona that many of its counterparts have. The colourful 3D animations harken back to Banjo-Kazooie, and it's surely pleasing to the eye, but never to the point where it feels distinct or unique. Even the levels themselves simply exist like a platform hanging in space, with a 2D photo wrapped around. That's your world.
There's an element of entertainment to be found deep within the confines of Snake Pass, although this might be hard to spot at first. As always, figuring out a plan to wrap yourself around a certain structure, and executing it perfectly can make for fun moments, but they exist as mere glimmers in a wide open space of boredom. You may slither about, wrapping your head around each level's obstacles while you wrap and contort the snake to climb and descend, and sometimes it might even be mildly entertaining, giving you a slightly different take on an otherwise old and contrived platforming formula. That's not the majority of the experience, though; the majority is frustration, boredom, and simply asking yourself what being a snake really adds to the experience? Does holding a trigger and swerving the analog stick really make basic movement more compelling? Is making something more cumbersome ever a good idea? The questions keep piling up, but the answers were nowhere to be found in Sumo Digital's newest take on the genre.
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