Snake Pass review: Sumo Digital slithering puzzle platformer is an inventive delight

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Snake Pass Trailer (PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC)Sumo Digital

In just the past few weeks we've taken part in an epic fairy tale, hunted robot dinosaurs, fought for the survival of half a dozen species in another galaxy, rained hell down on violent drug cartels and battled cognitive demons in Japan.

Between all that dramatic madness it's nice to have the option to play something as refreshingly chill as Sumo Digital's serpentine platformer Snake Pass. It couldn't have been released at a better time.

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Snake Pass is a physics-based puzzler entirely about players mastering a simple set of surprisingly authentic-feeling mechanics recreating the slithering movement of a snake – in this case, a snake called Noodle.

It's a platformer without a jump button. An intriguing prospect given how integral the ability to jump has been to the genre started by Nintendo and its plumber-in-chief Mario, himself originally called Jumpman.

Controls are simple. Players move Noodle's bonce with the analogue stick, right trigger moves him forward, the left trigger grips him on to the game's various obstacles and a face button (''A'' in the case of Nintendo Switch) lifts Noodle's head, allowing them to move up to objects.

Another face button (''X'' on Nintendo Switch) commands Noodle's hummingbird friend Doodle to lift his tail-end, helping prevent a few avoidable, deadly tumbles.

Noodle really is a very good snakeSumo Digital

In practice, the effect of this snake's movement is tactile, weighty and tough to master. Players need to loop Noodle's lengthy bod around bamboo constructs to reach new areas and heights, in an effort to collect each of the 15 levels' 28 collectables.

Only three of these items are necessary to exit a level and move on to the next area: three gems that open a portal found somewhere in the world. Everything else simply appeals to that innate completionist urge. There are no abilities to unlock, no secret areas hidden behind doors, just a word to explore and empty slots on the completion screen to fill.

Snake Pass has been released around the same time as Playtonic's nostalgic platformer Yooka-Laylee, a proudly up-front love letter to classic platformers, and a spiritual successor to Rare's Banjo-Kazooie.

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Where Yooka is trying, unashamedly, to recreate the past, Snake Pass centres on a cool new idea and makes it work within the genre's conventional style. Comparing the two directly only works to a point however. They may look and sound similar, but they're hoping to achieve different things.

What Snake Pass achieves is a unique sense of movement in a gaming world filled with humanoid, anthropomorphised protagonists. It puts that movement to test in worlds littered with nooks and crannies and challenges begging to be overcome.

The exquisite animation of Noodle himself compliments the sensation of movement to such a degree that Snake Pass becomes a snake simulator of sorts, despite its appearance suggesting something far simpler.

The movement feels so different to anything you'll have encountered before that, early on, Snake Pass is quite frustrating. Get to grips with it however (which itself involves getting to grips with the grip button and realising it is your best friend) and any blame being laid is suddenly at your feet, not the game's.

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Noodle (the snake) and Doodle (the bird), Snake Pass's intrepid heroes.Sumo Digital
He's all smiles now, but this could go south quickly.Sumo Digital

Well, not entirely. Movement can be sluggish at times (players need to weave to build up speed, but certain pathways make that tougher than it ought to be) and the give-or-take entirely manual camera can be fiddly. An automated camera would likely be even more frustrating however, so in this department Sumo would have been damned either way.

These complaints compound the sense that Snake Pass is harder than it probably should be. Or, more accurately, that it requires a more gradual learning curve than it has.

Each of the 15 levels looks amazing, but too quickly they feel like sandboxes that are too big and littered with too many toys. Those toys are also quite limited, comprising almost entirely of those bamboo constructs or frustrating put-this-in-that puzzles requiring players to push objects around clumsily. A few more authored, linear levels early on may have eased the difficulty curve. For example, early on I found myself struggling to climb an object because I hadn't yet found the area that taught me the grip mechanic.

Snake Pass7 stars

Snake Pass is designed for 20 to 30 minute bursts, getting a little frustrated during that time but revelling in the satisfaction of completing a climb and finding a new trinket for the pile. It has issues with its structure and pacing, but not at all with the artistry of its mechanics or audio-visual design. Given life by David Wise's laid back, fun and thoroughly-hummable score, Noodle's world is rich, vibrant and a joy to slither around.

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