Snake Pass sounds great, on paper.
It’s a whimsical, colourful puzzle-platformer by Sumo Digital, the British studio behind 2012’s brilliant Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed, with a soundtrack by legendary ex-Rare composer David Wise. It’s about leading an adorable, cartoony snake named Noodle through sprawling, detailed playgrounds filled with collectables, accompanied by his hummingbird best friend, Doodle.
But, since downloading the Switch version on Tuesday (16 hours later than planned, thanks to a badly botched eShop launch), rather than enjoying myself, I’ve spent most of my playtime just feeling a bit weird and conflicted.
Even Snake Pass’s appealing visuals, which made such a good first impression in the game’s trailers and previews, are a mixed bag in practice.
Even on the let’s-face-it-quite-underpowered-by-home-console-standards Switch, the graphics are vibrant, colourful, and inviting. Draw distances are long, textures look sharp, and animations are buttery smooth. Even Breath of the Wild’s windswept grass doesn’t look quite as fluffy and inviting as Snake Pass’s.
Yes, some of the PS4 version’s visual flair is missing – most disappointingly the rippling effect when Noodle travels through water – but Sumo Digital has done a good job keeping the vast majority of the effects intact on the Switch. They deserve credit for continuing to optimise the game, too: a recent update added depth-of-field effects to cutscenes and significantly improved the lighting and shadows.
However, as we’ve already discussed, the game doesn’t run in HD on the Switch. Even when docked, the game manages a measly 1200 × 675 pixel resolution – and handheld mode fares even worse, clocking in at around 844 × 475.
That’s significantly lower-resolution than the screen in Sony’s 2011 PlayStation Vita – it looks genuinely terrible on the Switch’s 720p display, and just isn’t acceptable for a new game running on brand new hardware.
Neither is Snake Pass’s awful, erratic camera.
It’s nigh-on impossible to look up, for one thing. Considering Noodle is a snake (i.e. fairly short), and the entire point of the game is to collect jewels, orbs, and coins from the tops of tall, stony structures and elaborate climbing frames, that often makes it impossible to see where you should be going next. The camera does a lousy job of keeping up with Noodle’s movements, too – it’s infuriating getting most of the way to your destination and then falling to your death because the thing you were climbing obstructed your view.
Even worse, the camera sometimes goes crazy and zooms into random stuff, like this:
And, horrifyingly, this:
You might think I’m exaggerating, but all these screenshots came from the same, roughly one-hour play session.
Snake Pass’s premise is basic but solid enough for a game like this. Each level tasks you with collecting three differently-coloured gems, which Doodle needs to power up the warp gate at the end of the level. There’s also a whole bunch of blue orbs in every level, which don’t seem to serve any purpose other than encouraging exploration, and five gold coins that serve as bait for completionists – they’re usually hard to find, and even harder to reach.
Controlling Noodle is satisfying when it works, but it can be tough to master. The left thumb stick moves Noodle’s head from side to side, the right trigger makes him slither forward, the left trigger makes him tense his muscles and “grip” whatever he’s wrapped around, and the A button lifts his head. As the difficulty ramps up, it does feel a bit like trying to “pat your head and rub your tummy”.
There are no enemies in the game, and Noodle can’t drown or die from falling long distances, although falling off the stage is a no-no, and there are obstacles like spikes that kill Noodle instantly if he touches them.
Again, on paper, it sounds like that’d make for some exciting, tense gameplay, but a weirdly punishing checkpoint system puts paid to that: If you die, you lose everything you’ve found since triggering the last checkpoint, which usually results in having to replay swathes of the level over and over again. More often than not, I found the coins and orbs quickly enough, but just couldn’t be bothered to collect them, knowing if I slipped up, it’d more than likely set me back a few minutes.
And the puzzle designs, if they can be called that, are a little too shallow. Mostly it’s just a case of, “here’s a slightly different, slightly taller configuration of wooden poles to climb; let us know when you’re ready for some more.” Sometimes the poles move, and sometimes you have to find hidden switches to open doorways and raise platforms, but that’s about it. Nothing too mentally taxing.
Probably the most egregious problem of all with the level design, though, is that you can often get away with ignoring the puzzles altogether. If you line yourself up with the side of a structure, hold the right trigger, and just sort of wiggle, you can usually make it to the top through sheer force of will:
If you’re designing a puzzle game, it’s probably not a bad idea to spend some time making sure the puzzles aren’t, y’know, optional.
The thing about Snake Pass – the thing that makes me feel so conflicted every time I play it – is that it has, undeniably, got a certain amount of charm. While I’m playing, it’s easy to convince myself that yes, it was worth the 20 bucks I threw at it, thank you very much; that, actually, yes I am having fun, and my slow progress is a product of me having not quite mastered the controls yet.
And then something happens to shatter the illusion all over again, like Noodle’s head getting immovably, game-breakingly stuck between these rocks.
And I get just a little bit closer to uninstalling it.