Chants of Sennaar: A Lavishing Linguistic Puzzle Game

by: 
hello world!
Iain McParland
| February 26, 2024
hello world!

Hola! Salut! Hallo! Szia! Hej! Howdy!

Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth? From context, you would know they all translate to “hi”, but you would maybe not know which language it was translated from. Welcome to the world of Chants of Sennaar, a game released in September 2023, developed by Rundisc and published by Focus Entertainment

This puzzling adventure revolves around communication. Your task is to progress through five levels and learn to converse with the denizens living there. The only way to traverse up the tower these people call home is to use context clues to partially translate each of their pictographic languages. 

Good communication is a key skill in life. And for this tower, it’s a matter of life and death. DUN DUN DUNNNNNNNNNNN!

Story and Gameplay

Say Wut?

Your playable, nameless character awakens from its sarcophagus, unaware of where they are or how they got there. Shortly afterwards, you meet a helpful being who talks to you in an unknown language. This is where things get tricky. Their pictographic language (think hieroglyphics) is a mystery, and all you can do is guess what they’re trying to say. This can be easy (maybe they wave at the same time as saying a word potentially meaning a greeting), or it can be tremendously difficult, sometimes taking hours to discover enough clues to translate a word. 

You traverse the world, trying to confirm enough of the language to progress to the next level, where you’ll be faced with a BRAND-NEW language! It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, though. With your inability to effectively communicate, sometimes you have to be sneaky, resulting in stealth sections to circumvent “misunderstandings”. Those “misunderstandings” can lead to death but you’re a peaceful soul so there’s no combat, mortal or otherwise.

Repeat the cycle, progress, and discover the new language. 

However, I cannot praise the game enough for the depth of each of the languages. 

For example: the basic word “we”. In one level, you can translate a pictograph to “me”, and the way to say “we” is to say “me” twice in a row. In other levels, there are words that pluralise (i.e. me becomes we with the addition of this word). Even then, where you place that word is important. That’s right: GRAMMAR! 

I suck at stealth

Loosely based on the Tower of Babel story from the Bible, the aim of the game is to reach the top of the tower and, ultimately, reconnect the disparate communities living within. That is the only way to save the tower from ruin. Communication and collaboration!

Exploration is essential to translate the languages and fill out your notebook. However, this is where one of the game’s weaknesses is revealed. The lack of a map was frustrating. There were times I found interesting landmarks that I wanted to go back to later, and I totally forgot how to get back. Hell, I found and lost fast travel points more than once. I’m not asking for a Metroidvania-y zone representation; just something to mark points of interest to go back to later. 

Another negative are the stealth sections. They’re functional, and they at least have generous checkpointing, but they feel superfluous to the core gameplay. And I suck at stealth. It may be a me problem, but these sections were not necessary.

Visuals and Sound

Notebook is GOATED

The graphical style is clean and minimalistic. It’s cell-shaded and colorful: very pretty. It reminds me of games like Rollerdrome and Hellboy: Web of Wyrd. It’s not just for style, though. The minimalist design is functional, making it easier to read the speech bubbles and text.

When you

, the pictures are easy to understand and match to the various graphical representations of language. It’s all very clean, simple and functional. My only gripe is the keyboard pop-up you can use to type placeholder words before having them confirmed. I played this on my PS5, and it opened the fugly PS5 keyboard pop-up, taking me out of the game as it did so. 

Music is terrifically put together by Thomas Brunet. It is meditative and ambient, fitting to the style of the game. If you want to chillax, this is a game for you. Unfortunately, it might be too relaxing in some parts. The main character’s footsteps can sound like a metronome, and this, together with the ambient sounds of Sennaar, can soothe you to sleep if you’re not careful. I was mighty close on a few occasions!

Summary

What the heck does that mean?

Chants of Sennaar was released in September of last year, so why am I talking about this now? Well, because it came out in September of last year, sandwiching in between all of the big hitters of last year, including Baldur’s Gate 3 and Starfield. For a small indie title that’s much more Duolingo than DnD, it’s a tough ask to make an impact. 

I bought and played this game to 100% completion in two days. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. The puzzles and exploration are compelling, and the languages Rundisc have created are deep with variable syntaxes. It’s a triumph in game design. 

The lack of maps and sometimes obtuse clues (or I’m dumb) did reduce some of my enjoyment, but it was barely noticeable. Even when I was in a jam, I could sometimes brute-force solutions to puzzles with trial and error. I was ashamed but not too ashamed to resort to it. You’re never really stuck unless you haven’t explored sufficiently enough.

Chants of Sennaar deserves another light shone on it. It’s a challenging but enjoyable puzzle game based on learning languages. Bon! Muy Bien! Guten! Fandabbydozy! 

Ok, I’ll stop.

Chants of Sennaar is available to buy for around $20 on Steam, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

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