Xbox One, PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch
September 5, 2023
The concept of language is fairly compelling when you think about it. Every culture has one, and there are differences between each; some subtle, some extreme – and that’s before we get into any jargon terms or hyper-local references, ya bloody larrakin. Finding those commonalities between different languages can be difficult, but rewarding, as anyone who has learned another language or traveled the world can attest. Chants of Sennaar, from French indie studio Rundisc, takes this idea of learning language and turns it into a puzzle concept that steers the entirety of the experience. It’s a gorgeous game that, piece by piece, forces you to learn. Learn from your surroundings and from your interactions with others. While a potentially daunting concept, Chants of Sennaar makes this process engaging and satisfying, with a few moments that are lost in translation along the way.
An adventure puzzle experience based on the myth of Babel, your nameless and faceless protagonist will explore a giant tower, with different communities of people who no longer speak to each other. Your goal is to learn each of their unique dialects, break down those communication barriers, and restore balance to the tower. No easy feat.
How you’ll do this is by talking with strangers in each community, or eavesdropping, along with taking stock of signs in the environment with symbols. These symbols will repeat in different scenarios so that you can piece together what you think a sentence might be. Things start off simple enough; an interaction with a person out of reach, both of you needing to use switches to unblock pathways. They wave at you. That means ‘hello’, right? Then, they point for you to pull the lever. Maybe they’re saying ‘pull’. Or is it ‘open’? What about ‘switch’? Chants of Sennaar allows you to make a note of the symbol (using the on-screen keyboard) to use your best guess, which will then translate those symbols into that word of choice whenever you see it. Slowly, you’ll be seeing sentences unravel and form into full thoughts and signs giving you actual directions.
“Chants of Sennaar is one of the most visually striking games you’ll play this year…”
It’s a wholly unique concept, and they’ve pulled it off incredibly well. There are five ancient languages you’ll need to decipher, and the process of figuring it all out is immensely satisfying. At certain points, when you’ve observed enough symbols, you’ll have the opportunity for a knowledge check in the scribbles within your journal, which verifies your thinking. If you get it right, those words will be unlocked wherever you go, giving you the understanding of how to solve the various puzzles and move on to the next area. It’s ingenious, even tapping into the commonalities between each language so that you’re not exactly starting from scratch each time (but, it’s close). Needless to say, a word like ‘Yes’ is easier to figure out than, say, ‘Preacher’.
The five different communities you’ll interact with are all quite different, in the way they act and the things they speak about. Devotees are the first you’ll encounter, concerned with worshipping, while the Bard’s main concern is making music, of course. Warriors are one of the more challenging areas, as you’ll need to figure out a way to blend in with them unless you want to be captured and killed. Puzzles and language are centered around each demographic; Alchemists, with their witch-doctor-style outfits, ultimately require a solution akin to a scientific experiment, while the Bards have theatre performances and parlor games as your roadblocks.
Chants of Sennaar is one of the most visually striking games you’ll play this year, with strong, vivid colours punctuating each community. Devotees are covered in sun-drenched oranges and yellows, while Warriors are surrounded by grey-blue structures highlighted by red flags and lanterns. The gardens the Bards reside in are pastel pink with green trees and yellow water flowing throughout, while the Alchemist’s purple and orange style match their experimental nature. The soundtrack is also calming and charming, matching each setting, with a bit of a darker tone when required, like for the Warriors. The whole thing feels rather poetic, an aural visual feast that keeps you captivated while the puzzles keep your brain adequately teased.
What’s far less thrilling are the stealth sections, which frustrate more than facilitate. At certain points, particularly when encountering a more hostile community, you will be moving between points to avoid being seen, complete with the always-infuriating instant fail, sending you back to the start. They’re forgiving enough for the most part, once you learn the path of each obstacle to avoid, but these scenes feel at odds with the rest of the experience. Learning the symbols and solving clever puzzles alone would have been more than enough,
Some backtracking is also required in Chants of Sennaar, which can leave you feeling a bit lost considering there is no map available to help you know where to go next. You must physically identify signage and talk to lots of people to ensure you don’t miss any symbols, as if you do, you might be unable to solve crucial puzzle moments. If you’ve somehow slipped past them – easy to do when some sections are literal mazes – you’ll need to figure out where and what you’ve neglected to notice. Getting stuck and having to run back and forth to different areas over and over, with later stages being even more confusing, can prove tedious.
Despite the stumbles, Chants of Sennaar delivers well on the myth of Babel, due largely in part to the joy of discovery in each new community you encounter. Not only does the stunning visual DNA generate an emotional response, but the way you’re treated by each group adds small touches to the narrative that make it sing.
Early on, you’ll play hide and seek with a child, contrasted strongly by the fear of being forced to stay out of sight of weapon-wielding foes ahead. Bards are quick to judge, literally giggling at your attempts to succeed as they entertain one another with music. These small touches add a lot to the world-building to make the Tower and all of its inhabitants feel living and breathing, which is particularly poignant when you don’t know what they’re actually saying half the time.
- Inventive and clever language mechanic
- Puzzles are unique and charming
- Art style is bloody gorgeous
- Little touches bring the narrative to life
- Stealth sections aren't particularly enjoyable
- Getting stuck and having to backtrack is tedious
With devilish puzzles under the theme of learning language, and being a new person in a series of unfamiliar places, Chants of Sennaar nails its concept. Piecing together different dialects using visual cues makes for a compelling mystery to solve, as you look to reconnect different communities through universal understanding. It stumbles a little bit however with stealth sections that feel out of place and some confusing backtracking that could leave you stumped. With gorgeous visuals that leap off the screen, not only is Chants of Sennaar one of the prettiest games we’ve seen this year, but it’s also one of the most clever, no matter what language you’re speaking.