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Chants of Sennaar

Developer: Rundisc Publisher: Focus Entertainment
05 September 2023
Chants of Sennaar - cover art
Glitchwave rating
3.57 / 5.0
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96 Ratings / 2 Reviews
#1,323 All-time
#50 for 2023
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My feelings about Chants of Sennaar were mixed. The visual design, world-building, and story were excellent and distinctive, but the puzzle mechanics, and sometimes even the language-learning theme that drew me to the game in the first place, were underwhelming.

In Chants of Sennaar, you play a mysterious robed wanderer exploring a tower inspired by the Tower of Babel, interacting with the cultures who live on its various levels. The different cultures speak different languages, each built up from a set of simple glyphs which you learn meanings for as the game proceeds. As you translate the glyphs, you gradually learn details of the setting and unlock the information needed to complete point-and-click adventure game puzzles that allow you to proceed up through the tower and learn your purpose there. Also, every once in a while, it turns into a stealth game out of nowhere; more on that later.

The neat thing about language-learning as a puzzle mechanic is that it feels organic in a way that allows for a well-integrated story without displacing the puzzles. This is normally really hard to do! Because a really good puzzle mechanic is often simple and abstract, it's difficult to weave a story that feels natural into a game based on that mechanic. (For example, I love Portal 2, but the number of times the game needs to find a reason to put you through a sequence of puzzle chambers begins to strain my immersion in the story.)

By contrast, language learning is already a pretty good puzzle in real life, and language is what stories are made of, making it an ideal basis for a puzzle game. And I really enjoyed the way Chants of Sennaar interwove gameplay and story. Because the story is told entirely through the game's invented languages, each of which has only a few dozen glyphs, it has a feeling of fairytale simplicity, and the developers lean into this with both the clean, appealing visuals and the mythological feeling of the Babel-like setting.

But despite that simplicity, the story still found ways to create a variety of fantasy cultures, and to subvert my expectations and surprise me. The language puzzles play a role here too, gradually revealing the story at a pace gated by the process of learning new words. At one point, a seemingly beautiful level began to turn sour as I learned a certain glyph that meant something unpleasant, and then realized how often people around me were using it. The distinct visual styles of different alphabets and the way certain glyphs resemble the concepts they represent or each other both work to make the languages feel natural despite the limitations of their small lexicons.

That said, the language puzzles were occasionally disappointing, for one big reason: the game often feels too eager to tell you what its glyphs mean. As you encounter glyphs in the game, you're prompted to place them next to pictures in a book, and filling out two pages (which generally only requires 3 - 4 glyphs) explicitly confirms those glyphs' meaning. While this approach does keep your vocabulary expanding at a steady pace, I had a few problems with it.

First, this just isn't a very high bar to clear. Since you're asked to match glyphs with pictures, but the glyphs are also often introduced with visual examples, translation sometimes felt like it boiled down to matching pictures with other pictures of the same thing. Near the end of each level, there's few enough unsolved glyphs that filling out the book comes down to a process of elimination. And at any point it's easy to brute-force guess a glyph by just trying all the options in the last slot on a page -- which felt like it went against the spirit of the game, but which I occasionally resorted to in frustration.

The second issue is that, when you complete pages and are shown the official translations of glyphs, they may not agree with your own idea of what the glyphs mean, which is jarring. While mistaken assumptions are a necessary part of any language-learning puzzle, the frequency with which this game provides that feedback makes it feel like a tutor is leaning over your shoulder and correcting you as you go. And this links into my fundamental problem with the book mechanic: it abstracts away the process of learning a language. When you unlock new pages of the book and see a picture of a person screaming, it gives you context that you might not get from your interactions with the world. You now know that, at some point, you're going to learn a glyph that means "fear" or "screaming", short-circuiting the work of deducing this from seeing the language in use. The experience of checking items off a list and being told "This means 'silver'!" is a less satisfying puzzle payoff than using the language to say or interpret something -- and while this game has plenty of the latter as well, it feels diluted.

Admittedly, learning a language purely through context clues is difficult, and designing a well-balanced puzzle game around this seems even harder. So I shouldn't be too harsh about the game's language mechanics, which I still enjoyed, and which had lots of interesting details. The languages have subtly different syntax (a concept it would have been nice to see the designers go further with) and late in the game, you are tasked with translating between them, putting your understanding of their grammar to the test. The basic interface of the game, allowing you to mark glyphs with their potential meanings and then see automatic translations based on these guesses whenever hovering over text, worked great. And while the game leaned fairly easy, it still had a clear difficulty curve: each level felt like it presented new challenges and mysteries.

What I did not enjoy were the game's other mechanics. A substantial amount of gameplay is in the classic point-and-click adventure game mold: meander around until you find the metaphorical key that goes in a metaphorical door, open the door, proceed and repeat. This isn't very interesting, and it's made frustrating by the fact that the game lacks a map, which resulted in me walking around in circles hunting for unseen rooms. But this still led to a few neat puzzles.

What drove me crazy was the game's truly baffling (and thankfully infrequent) stealth sections. At various points, you're prompted to crouch down to avoid watchers, dart between cover spots, and occasionally throw a distracting object. But there's no reason this game should have stealth mechanics: they have nothing to do with language learning and very little to do with the setting in general. And the stealth feels half-baked: there's no visual indication of what enemies can or can't see, and they're only able to hear when it's necessary for you to throw a distracting object. The game's Wikipedia page claims that its designers originally envisioned a game about stealth, and its presence in the finished product indeed feels like a weird remnant that doesn't belong.

But as much as I might gripe about this game's mechanics, any game that spurs me to write this much about it can't be all that bad. And I came away from Chants of Sennaar feeling more positive than negative, because of the unique setting, beautiful visuals, intriguing story, and often innovative language mechanics. It didn't have the level of challenge I had hoped for, but it still got me to feel invested. And if this inspires others to create more complex language-puzzle games, all the better.
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Zargasheth 2024-02-29T07:25:41Z
2024-02-29T07:25:41Z
3.0
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This is the first entry in the nascent mystery/deduction genre that may have more to criticize than praise, even if mostly due to wasted potential.

Whether it belongs in the genre at all is up for debate actually, as the threshold for revealing the glyph meanings is so low that your progress is most often gated by what you've physically encountered, rather than anything going on in your head.

This is especially apparent in the first section, which functions as an extended tutorial. It's only the third section which really stands out as living up to the potential of the language-translation mechanic. Here, the game starts to experiment with novel linguistic structures, and scatters the clues more evenly throughout the level to force the player to self-direct a bit. Curiously though, the game retreats from pushing the boundaries on the mechanics after this stage.

It is worth praising the game for avoiding any major leaps in logic and remaining accessible to most players while not completely trivializing the gameplay (for the middle sections, at least). I'm sure the linguistic focus will attract many, and the game really does shine when that is front and center.

Unfortunately, many of the puzzles outside of solving glyphs follow the Myst formula of go somewhere, see puzzle, go somewhere else, see solution to puzzle, and go back and solve puzzle. The game also features an array of minigames and stealth sections which would be a welcome diversion from the main gameplay loop if they were any fun. The diversity of environments and designs does breathe some life into what would otherwise be a somewhat stale new-agey art game, complete with large, sparse screens and never-fast-enough walking speeds.

Plot-wise, the game also has a spark of ingenuity in the early-to-middle section. The introduction of new languages brings with it hints of each class having wildly different understandings of the world they inhabit. Some of the reveals in the early worlds were genuinely shocking and wonderfully executed in a way that felt internally consistent. Unfortunately, after the third section, the game sheds its focus on the conflicting worldviews and lifestyles of the classes and shifts towards a more generic mission for all inhabitants of the tower to unite against some vague malevolent entity.

All told, the core concept and many aspects of the execution are so strong that I would still recommend the game to fans of the genre or anyone interested in translation puzzles more generally.
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jayessem 2023-09-17T06:27:32Z
2023-09-17T06:27:32Z
3.0
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A decently made and very pretty puzzle game about deciphering language and culture. Most of the puzzles were a little too easy and straightforward for my taste, and others were downright tedious, especially if you want to 100% the game. It's not a bad game, but there are many rough edges holding it back from being truly great.

Often, the game gives you a group of symbols with very clear connections to the world, and simply asks you to match the pictures to what you saw. I wish more of the puzzles required abstract thinking and connections. Most of your time is spent traversing the world, rather than engaging with the language, and you very rarely actually use your knowledge of the language to communicate back to the inhabitants of the world. There are a few gems of puzzle design, but most of them serve to just check off the boxes required for your dictionary.

The world itself is extremely well crafted. The game is a version of the Tower of Babel, and each level of the tower contains its own culture and associated language that you discover as you climb to the top. Each level feels aesthetically and culturally distinct, with unique perspectives and philosophies, due in part to each level's inability to communicate with any other, and how they fit within the hierarchy of the tower.

As for the languages you learn, the design kind of fails the core concept. Because of how the game is structured, the languages need to be easily translatable between one another. As a result, they all feel way less diverse than they could have been. Aside from a few syntactic differences and broad symbolic themes and structure, they feel very similar.

Now, it is possible there is much deeper thought put into the symbology, as is suggested by a sequence near the end of the game, but aside from that sequence you're rarely if ever required to engage on that level, so it may as well not exist. It was by far the most interesting puzzle in the game, and it lasted all of about 5 minutes.

My last gripe with the game is that you never really learn the languages, so much as catalogue them. I would have a hard time recreating any of the symbols in the game from memory, aside from a few simple ones. When interfacing with the symbols after learning them, what you're really doing is hovering over symbols and reading a translation that the game keeps track of. Once you log the symbol, the symbol itself becomes mostly irrelevant. Maybe you remember a few of them, but it's not necessary.

In this way it is reminiscent of the Chinese room thought experiment. My understanding of the language doesn't go much beyond a machine going through the motions of matching symbols to other symbols, without really grasping the depth of the language itself. And again, part of that is because there isn't much depth in the language to begin with. You are almost never required to engage with language in a way that isn't literal. I don't know that there is ever a point at which a symbol is used in a novel way to mean something completely different because of context, and if there were I wouldn't know because the game auto-translates everything once you learn the symbols anyway.

Some of these complaints are perhaps unfair because they are what I wish the game was, rather than what it is. The game is fine. There are cool moments. But it is much more of a standard point and click adventure, than a deep language puzzle.
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bikedog 2023-09-17T06:15:16Z
2023-09-17T06:15:16Z
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Catalog

thehotrock Chants of Sennaar 2024-06-19T21:18:05Z
2024-06-19T21:18:05Z
4.5
1
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
2023 2020s 100%
Velual Chants of Sennaar 2024-06-18T19:52:54Z
2024-06-18T19:52:54Z
3.5
1
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
OGDreamcast Chants of Sennaar 2024-06-15T22:21:52Z
2024-06-15T22:21:52Z
3.0
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
Sparvid Chants of Sennaar 2024-06-15T09:55:21Z
2024-06-15T09:55:21Z
4.5
1
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
TinyTimTam Chants of Sennaar 2024-06-13T23:34:26Z
2024-06-13T23:34:26Z
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
thekoreanone Chants of Sennaar 2024-06-06T20:53:55Z
2024-06-06T20:53:55Z
2.5
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
defamink Chants of Sennaar 2024-06-05T18:24:48Z
2024-06-05T18:24:48Z
5.0
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
anujapte07 Chants of Sennaar 2024-06-05T15:33:27Z
2024-06-05T15:33:27Z
4.0
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
RoBoBinHo Chants of Sennaar 2024-06-04T18:01:14Z
2024-06-04T18:01:14Z
2.5
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
ranzac Chants of Sennaar 2024-06-03T03:31:12Z
2024-06-03T03:31:12Z
6.5
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
Metalgazer Chants of Sennaar 2024-06-02T22:34:12Z
Windows
2024-06-02T22:34:12Z
5.0
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
ggng Chants of Sennaar 2024-06-01T20:27:15Z
2024-06-01T20:27:15Z
3.5
In collection Want to buy Used to own  
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  • Aliens2Exist 2023-12-28 07:10:32.209348+00
    kais of cenat
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  • landschneckt 2024-01-30 07:11:38.778772+00
    10 multilingual harp songs that will make you say fuck having borders and beliefs and shiet
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  • RoBoBinHo 2024-06-04 18:00:50.381127+00
    Why does every story nowadays need to go completely of the rails with an evil AI or some stupid bs like that. All these brainy writers want to do some high concept crazy twisty stuff. I think it could be more mature if the story was a little more grounded. And certainly ‘evil robots made us the way we are’ isn’t that interesting.
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