REVIEW: Chants of Sennaar is a masterful puzzle-and-click for linguists and puzzle fans alike
Language has always been fascinating to me. Growing up biracial white and Filipino and never having been taught Tagalog, I was constantly made aware that I was on the outside of many situations involving my Tagalog-speaking family.
It was an isolating feeling initially, never really knowing what people were saying when I walked into a room. But through the love I felt from my Filipino family, the sounds of these words that I didn't quite understand became a comfort. As I grew up, I began learning keywords through context clues: situational usage, gestures, and emotions. They all contributed to my own understanding of the language despite never having the depth of knowledge needed to speak it.
Chants of Sennaar replicates a similar experience, delivering a point-and-click adventure through the Tower of Babel parable, where most of your puzzle action comes from trying to understand the languages of five different factions that live within it and slowly piecing together your own internal dictionary as you go.
It's a fascinating experience. It achieves its highs through things I've never before experienced in gaming, while its lows come from an insistence to toss in more familiar gaming experiences too.
Just the Facts
Publisher: Focus Entertainment
Platform(s): PC*, Nintendo Switch *platform reviewed on
Release Date: September 5
Review key provided by Sandbox Strategies.
Duolingo, eat your heart out
Based in Toulouse, France, Rundisc serves up Chants of Sennaar as their sophomore release after their team debuted with the fast-paced Tron-like brawler Varion in 2018. Taking the hardest pivot in style and narrative I've seen in years, Chants of Sennaar is a cultural immersion simulation by way of the point-and-click adventure. It caught my eye pretty quickly with its reveal in 2022, but their showing during this year's Tribeca Games Spotlight solidified it as a game I just had to play as soon as possible.
Chants of Sennaar is an adaptation of the Tower of Babel parable that tasks players with climbing through the tower itself and learning the languages of each floor's culture as you go. You awake at the base of the tower, mysteriously pulling yourself out of a coffin and crawling through cracks in the wall to make it into civilization proper. You find that everyone you run into speaks in a visual language you can't quite understand. Their languages, made up of what the game calls glyphs, change in structure and style the higher you climb.
It starts in the religious base with an ancient Middle Eastern-inspired hieroglyphic-like language, which makes for a much easier learning experience as you piece together what the parts of each glyph mean, and you can start making educated guesses based on visuals alone. The next floor, where the tower's warriors live, is full of more brutalist architecture and a language inspired by the runic languages of Nordic cultures. And it continues to surprise and complicate as you go.
As you learn each language, it not only gets you through the game's logic gates and to that sweet feeling of progression, but it also pieces together your understanding of each floor of this society's culture. A few floors up, where the tower's artists and musicians mingle and perform for one another, I noticed that some of the villagers on this floor were relegated to quieter roles, standing by in service or working underground. When I finally found the word to identify them, I expected it to simply be "workers." Chants of Sennaar slapped my foolish naivete away when I learned that the word actually translated to "idiots."
Most of the story is about finding a way to unite these cultures again. Showing them that the things they're missing in their lives can be provided by their companions just one floor away. That the divisions between these floors are not reason enough to stay apart. It's not subtle... but in the current times we find our own society in, being loud about very simple things may be what we need.
The harmonious blending of gameplay and narrative makes for an experience that constantly feels joyfully enlightening. It nails that feeling of pure gamer brain satisfaction, like you're a wizard for unraveling something so complicated and incomprehensible, with breathtaking narrative revelations following right after.
The best foreign language class you've ever taken
Each of the five languages in Chants of Sennaar are made up of visual glyphs. One symbol to represent a word, an idea, or a type of person. These symbols string together to make sentences that, early on, sound archaic: "Me like music." Eventually, when you learn the language fully, they translate properly: "I love music!"
Chants of Sennaar won me over pretty quickly, because a mystery or puzzle game is almost always something truly special when I find myself forced to break out a notebook to write things down. And the first time I felt that urge in this game, my cloaked character was one step ahead and pulled out a notebook of their own.
As you come into contact with new glyphs, your character jots them down. After they're in your pictorial database, you're able to type in a self-written definition for them based on context clues. You see someone gesture at you to come toward them... maybe you write "come" and "you" as possible translations for the glyphs. Your rudimentary guesses begin to show up in potential translations of speech, and you can tease out whether it feels correct.
After you've collected a certain amount of glyphs, your character will sketch out a page of doodles representing certain actions (like a person waving hello) and spots for you to validate up to three glyphs at a time. Match the glyph with the right drawing and you'll have the proper definition of that word locked into your database.
Fans of Case of the Golden Idol or Return of the Obra Dinn will be familiar with these validation checks and the way they allow for progression and experimentation — and, in general, are a good audience for Chants of Sennaar.
With words' proper definitions locked in, you'll go back to old conversations and have an even better idea of what's being said and how to define any glyphs you still aren't quite sure about. It makes for a fascinating puzzle box to unwrap, and a phenomenal learning experience as you get familiar how these glyphs come together and make educated guesses about what new ones might mean as a result.
As you go up through the tower, you'll find things like sentence structure shifting, making even direct translation between languages difficult. You'll find that each language has completely different ways to signal things like plurality of words, framing a statement as negative, or forming a question.
Rundisc makes each anthropologic reveal so exciting. It might feel like school for some — even reading this review might reflect that — but if it's school, Rundisc is the cool teacher who makes learning fun.
Linguists will have a field day with a game like Chants of Sennaar. Run of the mill puzzle dorks like me, though? You'll still have such a fun time unboxing all that Chants of Sennaar has hidden inside.
Beyond the overall language-based puzzle-work, Chants of Sennaar mechanically is a point-and-click adventure. You can control your hero either pointing and clicking with mouse and keyboard or with a controller. The latter allows for smooth movement but adds complications when you need to type in your definitions of words. For that reason, I'd recommend mouse and keyboard over controller and PC over Switch — because with all the typing you'll be doing in this game, the Switch's on-screen keyboard feels like it'd become a bit of a chore.
Alongside the slow unraveling of language, you'll have some classic logic puzzles, some very traditional point-and-click logic, and even a few stealth sections. It is within these pieces that some of the Chants of Sennaar sheen wears off a bit, and where tradition betrays just how enjoyably new the experience is.
There's some interweaving of the language-based mystery and your traditional logic puzzles that makes for a fun time. But there are a handful of clunkers: For example, Traffic Jam-like puzzles that are bogged down by slow movement and a math-based late-game puzzle that would already be complicated enough if you could understand the languages in front of you.
Some of the game's point-and-click logic hurts the experience too, like being unable to progress because you missed seeing one specific thing the game wanted you to. Tie that to the labyrinthine design of some of the floors of the tower and you've got some backtracking sections where you'll wander through room after room trying to figure out exactly what you missed. (There's a handy tool that shows you all interactables in a room, but that won't help when you think you've gotten everything already.)
I also didn't love Chants of Sennaar's stealth segments. The agility of the guards versus the stilted motion of clicking your path through their movement patterns makes for frustrating breaks in the action.
Still, I appreciated these moments for changing up the gameplay and helping to keep the pace smooth from beginning to end. But where these additional gameplay mechanics really shine is when they offer a clever merging with the core language system, like a stealth section that has you blend in with a line of soldiers taking orders.
Chants of Sennaar's cultural beauty beyond words
Rundisc implements some exquisite cel-shading on its world made up of simple geometry, flat colors, and clear, concise lines. It's frequently textured by a nice layer of crosshatching that makes even the flatness stand out and beautiful shading that marks the changing time of day as you wander through the tower.
Each floor of the tower has a particular color palette, one that both reflects the culture there and the cultures that Rundisc was inspired by when making the game. It's simple yet full of visual richness and warmth. It allows your mind to feel at ease while taking in the environment, leaving the complicated "what am I looking at?" part of the brain to focus on deciphering the complicated glyphs.
Each floor's distinct visual style adds to that anthropologic feeling of unearthing information based on subtle cues and cultural markers. Without a single word, Floor 1's intricate headgear and robes make clear a spiritual focus, while Floor 2's rigid military armor speaks for itself. There's something to be said about how clarity in the visual language and in the simple animations help make the discovery process that much deeper.
The aesthetics are only emphasized by a soundtrack that uses culturally and historically appropriate instruments that ground the setting and provide that last layer of cohesion to the world. Soft plucked harps, gently blown woodwinds, deep ominous horns. Just like Sennaar's art style, it lingers in the background but amplifies the experience.
Chants of Sennaar is a fascinating, once-in-a-lifetime, incredibly human experience that has you doing mental gymnastics to puzzle out meaning from everything you see and everyone you encounter. Through its retelling of a classic parable, its simple and extremely effective art style, and a soundtrack that gently guides you along the path, Chants of Sennaar keeps its focus on the discovery of languages. Even when it tries to distract with less-than-stellar stealth segments and a few puzzles that outstayed their welcome, Rundisc provides a core experience that is so special and rare. It earns its place among some of the best puzzle and mystery games of all time, the likes of Case of the Golden Idol and Return of the Obra Dinn.
Video Games Are Good and Chants of Sennaar is . . . GREAT. (9.5/10)
+ an incredible puzzle box circling around one of the most universal things in the world: language, stunning simplistic art that sings through beautiful color palettes, a not-subtle story of mending cultural divides that still needs to be told again and again
- a few unwelcome stealth sections bog down the experience thanks to lightly unwieldy controls, some point-and-click logic halts progression, and it'll make you want to study linguistics which will probably put you in debt?
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