Chants of Sennaar hooked me with its stunning visuals and addicting language-learning gameplay loop. I began in an unknown world with mysterious symbols and people all around, and I had a strong intrinsic motivation to uncover the meaning of the symbols and the story behind the people. After learning the basics of the language, I felt more comfortable with the setting and was excited to complete the definitions for the last few glyphs. And when I finally had everything defined, there was only a brief moment of complete understanding with everything before entering the next area. I was presented with a new language and environment to explore, but could use my knowledge of the old language to more quickly learn the new one. This repeated cycle of naive curiosity to complete understanding (and back) was satisfying every step of the way, and it held my attention completely for the 9-10 hour story.
The game has a very natural way of easing the player into the systems for deciphering the language, and you learn to pick up on a variety of clues including environmental puzzles, NPCs pointing and speaking, and sculpted murals. It allows you to type in a personal guess for each symbol at any time, and these guesses are only validated in sets of 3-4 once the game decides you've seen enough clues to deduce the meaning. The UI is minimal but functional, and the only thing I wish it had was a world map. The environment design is stunning, with bold colors and line-work that excels at highlighting the architecture of the world in such a way that every screenshot could be a wallpaper. But this atmospheric design philosophy sometimes comes at the cost of practicality, most notably in the placement of fast travel spots which are often inconvenient and require some tedious backtracking to traverse between.
There are five distinct sections of the world, each with inhabitants that have their own culture and speak their own language. The languages have their fair share of unique words depending on the culture, and each look visually distinct, but grammatically they never differ more than how plurals are formed or where the object is placed. They also all have the commonality of logograms, where each word is one glyph. While easier to translate and gamify, it meant that all the languages felt the same linguistically which was kind of a disappointment. I got the sense that the languages were more of a set-dressing on top of a cryptographical puzzle game rather than a deep and informative linguistic exploration. It's still fun, just somewhat of a letdown from my expectations.
The game has a lot to say about communication, which it conveys through the gameplay itself rather than directly in the narrative or cutscenes. For example: the act of guessing a glyph's meaning, then verifying it to be quite different from the original guess, shows a lot about how multiple words can fit the same context but maybe their textbook differences aren't that important. It shows how different cultures can view the same thing in different ways, leading to misunderstanding or artificial barriers. I found this environmental storytelling truly absorbing, and the fantastic art direction and music only added to this.
Despite feeling like Chants of Sennaar could have done more with the languages themselves, and that it lacked some quality of life features, I loved the game and thought it created a unique and engrossing experience. It stands as one of the best in multiple genres: puzzle, adventure, and deduction.
Reviewed on Oct 08, 2023