As someone who plays a hell of a lot of video games, it’s easy to forget how much of the language of games that we’ve accumulated over the years. If someone handed me a controller in the middle of a session of an Uncharted or Assassin’s Creed game I hadn’t played before, I’m pretty sure I’d be able to work out the basics and could clamber around a bit, but someone less versed in video games likely wouldn’t have a clue. I’m talking about the language of video games today because Chants of Sennaar is a game all about learning different languages, and it’s absolutely fascinating.
The People of the Tower can no longer communicate, and now use entirely different languages in their Labyrinthian home town. When a traveller arrives with the power to translate Glyphs, there’s hope that these people may be brought back together again. There’s some clear inspiration from the story of the Tower of Babel, which works to create a seriously mysterious world to explore.
Your role in Chants of Sennaar is that of the traveller, who’s main goal (although it’s never really spelled out for you) is to ascend up the different societies of the tower and go about learning their different languages. This probably sounds like an odd concept for a game, but it’s essentially one big interconnected puzzle full of little hints that’ll help you figure out what each of the game’s Glyphs mean.
Glyphs are basically single characters of an alphabet, and it’s your job to use context clues and a bit of logical thinking to work out what they represent. At any time you can open your journal and type in what you think a Glyph means, and then whenever somebody uses one in a sentence or it’s written on a sign then it’ll be translated into what you’ve written. As you progress you’ll be presented with pages of pictures that show things a Glyph might correspond to (like a picture of a plant or of someone waving in greeting) and if you guess all of them correctly you’ll lock in their meaning. This is your main goal while playing Chants of Sennaar, and it is so damn compelling.
One scene saw my character listening in on some sort of superior giving out orders to his workers, who would then pick up boxes and bottles, load them onto a cart and eventually push the cart onto somewhere else. With a bit of guesswork and a whole lot of watching dudes picking up boxes I was able to work out Glyphs that described these different items, and pick out the Glyphs that told the workers to carry, put down and push. It’s so satisfying when all the different elements of a sentence click into place, but it’s also totally fine to skip a page of pictures and wait until you rule out a few extra Glyphs later on.
It’s not just by listening to people that you’ll discover what certain Glyphs mean, sometimes the actual characters contain hints in them too. A sign in the centre of a town had a whole bunch of symbols on it pointing to different areas, which were similar to others I’d found earlier in the game. By following a sign to a garden I was easily able to work out the meaning of that glyph, but also that the similar looking Glyph referred to a single plant. Few games have made me feel like as much of a genius as Chants of Sennaar, but admittedly few have confused me quite so much either.
It all gets more complex when you leave the first area, and realise that the language spoken in this next tower based metropolis is completely different. Having to start all over again is a clever way of ensuring the game doesn’t get too easy, and often you’ll even find Glyphs that translate between languages. Mastering every language is the only way you’ll finish your quest, so prepare for a whole lot of language puzzles.
As well as Glyph based brainteasers, there are also some other more standard adventure game puzzles to sink your teeth into in Chants of Sennaar. These are admittedly some of the less exciting aspects of the game, with codes needed to unlock doors and a whole lot of turning levers and using lamps to light up hidden messages. None of it is necessarily bad design, it’s just the kind of thing you’ll have seen before and it feels a little underwhelming compared to how clever the rest of the game is.
Another slightly less exciting aspect of the game is the stealth. Yes, for some reason this thoughtful puzzle game has instant fail sneaky sections, and again although they aren’t awful they just feel unnecessary. Dressing up to disguise yourself as a character that belongs in a certain section is admittedly pretty cool though, especially when you walk alongside your pretend peers to blend in and access new areas.
At its best, Chants of Sennaar is an incredibly clever game that makes you feel like a genius for solving its language based puzzles. Unnecessary elements like stealth gameplay and slightly stale adventure game puzzles do detract a little from the star of the show, but it didn’t stop me from devouring this Babel inspired beauty in a ridiculously small number of sessions.
An incredibly clever puzzle game
So many ways to work out the meaning of Glyphs
Makes you feel like a genius
Did I mention how clever it is yet?
The stealth sections feel unnecessary
As do some of the adventure game puzzles
It's easy to get stumped