Language is an interesting thing. It’s the words, the literature, and structure for which we arrange said words to speak. If it weren’t for language we as a society would not be able to communicate to convey thoughts and ideas. Concepts for which we use to evolve the world and get to where we are today. Language is important, but that doesn’t mean all language is the same. We use the same letters and pronunciation, but the phrasing and way words are written are different. It’s hard to tell what is what if you’ve grown up knowing only one major language like I have, but take a bit of time to learn and you’ll quickly learn a whole new vocabulary. Sure it’ll probably be hard at first, but once you master a whole new language you’ll feel like a champ. Look at latin. I don’t remember much of the latin I learned from high school and I scrapped the notes I had for that class after my second year, but what I can recall during my time learning it is how easy it was to connect latin words to english words. If you can relate latin words to the pronunciations of some english words, or look at the definitions of them and find connections it becomes really fun to piece together and even form full sentences. “Infinitum” sounds exactly like “infinite,” or how “ignis” means “fire” which makes sense if you think about how igniting a surface will create fire. I think having different languages is a good thing, because sometimes it can help define a culture. The process for which they went through to create their own dictionary and how they utilize their collection of words. Language is extraordinary and I’m glad I finally got to play a game focused around language, learning it, and the people that surround it.
2023 is coming to an end and I thought it would be a good time to catch up on a few of the indies I missed throughout the year. Bought a bunch of them during a sale, and one that was particularly recommended to me and immediately caught my attention was Chants of Sennaar. Developed by indie studio Rundisc and published by Focus Entertainment. Same company also helped with the publishing of Curse of The Dead Gods and Evil West, so they must have a fondness for helping small creators get their work out there. Anyways, the game was developed by a two man team, Julien Moya and Thomas Panuel, and they had previously worked on Varion which had very low sales numbers. However, they didn’t see this as a failure and used this as motivation for a bigger and more ambitious project. So they sat at the drafting table thinking of something to create and eventually one of them ended up playing a game called Heaven’s Vault. Another indie title where you decipher foreign languages to form sentences you could understand. They also got inspired by old school titles like Captain Blood and the Tower of Babel for some reason. Yes, the one we know from the bible. They eventually came up with a game where you would ascend up a tower, meet different societies of individuals, learn their language, and hopefully make it to the top.
The result is probably one of the most smartly designed and innovative games of 2023, and I’m so glad I played it. If you know me then you know I love puzzle games that make you feel clever. Games that trust the player to figure things out on their own, don’t give them blatant hints, and reward them for when they finally find the solution. Return of The Obra Dinn being one of my all time favoritess as it’s a detective game where you have to uncover the fate of every individual and who they are. Outer Wilds is another great example as it uses open world inspired exploration, a dozen hand crafted planets, and a twenty two minute timeloop to get the player to explore and learn things each loop. A ton of people recommended Chants of Sennaar if you enjoy the gameplay style Return of The Obra Dinn and The Case of The Golden Idol have, so I did becuase I love this style of puzzle games. Not only was I pleased with what I received, but Chants of Sennaar exceeded my expectations and may be one of my top five indies of 2023. It’s kind of hard to talk about it without spoiling it, but I’ll try my best to not reveal too much of the plot and where it ends up going. Light gameplay spoilers, so do be warned. Today we’re talking about Chants of Sennaar and why it deserves your attention.
The game begins with a strange sarcophagus lighting up. Our protagonist, a person with a red hood and robe covering them from the neck down, awakens from a lengthy slumber. They have no idea how they got there, who they are, and what their name is, but their goal is clear. Get out of the room and find out where they are. Upon venturing forward they uncover what seems to be written language. They have no idea what the writing says, but thankfully they have a journal to record their findings and figure out what each letter/symbol says. They encounter another person who is in need of help, and upon helping them they guide the red hooded figure to their town. Along the way you discover parietal art and learn of the place they are in.
The building which they are traveling through is a large tower housing four different societies. Devotees who spend most of their days working and praying, Warriors who are constantly training and protect those above them, Chosen who are much wealthier than the two societies below them and spend most of their time partying, and Alchemists whoa re styudying the mysteries of the tower. Each society lives on their own floor, and each floor is big enough to be their own townships. However, each society seems to have their own language and look down on one another. Upon entering the first town, the gate leading to higher levels of the tower is locked. The Warriors are preventing the Devotees from moving onward even though the Devotees spend a majority of their time praying and working their heads off. The Warriors won’t let you through either, so your goal now is to figure out how to get around them. To do that you must explore, try to understand the language of the Devotees, and uncover secrets of the town. It’s gonna be pretty hard, and overtime you’ll learn the secrets of the tower and what lies at the very top. Who you are and why you were awakened.
As stated a few moments ago, in Chants of Sennaar you explore areas, uncover different words and things to interact with, try to piece together what certain words mean, and obtain your goal. You have a journal to record your findings and all the words you learn. New words are added to the journal when NPCs or writing on the walls bring them up. You want to pay close attention to the things you find as they can give you a hint of what each word means. The first puzzle in the game has you flip a switch to open a door. There are four symbols and two sentences. You can already tell one of them means door as one symbol is shared across both sentences. However, the other two are different but you can probably tell what they are based on what the switch did. One of them clearly means open and the other means close. By interacting with the symbols in your journal you can make assumptions on what each word means. You also occasionally draw things into your journal. Match the symbols and assumptions up to the correct drawings and the game will lock them into place. Confirming what you guessed is correct and forever knowing that is what the symbol means. Using the words you know you can then go up to previous NPCs you may have talked to and problems for which you weren’t able to solve. Piecing together what you know you can make more assumptions and obtain more answers to each symbol.
There’s even some instances where two sentences containing two different languages are placed onto a wall. In the previous area you figured out what all the symbols of one specific language is saying, but the other is still unknown. You can use the language you know as reference and try to determine what the new symbols mean. Connect what you know to something new, and I love this. It’s like latin and comparing it to the english language. How you find similarities and many connections between the two, and it feels great! Figuring out what symbols mean and deducing what NPCs are saying isn't the only thing you do though. Of course you have puzzles and there is a wide range of them. From rearranging objects, trying to figure out how to reach certain points, figuring out where to use certain items, and stealth sections. Why stealth sections? I don’t know, but it switches up the gameplay and offers new challenges among the mind bending deciphering. Besides that there isn’t much else to say. Chants of Sennaar focuses on doing one specific thing most of the time, but it does that one thing really well that I found myself engaged up until the end. Let’s hope you can ascend the tower, uncover the truth, and why things are the way they are.
Chants of Sennaar is a tremendously well designed game and I beg all of your readers to give it a look. This is the best puzzle game I’ve played since Return of The Obra Dinn and the places it’ll take you is what makes venturing through it so worth it. The core gameplay is obviously the best thing about it and I love it evolves as you enter new areas. Giving you clues through pictures or objects in the environment, connecting a new language to one you know, and keep you guessing. The journal allows you to guess what is what and locks your answers in place when the answers are correct. It’s very much akin to how Return of The Obra Dinn locks three correct fates into place, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they drew inspiration from that game. It’s satisfying when you get a page of symbols correct, and unlike Return of The Obra Dinn you can approach your problems or new pages of definitions in any order. Well you can solve fates in Obra Dinn in any order, but the game is pretty linear. It hides the linearity by telling the story in non chronological order, but the structure is linear. Explains why it’s not the most replayable game in the world. In Chants of Sennaar you explore areas much like what you do in a click and point adventure. You should know I really enjoy click and point adventures, and navigating the areas of this game is mostly easy. I say mostly, because while there are buildings and encounters that make each area different, I really feel like this game should have a map. Second to last area does have one, but I mean a map that I can open at any time. It would make backtracking through the world a little less tedious especially when the run speed isn’t all too fast. It’s not too bad though.
I also think having different puzzles outside of the language deciphering helps change the pace. I love the core gameplay loop,, but Chants of Sennaar is a somewhat lengthy game. It’s an eight to ten hour long experience and by the end I felt ready to be done. The puzzles help change up what you do and sometimes challenge you to use the words you know. Whether that be to load cargo and follow commands, experiment with elements, utilize a compass, and much more. I really like puzzles, but the one thing I don’t get is stealth. I don’t know why this game needed stealth, but that isn’t to say the stealth is bad. Stealth in this game is also a puzzle in of itself and you need to know when to use specific objects in the world to get by. Going back to what I said moments ago, the game is eight to ten hours long and even though I said I was ready to be done by the end I do think that’s a perfect runtime for a game like this. Now I don’t want to spoil too much of the story, but what Chants of Sennaar has to say is beautiful. How differences drive us to look down on each other, and what we could be doing to reconnect as a society. The ending is beautiful and a really satisfying conclusion to what I personally believe is a pretty challenging experience.
The art direction and visual style is certainly going to be a highlight for a lot of players. It has the comic book cell shaded look games like Sable and Rollerdrome have. However, unlike those two games this one doesn’t have technical issues or framerate drops. In fact, I played this on a base Thinkpad laptop and it ran beautifully. What surprises me is how this game is only six hundred gigabytes seeing how big areas are and how far the backgrounds stretch out. Really love the drawing in your journal and why I personally find really funny is how detailed and beautiful the journal drawings are. Whereas the in game visuals are colorful but really minimalistic in some cases, so it's a nice contrast. Music isn’t all too memorable, but I enjoy the soundtrack and the game has great sound design. Running water, the wind howling in the distance, the echoing of footsteps in an empty hallway, and the turning of gears. It makes an immersive atmosphere.
I don’t really have any other major criticisms with Chants of Sennaar. It does what it does perfectly and the developers deserve all the recognition they have been receiving for what they have made. Only thing I can say is that it's a one and done game since it’s one of those types of puzzle games, but that shouldn’t be a downside and the game is only twenty bucks. It’s best to spend that money on one of the best indies of the year than save it up for something extremely bloated. If you absolutely love puzzle games like the fantastic Return of The Obra Dinn, Outer Wilds, Baba Is You, Case of The Golden Idol, etc, then I strongly recommend this masterpiece. Heard it got nominated for most impactful at the Game Awards and I hope they get it because this is a beautiful work of art. In the end I am going to give Chants of Sennaar a 9.5/10 for excellence at best.
This critique was written by the single man at Review on. Stay tuned for more content and feel free to check more reviews out over at my site!