Chants Of Sennaar

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Focus Entertainment
Developer: RunDisc
Release Date: Sept. 5, 2023


As an Amazon Associate, we earn commission from qualifying purchases.

PC Review - 'Chants of Sennaar'

by Cody Medellin on Sept. 5, 2023 @ 4:15 p.m. PDT

Set in an enthralling universe with enchanting art direction, Chants Of Sennaar is a narrative exploration/puzzle game where you have to restore the connections between the mysterious peoples of the Tower.

There have been a few games that use the Tower of Babel as part of their premise, and it works since the idea of building a tower so tall that it reaches heaven remains captivating. While some use it as motivation to build something tall and others focus on the natural elements that would destroy the building, none of them mention the aftermath of that event, where different languages were born and no one in the city could understand each other anymore. Chants of Sennaar is one of the few to focus on linguistics in this setting to create a puzzle adventure game, and the result is interesting.

The game takes place in a fortress similar to the Tower of Babel but more expansive with different environments. The people are not only separated by their ideologies but also their languages, preventing them from understanding one another in spoken and written form. You play the role of an unknown person who has just risen from a casket and woken up in the tower. While you have no name, you know that your purpose is to solve the mystery of how things got to be this way and how to fix it so everyone understands each other once more.

The core gameplay is standard modern adventure game material, minus long cut scenes and dialogue choices. While you can point and click to move your character, you also have more direct control if you want. There's all manner of switch puzzles and ones where objects need to be pushed to reach keys and other items for your journey. Saves happen frequently, and if you're lucky enough to find them, you can discover stations in the game that let you warp from one major area to another to minimize backtracking.

For the most part, the puzzles aren't overly difficult. You can only carry one item at a time, and the game immediately dumps it once you find all of the uses for it. You can pull up the location of all interactive hotspots with the press of a button, so you aren't clicking around and hoping for a hit. The solutions to the puzzles make sense, so you aren't coming up with strange item combinations for the sake of doing so.

The hook in Chants of Sennaar comes from symbol translation. Each distinct section of the tower features a different group with a different written language. Deciphering what those individual symbols mean is a big part of the game, and it tries to help you out with things like phrases written on statues or seeing text pop up before and after an act has been performed. At any time, you can jump into your notebook and start filling in what you think the word means, but the game won't say whether you're right. This can lead to a number of situations where phrases can look strange due to the words not connecting correctly or things not making sense, since it's word soup; this can be hilarious in its own right. The only way you'll get a correct translation of those symbols is when the game decides to put some illustrations in your book, and you have to match the symbols with the actions shown. It is extremely helpful but not necessary to get those correct translations to get through the puzzles.

The use of language is awesome, and one of the reasons is because you'll do this multiple times throughout the game due to the different script styles you'll encounter. The game also gives you a head start when you encounter a new language, as you'll almost immediately be able to match some new symbols from one language with a few you're already familiar with, giving you a good base to work with instead of completely starting fresh. The game also has different languages obeying different rules. For example, one language could have a symbol to signify a plural instead of a singular version of the next word, while another language may put words out of order so it doesn't immediately make sense until everything is fully translated. It's a well thought-out system, and those who have tried to study another language in real life will have a bit of an advantage since they'll remember the rules for text and symbols that come close to what we see in the real world.

The element of translation adds a layer of complexity to the puzzles, and that holds especially true if you haven't received confirmation that your translation is correct. Nailing a solution to a puzzle because your interpretation of a symbol was spot-on provides a rush that few adventure games give because of that extra element of brain power needed to decipher that character. The same goes for solving a page in your book and learning how close your initial guess was to the truth. At the same time, bad guesses can lead to either you having to return to where you saw the symbol so you can make a correct guess, or use trial and error if you don't want to make that back-and-forth trip. Even if a few puzzles in a run end up like this, the translation element is very welcome, since few other games attempt this, and it helps in making some of the puzzles more sensible since the solutions are clear and easy to comprehend once you can understand what's being said.

Beyond translating symbols and solving puzzles, Chants of Sennaar adds another gameplay element in the form of stealth sections. It's rudimentary stuff, as the most you can do is hide behind objects or use things like bells or gongs to distract guards so you can sneak past them. Like the rest of the game, there's no combat, so you can't kill or knock out anyone. Getting caught in a guard's line of sight means that escape is impossible, since all of the exits are automatically blocked by other guards, and you'll never outrun your pursuers. The game's quick load times mean that you'll never have enough time to dwell on your loss anyway. The presence of a stealth mechanic might be a turn-off for those hoping for a standard adventure game, but at least some concessions have been made, such as a point-and-click system where you can immediately target where you'll sneak off to while guards are distracted. Even though a good section of the game involves some stealth, the majority of the title still consists of translations and puzzles, so this is a break rather than constituting half of the game.

Aside from the aforementioned stumbling that comes from trying to figure out which word relates to which symbol, there aren't too many negatives. While you can try to translate dialogue and signs on the spot, you can't keep an in-game log of them for reference. Unless you write it down yourself or the game deems it important enough to log it, you'll return to characters you've talked to or wait for an event to repeat to get another crack at translating the dialogue. The game's inability to translate symbols until you get everything in the page right is also annoying, especially when you discover that the symbol you're looking for in relation to the illustration might not be uncovered until you almost fill up the glyph repository. Beyond this, the other annoyance is the game not indicating that you can interact with items in an area; it doesn't occur too often but is a point of contention when you accidentally discover something that you can mess with.

The presentation is both simple and effective. On the audio side, the choice to make all of the languages into gibberish versus real spoken ones works well in conveying the idea that you don't understand anyone initially. The fact that it doesn't magically turn into something you immediately understand once you decipher enough of the words keeps the central theme going. The game is evenly split between using ambient noises in the soundscape and instrumental tracks influenced by different cultures. The mix works, as the presence of music lets you know when something big or special is about to happen.

Graphically, Chants of Sennaar goes for more of a European comic book aesthetic. It's a muted pastel look with visible black lines and a subtle hatching technique that provides a bold and unique look versus a comic book style influenced by the North American or Japanese manga style. The animations are very nice, with the body language taking over for faces since everyone either is in shadow or covered by a mask or helmet. Unlike most other 3D games, this takes a fixed-angle approach, reminiscent of titles like the original Resident Evil but with controls that don't fight against you. That's used to great effect to show the scale of some places and nice little touches, like lizards roaming around the interior of a base.

For Steam Deck users, the game works quite well out of the box. The game comes in at an odd resolution of 1280x729 but still looks fine on the device's screen. The default presets are at their max levels with everything on High and an uncapped frame rate, but the game has no issues hitting 60fps. On a full battery charge, the game can run for a little over four hours, which is good for any game from 2023. You can easily tweak the other settings to squeeze more battery life out of it since high frame rates aren't needed, and the art style adjusts well to lowering graphical details. The game is labeled as Playable, and while we didn't notice any need for the Steam Deck's built-in screen magnifier to look at some text, mileage may vary depending on your eyesight.

Chants of Sennaar is a fascinating puzzle adventure game, and that is mainly due to its translation aspect. While it can lead to frustration in some cases, it greatly enhances the puzzle aspect by adding an extra layer of challenge on top of some brain teasers. The stealth elements feature a combination of solid mechanics, quick restarts and a generous checkpoint system. With an alluring presentation to back it all up, Chants of Sennaar is a game that adventure fans will definitely enjoy.

Score: 8.0/10

More articles about Chants Of Sennaar
blog comments powered by Disqus