Language is everything, as this latest indie hit from Rundisc teaches us.
Two of my favourite indie games of the last year have been Return of the Obra Dinn and Heaven’s Vault. And this game sort of feels in the middle of those, detailed with this stunning cinematic, Sable-esque vibe.
In Heaven’s Vault, you had a choice-dialogue system to move the story forward but would find artefacts you needed to label and define, translating their distinct, ancient languages. In Return of the Obra Dinn, you gradually pieced together a murder mystery by deduction, working through the events in reverse order.
Chants of Sennaar adopts both ideas and sort of blends them together, with a dash of Case of the Golden Idol’s word distribution system. You’re in the guise of a traveller who is trying to find their way through various different cultures. To do so, they must learn their languages to then solve puzzles, interact with different people on their journey and figure out their needs, all while learning about each culture.
The premise is deeply fascinating and right out of the gate you’re thrown into it as you have to try and figure out what the English for each word might be. The game tries to start it as simply as possible for you by teaching you what open and close and door might be, but eventually you’ll need to interpret greetings, verbs, adjectives, and gradually piece them together to uncover each sentence before mastering the language of each culture.
It has an initially steep learning curve which might make this a challenge for some people, but for each glyph you uncover in the game, you can put a written note next to it which represents your best guess at what it might be. Honestly, I haven’t used the PlayStation keyboard quite so much in a long time.
For example, if you met a person, and they present you with three lines of glyphs and you have no idea what they’re saying, you could speculate the first line is a greeting. The second is some form of request and the third could be informing you of where you need to look.
Or, say someone ran up to you with a hand gesture, speaking a bunch of glyphs, then they run away. Perhaps that could be asking them to follow you?
That’s what really spoke to me about this game. At a time when many AAA games are probably using too many words, making their characters overly expressive, people don’t always need to say the line to know what they’re thinking. But also, we know nothing about this traveller we’re playing. All that matters are the people they’re meeting, what they care about, what they want. And I love that.
Chants of Sennaar is a smart game that really requires some deep thinking and guess work. But when you do work out what’s being said, you’ll feel real satisfaction about it and a genuine sense of accomplishment. More than a few times I got quite excited for another blank page so I could start all over again.
Throughout each chapter, you’ll eventually be presented with several hand drawn pages in your journal and it’s up to you to assign the right glyph with the drawing you see. Aside from spoken lines, there’s also a lot of visual cues in the game – like plaques on a statue or signs over a shop – so you could probably work some out through observation, others might just come down to trial and error.
What’s also cool is you can go off exploring a bit within each culture, finding glyphs and pages in different orders if you didn’t want to spend too much time in one area. Personally, I got a bit overwhelmed by having too many unclaimed glyphs to match up and sort of lost my way from time to time. At times, I had to retrace my steps to streamline things a little bit. But others may work better having all the information and working things out from there.
Again, individual choice is as important in this game as it is learning more about another person. And, if nothing else, this game also teaches us that we may well be doing the same things here as other games, finding an item to give to someone, unlocking a door with a key, but that the best part of that mystery is figuring out what you need to do and how you need to do it.
Another cool thing the game does – arguably, its best feature – is actually draw comparisons between all cultures, so a line you’ve learned from a previous chapter could very well help you solve a translation later on. It’s absolutely genius and such a clever way to keep the game interesting while also convey a deeper, philosophical message around unity.
But as you identify those commonalities, the aesthetic of the game goes a long way to illustrating the distinct nature of each culture. Sometimes that’s done from some beautiful cinematic camera angles that give you a full feel of the wider area. Sometimes it’s close up, focusing on characters or direct puzzles. Often it’s through colour, vibrancy, and even darkness and desolation.
Even the music which weaves joyfully in the background as you wander along, moving between areas, changes up while complimenting your exploration as you look out at the breathtaking scenery, spending time with the people in their own natural habitat.
It’s a really well made game that you can even play with a friend or partner and sit together, trying to figure out what each thing means, gradually unravelling the story together.
All this and I didn’t even mention they’ve thrown some stealth in there. There’s certainly a few tense moments to really underly the different environments you’re walking into and show you that not everyone is necessarily welcoming of a traveller, nor do they care about their intentions. There’s even a little card game!
I did find some glyph placement a bit random and quite a few situations did require some trial and error. The final chapter is also pretty quick to breeze through, as is the game once you’ve clocked onto its formula.
And while it emulates some of the greatest games made in the last decade, it doesn’t quite capture their golden moments in the same way. All that said, this is one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve played this year and easily one of the essential indies to consider inbetween this year’s absolute mammoth blockbusters.
Chants of Sennaar has a great hook, smart ideas, some clever gameplay, beautiful cinematics, wonderful music and a beautiful underlying message that calls for a sense of unity in a world filled with friction.
What a truly unexpected delight this game turned out to be.
Chants of Sennaar is a beautifully refreshing game. While it borrows ideas from some of the best games of the last decade, it molds them into something quite special while also conveying a deeper, underlying message and staying interesting across its entire length. Some glyph placement does end up being trial and error, and the game’s run time is swift with the final chapter feeling very short handed, but this is a wonderful, cleverly crafted experience puzzle enthusiasts will adore and everyone else should give a chance.
+ A stunning, cinematic treat
+ Clever, well-crafted concepts offer satisfaction and accomplishment
+ Powerful unifying message at the game’s core
+ Keeps itself interesting throughout with new ideas and varied environments
– Some synbol placements do boil down to trial and error
Chants of Sennaar is out now on PC, PS5 and Xbox
Code Kindly Provided by Focus Home for review purposes
Tested on PlayStation 5