In the Book of Genesis after the great Flood, the descendants of Noah, united under one language, strive to build a tower in the land of Shinar. They wanted to make a name of themselves, and the Tower of Babel would be so great that its top would reach the heavens. God, seeing how powerful humanity could become with the ability to communicate and work together, ceased these plans by scattering its language. No longer being able to understand each other, the builders couldn’t complete the tower and humanity separated, spreading out across the world and giving birth to linguistic and cultural diversity.
Rundisc’s Chants of Sennaar is heavily based on the myth of the Tower of Babel. We know very little about our character, The Traveller, when we wake up at the base of the tower – other than the fact that we do not know the native language of the religious society we encounter. In order to make our way up the tower, we must learn the language of the five cultures that inhabit it.
Straight off the bat, Chants of Sennaar is one of the best looking games of 2023 and probably my favourite in terms of art direction. Each of the five levels of the tower are filled with vibrant colours and Rundisc’s use of this colour palette, varying textures and the 3D imagery makes for some gorgeous visuals.
Chants of Sennaar’s five cultures consist of The Devotees, The Warriors, The Bards, The Alchemists and The Anchorites. Each speaks an entirely different language in the form of glyphs, which you must decipher and learn what each glyph means.
Each time you pick up a new glyph, it will be added to your journal. You can note on the glyph what you think it means, that word (or words if you’re unsure) will then be worked into translations but will be coloured grey so that you know it’s your guess rather than the actual translation. This can reworked as much as you like. As the Traveller makes his way around the map, he will begin to draw diagrams in the journal, showing images that the game believes you should be able to pair with a glyph by now.
I thought this was a brilliant way of working around the common problem in deduction puzzle games of different words with the same meaning being a barrier between the player knowing what the answer is and the game actually agreeing with them. Having pictures means that, as long as you get the gist of what the glyph you’ve identified means, the game will give you the actual correct translation and will even alter the punctuation and phrase of the word to work it into the context of each translated sentence.
While there are a few basic translation signs at the start of each new level, usually stating that so-so is barred from so-so’s area, you pretty much have to start from scratch each time to learn the new language. You will mainly be able to translate glyphs by reading signs or listening in on conversations. If someone is listening to another play music, then you can assume they’re talking about the music they’re listening to.
The key thing to know about Chants of Sennaar is that it doesn’t hold your hand. At all. It’s your job to work out what each glyph says and if you’re progressing without doing so, you’re going to find yourself needing to return to the starting sections of the level before the conversations get too complicated. Being able to understand the language of each level is key to progressing or knowing where to go.
The tricky part comes in when you realise that some of the cultures use different tenses in their conversations, such as The Bards having a Yoda-like sentence structure and the different languages using varying ways to mark plural words. On top of this, the cultures recognise things in different ways to one another and some words don’t even exist in another’s language. For example, The Warriors’ ‘Chosen Ones’ are actually just The Bards, but musical talent is rare in their culture. The Alchemists even bring numbers into the equation, literally, so the puzzles turn into mathematical problems.
If you’ve already listened to a conversation in a cutscene, you can replay it at any time to try and translate the glyphs used in the text bubbles. However, I did find that this sequence really needed a pause and skip button. Not only do you need to rewatch the whole thing again, but you can really only concentrate on one or two glyphs at a time to work out what they mean, so you end up rewatching the same conversations over and over.
Speaking of backtracking, Chants of Sennaar has plenty of this. Not only will you find yourself going back through the level to replay it once you have a better understanding of certain glyphs so that you can fill in the gaps of prior conversations and seen signs, but the end game mission requires you to go back through each level and rebuild the connections between each culture. The only problem is that the point-and-click controls are awkward, your character is sluggish, and there’s only two fast travel points in each level – AND NO MAP.
The lack of a map was really the most frustrating part about all the backtracking, especially when you’re going back on a level that you haven’t visited in a while. The Traveller is taking note of every word used in conversations and any relevant information to progress through the tower, it makes no sense that he’s not also mapping while he’s at it.
Another little addition which would just make playing Chants of Sennaar a lot easier would be the journal not taking up the whole screen while opened so we can still see the sign or the conversation text bubble we were looking at – this would make it much easier to pair up a glyph with what’s being said so that we can make that translation. It would also be nice if, when you click on a glyph in a conversation or on a sign and it brings up the journal, that glyph is then highlighted in the journal so that you don’t have to stare at the page of glyphs for so long to locate the one you’re trying to identify.
There was one level where a journal page didn’t show up for me so I wasn’t able to properly translate the glyphs on it. I likely needed to be at the right place at the right time for this to have been triggered. Luckily, I knew what these glyphs said anyway, so it wasn’t a huge issue.
While everything that I’ve mentioned so far is more of a nitpick and doesn’t exactly take away from the overall game. Chants of Sennaar does have one glaring fault. It’s a masterful puzzle game, and had it stayed as a puzzle game it would have been near perfect albeit with just the tweaks above needed. However, Chants of Sennaar also exists as a stealth game… for some reason.
This is a huge oversight by the developers in my opinion. The puzzle requirements in Chants of Sennaar need a completely different mood to sit down to than a stealth game. I want to snuggle up and just use my brain power for the next twenty hours, being dragged out of this and thrown into bland stealth sections is jarring. Not to mention the fixed camera creates some real problems when enemies are able to spot you off screen. Not a good idea.
There was also one jump scare early on in Chants of Sennaar which I really wasn’t prepared for seeing as though this is supposed to be an atmospheric puzzle game. As a horror fan, I’m saying don’t do this.
The final level of Chants of Sennaar, inhabited by the Anchorites, was by far the most interesting setting-wise. Unfortunately, there wasn’t an awful lot to do in terms of exploring this culture, and the language would translate itself as long as you completed the puzzles at the terminals dotted around the location. I did understand the meaning behind this, linking with the theme of this area being automated and its inhabitants lacking in natural socialisation and learning, but it just wasn’t appealing gameplay-wise.
The Alchemists’ level was also the most unappealing visual-wise, and I feel like the developers really could have done more with the scientific setting behind this.
Chants of Sennaar does what any great puzzle game does; it makes you feel like a genius as you rebuild the connections between these five civilisations. It’s a joy to see these cultures that you spend hours learning about find ways to relate to one another or combining their unique skills to assist one another – just like the myth of the Tower of Babel. On top of this, the translation aspect is genuinely challenging and I really felt as though I were learning five new languages. Unfortunately, this masterpiece of a puzzle game is let down by the stealth segments that feel completely out of place, and it could have really done without these.
Jess reviewed Chants of Sennaar on PC with her own bought copy. Chants of Sennaar is also available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch.