Your character wakes up in a sarcophagus. At first blush, you seem alone as you guide your cloaked character, wandering through gorgeously rendered arches and passageways. At last, you chance upon another person. Finally! A chance to absorb some exposition about what the heck's going on. Maybe you'll even get a quest!
They say... something before pointing to a nearby lever. It's not that you don't understand what they're saying, in fact, you're pretty sure they're asking you to pull the lever, but you can't read what they're saying. Then a subtle UI flair at the top of the screen prompts you to press 'X,' where these foreign characters pop up in a neat row. You write down what you think these characters mean, but still don't feel absolutely certain. After another exchange, your character pulls out a journal with drawings that confirm your suspicions; now you just need to line up the drawings with the characters. Maybe it takes a try or two, but you put what seems to mean 'open' next to a drawing that shows an open door, and the other two characters with their respective drawings. Suddenly the characters in Sennaar's journal flicker and change color with a satisfying chime, confirming your suspicions.
It's a deceptively intricate magic trick that never loses its novelty through Chants of Sennaar's runtime (19 hours for us) that makes you feel like an archaeologist or anthropologist piecing together the building blocks of a forgotten language. While it hinges on other environmental puzzles and interactions, Chants of Sennaar shines in its ability to essentially teach you a new language through almost nothing but context clues.
Chants of Sennaar is an impressive, if steadfast, adventure through a richly defined, stunning world whose languages, cultures, and secrets are the key to uniting five peoples divided by an evil force. Instead of just figuring out which switches to press in the proper order or pushing a box in the right direction to open a door or bypass a set of obstacles, you'll be tasked with deciphering a foreign language in order to determine which switches to flip or crates to move. It's an impressive exercise in anthropological puzzle design that's also seriously challenging and often frustrating.
While it's difficult to discuss the premise of the game without diving into its sudden, plot-heavy third act, suffice it to say that you'll find yourself exploring five different civilizations in Chants of Sennaar. Each civilization has its own defining traits, cultures, and characteristics. One might be orderly and strict while another might be simpler, but staunchly devoted to its religion. They all have their own art, music (all of which is excellent), fashion, architecture, and sense of purpose. Most importantly, though, they each have their own language. Each civilization's language reveals a lot about its culture; the alchemists might have individual words for specific elements, while artists have words for more abstract concepts.
Each language has its own distinct feel but follows its own rules. Not in the grammatical sense, but in the actual design of each word. Words for person, warrior, and priest may all be variations on one specific shape or outline because they're all related to people. Verbs might all be anchored by an underline or curve. Developer Rundisc clearly went to great lengths to not only create languages and cultures that added context to these mysterious runes but to make them follow their own rules.
Outside of its anthropological puzzle-solving, there's also some pretty standard puzzling here; it's not bad, but nothing we haven't seen dozens of times over. Press a switch at the right time, turn a statue to face the right direction, and so on. That stuff normally wouldn't be very interesting, but slowly uncovering how and where to solve these puzzles by learning a language breathes new life into even the most rote puzzle idea.
The problem is Chants of Sennaar's ability to thread the needle properly. This game makes very few affordances in its design and, therefore, can force you to spin your wheels for a long time before you're rewarded for your effort. If you misread even one context clue, that can throw stuff off later on, which can really undermine its sense of play and progression. On the other hand, many of these moments feel more like a deliberate choice motivated by artistic vision rather than a qualitative fault that might prove divisive. That said, its quality of life offerings don't lay the proper foundation to reliably bolster Chants' lofty—sometimes top-heavy—aspirations.
This sensibility permeates its gameplay. Trying to assign an abstract idea like the word 'not' to a drawing sounds easier than it actually is. Words like 'fear,' 'you,' or 'transform' make for difficult translations, which can tack on a lot of trial and error (and backtracking) to something that should be brief because the context of a situation can be so subjective. It's one thing when a person points at a lever and says "Open door," but when someone says, "Can I help you?" it's not always as simple as it might sound to parse that out in the broader context of a conversation or environment.
Sometimes it's a small touch; like the lack of permanently accessible maps for any of the game's levels, for example. While Chants does present the player with maps in the context of its respective levels, you can't pick them up and carry them with you. So, unless you memorize every room in every level, you're going to be running back and forth between your destination and rooms with maps in them. Considering the game has a bespoke mechanic for picking up and examining items, the lack of something as simple as a paper map is frustrating. Plus, Sennaar always has their journal on hand, so the lack of a drawn map as you progress is questionable.
That frustration compounds in Chants' endgame, where intimate knowledge of its various levels and areas is non-negotiable. There are dozens of such rigidities in Chants of Sennaar. While the map issue is one of its most pointed and significant, other small issues come from its highly bespoke sense of puzzle-solving that prioritizes narrative, world-building, and immersion over play. There's no log containing recent conversations, so if you need more context to better suss out what a specific character means, you need to find the sign, NPC, or book where you initially encountered it, which means you need to backtrack to do so.
This is all in service of Chants of Sennaar's impressive, dogmatic dedication to putting you in its world without making compromises. In trying to put you in this world, Chants might push some players too far. But those who persevere are going to be rewarded for busting their brains. It operates on a similar push and pull that you could expect from classic adventure games like Grim Fandango or The Secret of Monkey Island. It can be really frustrating, especially if the game's rigid logic doesn't click with you. In that regard, it's a great option for a more low-key co-op game. Sitting down to play in a new session might enlighten you to new ways to approach a particularly difficult translation, so introducing a completely new mind to the mix might add some interesting depth.
The only hindrance that doesn't feel deliberate is its home on Switch. Because you're encouraged to take notes on each character you encounter to try and guess what it might mean, you're likely to spend a lot of time using the Switch's native keyboard. While there are some ways to bypass the frustrating aspects of typing on the Switch (or any console), it's annoying to constantly have to deal with the constraints of typing with a controller unless you're playing in handheld.
Chants of Sennaar is as defined by its peaks as its valleys. For every moment of mind-blowing, brilliant puzzle design comes an inversely frustrating moment stymied by '90s adventure game logic. The game's ability to teach a player aspects of a language is awe-inspiring, and its way of guiding players along with as little information as possible is intensely rewarding—when it works. Even though it isn't for everyone (or consistently excellent), it's constantly impressive. If you're interested, we recommend checking out the free demo for the game that's available on the eShop, which will help let you know whether or not this game might be up your alley.