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What Are We Playing? [June-Sept 2023]

Periodically on this blog I highlight a handful of tabletop and digital games to spread the word about interesting experiences and support other creators. Here's the third roundup of 2023!

Available on: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows

Chants of Sennaar is a puzzle-driven adventure game that explores the ideas, structures, and impacts of language. Featuring a vibrant limited palette, the aesthetic of the game is effective in its simplicity. The gameplay revolves around exploring the world, discovering symbols, and making connections in order to translate their meaning. Soon enough, you’ll find yourself understanding the pictographs, but your learning will span much farther than just one fictional dialect...

The UI in this game was clearly designed with a lot of thought. I didn’t require a piece of paper to keep track of my ideas, and the ability to verify answers along the way was as useful as it was satisfying. Since there might be moments of frustration with the controls in any game, I especially appreciated the fact that the stealth sequences were extremely forgiving, saving an anxious Nelly like myself a lot of stress over finishing a level. (If you’re going to include stealth sequences, doing so in a way that doesn’t make them overstay their welcome is really nice, thank you!)

The progression and onboarding were smooth as well. Each level felt distinct, yet clearly part of the same story, continuing to build on the foundation of the knowledge already learned. Did I mention that the narrative driving the game forward is a fictionalized version of the Tower of Babel? I was impressed with how much the creators managed to convey with so few words. Fun fact: after my first session playing this for 3 hours, I was solving (impossible) language puzzles in my dreams. If you’re a language nerd like me, this one is a must-play, but as long as you like puzzles, Chants of Sennaar should be on your radar.

Time: ~9-12 hours

Difficulty: 2/5

Image via Steam

The Philosopher’s Stone is very reminiscent of iDventure’s Clueboxes. The experience to open it was also similar to a degree, but somehow felt a bit shorter, despite taking up the same amount of time. The steps to open the box were clever and fun to discover, but went by surprisingly quick. I guess there’s something to be said when a game leaves you wanting more, but having 1 or 2 more steps in the process would have made this feel like a more substantial puzzle experience. For what felt like a quick solve though, it did contain some really nice aha moments. Once I was done, it was easy enough to put it back together (although a reset guide on the hint site would be appreciated.) It’s also quite nice-looking, making it a good puzzle to gift, lend, or display on the shelf. I’m looking forward to checking out the Anti-Gravity Box next. If you’ve enjoyed iDventure’s Clueboxes, it could be worth checking out.

Time: ~45m

Difficulty: 1.5/5

Lost in the Shuffle is the debut game from Spencer is Puzzling and resides entirely in a deck of cards and a website. For such a small package, this game certainly packs a punch in terms of puzzle content, but to my own surprise, I found my favorite part of the experience to be the video interludes, which included a cheeky story that made me giggle many times. If you’re a player highly driven by narrative though, you may consider looking elsewhere, as the sheer volume of puzzles is really what defines this game, and they are mostly disconnected from one another.

Although many puzzle types will feel familiar to seasoned players (hard to avoid at this point, especially with 50+ puzzles in a single game), there were a decent handful that had us thinking outside the box, and we rarely had to rely on hints. Because the game is non-linear, we also had the freedom to jump from puzzle to puzzle, which was occasionally overwhelming but mostly quite fun, as we kept making discovery after discovery along the way. Its portability makes it a great game for travel, although it's worth noting that internet access is required. You can also easily gather a group of puzzle-loving friends and divide and conquer the dozens of enigmas packed into this little deck… then use it to play a card game—pretty clever.

Although aesthetically these cards could be more interesting, the creator made the bare-bones style make sense in the context of the story and work to the game’s advantage. The framing is simple, but full of charm and good humor, and the structure is friendly to beginners. It’s a really smart way to create a first product, and we’re looking forward to seeing what comes next from Spencer is Puzzling—we hope it’s very silly.

Time: 4+ hours

Difficulty: 2/5

The World Travelers Society is an ambitious first project from Tangible Narrative that takes the form of an historical puzzle adventure through the streets of Shanghai. The components felt appropriately realistic, featuring a lot of variation in paper stock, size, and material. It was fun to unbox this game and admire all the little details. We really appreciated what this added to the atmosphere, however, the gameplay could benefit from having more structure and specificity.

I generally tend to prefer games that are non-linear, but there were so many options here that we struggled a little to get started. Without knowing what we could or couldn’t solve yet, and seeing multiple puzzles being referenced on a single component, parts of puzzles scattered over several components, etc... there were many connections to be made, but it was easy to get lost in the chaos. It also wasn’t always clear when we needed to use the internet (though ultimately this was a lot.) If there was more specificity in the questions and answers, this wouldn’t be as big of an big issue, but the level of ambiguity in some of the ARG-like elements left way too much room for error, combined with the fact that one can’t rely on Google maps to give you reliable information about buildings in China.

Many of the puzzles we encountered felt clever in concept, but with so many layers and conflicting information, the execution left us floundering mid-puzzle and using the hints much more than I would have liked. Having some sort of self-contained website to find information, or additional gating and/or more signposting could have helped. Despite our frustrations, however, we felt this game has a unique vision that we want to see more of (a second, more developed and user-friendly iteration of this game could have the potential for excellence as well.) We’ll certainly be watching Tangible Narrative’s upcoming project, The Great Tea Robbery to see what they come up with next.

Time: 8+ hours

Difficulty: 4/5

Available on: Nintendo Switch

It seems almost silly to include one of the most anticipated games of 2023 in this roundup, but it also seems kind of bananas not to, so I figure I don’t have much of a choice. But how to even talk about Tears of the Kingdom? Basically, it takes the incredibly expansive world of Breath of the Wild and adds a novel mechanic that empowers players with a high degree of creativity. It also expands the world up to the skies, as well as down to the depths underground, more than doubling the gameplay area.

If you’re familiar with Breath of the Wild, the main mechanics of this game will feel largely familiar. You play as Link, running around and fighting monsters, cooking meals, completing side-quests, and eventually fighting the Demon King. So what makes this game different? You get a series of powers that allow you to practice telekinesis, moving objects around in the air, and fusing them together in order to create weapons, vehicles, and all sorts of gadgets. The size of the can of worms opened up by these abilities cannot be overstated, and the internet is full of videos of people doing incredible things with this. Although I felt like the four “Main Quest” areas in this game were not quite as interesting as the majestic mechanisms that guided the puzzle design of Divine Beasts in Breath of the Wild, the incredible physics design and seemingly infinite sandbox of Tears of the Kingdom is really something special. If you like open-world games, this should be at the top of your to-play list.

Time: 50+ hours for the main storyline, 100+ hours of content

Difficulty: 1.5/5

What have you been playing lately?


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