Trapped on an island by ceaseless storms and jagged rocks, you find yourself the only human in a city of stranger creatures, nestled safely outside humanity’s influence. But this is no Dinotopia, this is Lingtopia — a place for you to learn the language of your choice.
May the world forgive us, but here in the UK (and doubtless the US), we’re not the greatest language learners — or even language attempters. Years spent trying to piece together a working knowledge fade into myth and legend when we cross to the other side of the globe and people just speak English at us anyway (and do it so well). And besides that, learning a language is hard, no matter where you’re from.
This is where fun and interactive modes of learning can really make a difference. They stick in your brain, helping you remember and apply what you’ve learned — to this day, I remember some of the BBC’s resources with fondness: Colin and Cumberland, some spooky game with zombies and a full-motion-video story in particular. I don’t remember a word from my textbooks. So building education into entertainment like this is something I have always thought vitally important. Hopefully, this is where Lingtopia comes in.
Lingtopia boasts a good array of official language packs and a large number of unofficial (mostly partial) translations — more of which are being added all the time. What’s more, unlike other language-learning games, you don’t have to pay for each language separately. So if you change your mind halfway through and desperately want to learn something else, go right ahead.
For the purpose of this review, I chose to learn Spanish (an official translation) — in part so we could have a basis to compare it to. And so it was that the final nail was slammed into the coffin of my GCSE Spanish abilities. I can only apologise if my answer to ‘are the translations accurate?’ is a noncommittal grunt, shrugged shoulders and a fervent hope my Spanish teacher never reads this.
Lingtopia’s plot and gameplay can be summed up in one paragraph. You follow the character who found you washed up on the beach, walking from person to person around the streets and parks of the island’s city. Everyone speaks the language you chose, and your host encourages you to speak to them. While you don’t have to follow her, she insistently beckons for you to come if you decide to wander off on your own.
Unfortunately, the point to these interactions isn’t obvious, and not just because you don’t know the language. You obviously speak to some of the residents just to get to know them, which is fine, but there never feels like there’s a coherent thread pulling everything together. At one point it looked like we were going to be able to leave the island, but the host character beckoned for us to go the other way and — after some moments of indecision — we followed. The opportunity vanished. The eternal follow quest appeared to begin anew.
Exploring the city by yourself and deviating from the route when following the slower-than-you host isn’t all bad, though. While the low-poly art style and its slightly clunky camera perspective can take a little bit of getting used to, it’s one of those sights that grows on you. Speech bubbles appear above characters as they walk around (apparently many of their girlfriends were very pretty that morning) and clicking on certain things teaches you new words — there are billboards for language rules like punctuation, along with incongruous giant fruit on poles and stone numbers rising from the sea bed. The lattermost could have been more subtly implemented.
Think it’s all talk and no interaction? Every now and then one of the residents asks you a question, which may affect later conversations with them. In this way, you can come across genuine misunderstandings where you may think someone was asking for your opinion on something only to reply honestly and be chided for not respecting other people’s beliefs. Or maybe that character was just a jerk who asked the wrong questions — the more you understand, the more you’ll know. Some of these questions require you provide an answer from a set of options; others ask you to type in the word, giving small icons as helpful hints.
Thankfully, Lingtopia stores all the words you learn and tips you pick up in two handy menus. They could do with a bit of refinement, including a search bar (which appears to be on the cards, judging from developer responses on the forums), improved sorting and a faster counting system (which displays how many words you’ve learned).
Of the bugs we found, none of them were completely game-breaking and the worst was a minor inconvenience. Sometimes text overflows from its box, voices say something different to what’s on the screen and your host needs a nudge to get moving again. The worst was when we got stuck, but that was solved by reloading the game, which is a quick process.
If you’re looking to learn a language, Lingtopia might not be the first step you take on your road to learning it, but we reckon it will make a decent companion to a course of self study. It doesn’t engage for a great deal of time, however, with a vagary to your path through it and repetitive gameplay that wears with age. It has undergone some improvements since launch, though, so we hope it will only improve as time goes on.
Lingtopia is available for purchase from itch.io for PC, Mac and Linux.