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Influent review: learn a language by crashing planes

Influent review: learn a language by crashing planes

| April 3, 2014

It sometimes boggles the my mind just how much language learning has changed over the past ten years. As someone who learned Chinese by poring over textbooks (the paper kind) and flipping through literally thousands of hand-written notecards, I sometimes feel like language learners today are spoiled for choice. There are so many cool tools out there now to help you learn a language!

One of those tools is Influent, which was launched on Steam in late March. The game, which was developed by Three Flip Studios in collaboration with Japan’s University of Tsukuba, costs $9.99 for your first language, and then $4.99 for each additional language, and it does come with quite a few. At the moment, the game offers Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Korean, English, Spanish, Swedish, French, German, Russian, Bulgarian, and Latin options.

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Gameplay

Influent drops you into a regular (if somewhat cramped) apartment filled with stuff. You can explore the apartment in the first or third person, click on anything to hear and see its name in your target language, and press the space bar to save any words you’re interested in to your vocab list. Once you’ve got ten words saved, you can do Time Attack tests, where you’re given a word in your target language and you have to click on the item it corresponds to as quickly as possible. Once you’ve mastered enough words, you’ll also unlock a Fly By mode, where you can fly a toy spaceship (again in first- or third-person) and shoot lasers at the item instead of clicking on it.

Here’s a quick video that shows off the game’s basic gameplay. In it, you’ll see me collecting and testing new words in Korean, and then later in the video you’ll see me playing some Fly By mode in Chinese.

I found the third-person controls to be really unintuitive for a gamer, but thankfully the first-person controls are what you’d expect from any FPS. The plane-flying controls are pretty good in both modes, which is good because that’s the part of Influent that’s the most actual fun. Frame rate issues, a few bugs (you’ll see one in the video above) and the cramped space make flying pretty difficult, so you’ll crash a lot. But I still had fun zooming around the apartment shooting tiny lasers at the objects I was looking for.

To keep you entertained, in addition to the Time Attack and Fly By modes, there are also some challenges you can complete to unlock rewards. These tend to take the form of collecting or mastering a certain group of words, though, so they don’t really change the gameplay at all.

If you’re not already looking to learn a language, there definitely isn’t enough game in Influent to entertain you on its own merits. But as a vocab memorization tool, it’s certainly more fun that paper notecards. And the value of interacting with these items (at least a little) and creating a visual memory for them probably can’t be overstated. Hearing and reading words in your target language while looking at that object in a natural setting will help a lot of people, especially visual learners, pick up vocabulary more quickly. That said, Influent does have some limitations.

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Not quite fluent

To begin with, it’s important to note that Influent will not teach you to speak, or even read, a language. This is a vocabulary game, and there’s nothing here that will help you with grammar or sentence construction, or even teach you basics like the alphabets. As such, it’s definitely best used in combination with other learning tools that’ll help you put all the vocabulary Influent teaches you into practice.

Influent is confined entirely to the small apartment that you start in. There are hundreds of words in there to choose from, but the vocabulary set is still limited; you’re not, for example, going to learn “shopping mall” by playing Influent. It does include adjectives and verbs, but they’re associated with objects in the game and thus they can sometimes be a little unintuitive. The umbrella, for example, is matched with the verb “forget”, and if you’re given the adjective “soft” you can click on a pillow but not on the couch.

Another issue is that Influent likes to work mostly from 10-word lists constructed in the order you saved the words. You can also play using random words from your entire bank of saved vocab, but the game doesn’t seem to take advantage of spaced repetition or stop asking you words that you’ve demonstrated you know. As a result, I found myself clicking things like “key ring” and “eyeglasses” an awful lot, even though I had gotten them right many times already.

Finally, in languages with multiple words or regional differences, you’ll only get one side of the story. The Mandarin Chinese version of Influent, for example, generally uses Taiwan vernacular instead of what’s spoken on the mainland, so while it does have a simplified character option, there are still some words in the game that aren’t frequently used in mainland China. My guess is there are some issues like this with some of the other languages too, but since Mandarin and English are the only languages I can speak, I can’t be certain.

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Is Influent worth it?

Influent is a pretty small game, and it isn’t without its share of bugs and performance issues. I would love to see the game expanded into a whole town, with thousands of vocab words for each language to discover. But if you’re looking to learn household vocabulary in one of the languages Influent currently offers (more are coming soon), $10 is actually a pretty great price for a tool that can teach you hundreds of words in a fun, visual, and interactive way.

I haven’t included a review score for Influent, because as a game focused on education rather than entertainment, it doesn’t really fit into our scoring rubric. If you’re wondering whether the game is for you, the best advice I can give is just to watch the gameplay video above. But in general, if you’re starting a new language or just looking to brush up on your household vocab, I think Influent is an excellent option.

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