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Review: The Tartarus Key

31 May 2023

It takes astonishingly little to endear me to an art style inspired by those found in titles released for the original PlayStation. Games for the console sported a very singular look, and to this day can provide a unique atmosphere in the gaming space that belies their age.

Quite a few modern games have been released in this vein, stacked to the nines with aliasing, low polygon counts, limited lighting, and pixelated interfaces galore, but many of them still struggle to capture the feeling of those games in spite of their best efforts to replicate their appearance.

The Tartarus Key, developed by Vertical Reach and published by Armor Games Studios, is a prime example of a game that succeeds in both respects. Launching May 31st for PC, PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and Switch, the psychological thriller throws players into the confines of a trap- and puzzle-laden mansion with the sole goal of making it out alive.

The PC version was played for this review.

The Key Question Is…

Alex Young, a courier, finds herself awake in an entirely unfamiliar study with a locked door and seemingly no other way out. Scrambling for answers and a solution, she comes across a shortwave radio that puts her in contact with Torres, a private investigator who appears to be in the exact same situation somewhere nearby.

As Alex continues to explore her surroundings, she discovers a puzzle of sorts has been prepared for her by persons unknown, and after deciphering the solution, is allowed to continue into another room where yet another puzzle awaits. She notices cameras following her every move, but with no other options, she resolves to meet up with Torres and combine their efforts uncover the circumstances that led to their capture.

One of the more immediate takeaways while playing The Tartarus Key is that the dialogue is quite authentic. The plot itself is a bit on the barebones side initially, and it’s certainly a backdrop that we’ve all seen before, but the dialogue between Alex and others in the confines of the structure feel believable and—perhaps surprisingly for a game so thoroughly inspired by horror—pretty funny. You won’t be slapping your knees at every exchange, but the chats feel earnest and the comedy realistic for the situation, despite the characters being overly quippy in certain spots.

As with any game where dialogue and mystery plays a pivotal role, the less you know going into it the better, but the mysteries of the mansion do a good job of unraveling themselves, increasing the stakes and intrigue of the surrounding puzzles and their purposes as the game progresses. Because the player is in the exact same position as Alex, it feels as though they get to piece things together alongside her, and unlike quite a few horror works, The Tartarus Key manages to stick the landing when it eventually reveals its hand, despite things ending a bit abruptly no matter which ending you get.

It’s also worth noting that while it can certainly be categorized as a horror game for its overall feel, it’s bereft of any outright jump scares. It instead opts to express its genre through atmosphere and the inherent tension of entrapment, which is a decision that more than pays off in the way it allows the puzzles themselves to take center stage.

Where Do We Look?

As you’ll no doubt have gleaned from the above, the premise of The Tartarus Key lines up very neatly to that of an escape room, which itself entwines more with the gameplay than one might expect. As Alex reaches solution after solution the playable area opens up considerably, but whether you’re just starting the game or reaching the end of your playthrough, every element you need for a puzzle is fully contained within one clearly defined area.

A vast majority of the time, Alex will never need to discover a key item or solution in one area and carry it across the mansion into another in order to proceed, and the benefits of compartmentalizing the puzzles in this way are manifold. It’s a huge relief to know that every puzzle you come across is immediately solvable and not dependent on your discovery of another item or piece of information elsewhere. It allows for each one to stand out from one another and poise itself as a challenge to be overcome right then and there. It also lends itself to a great feeling of completionism when you’re able to say goodbye to a room once and for all with everything done and dusted.

There’s also a highly detailed map that not only keeps track of the puzzles themselves, but also the narrative beats that happened in each location. It can feel a bit unnecessary at times, but this feels like a result of the level design making it easy to keep track of your bearings even as more of the mansion opens itself up, which is far from a bad problem to have.

And yet, even with the puzzles being so neatly curtailed to one specific location and the game doing a decent job of ramping up the difficulty as it progresses, The Tartarus Key does tend to trend on the easier side of the puzzle game spectrum. Once you’ve discovered every piece of information in a given room, the solution typically falls into place shortly thereafter. Not every time, mind you, but consistently enough.

This ultimately works more in the game’s favor though, as it allows the plot, characters, and puzzles themselves to proceed at a lively pace. They consistently walk the tightrope between respecting your intelligence and giving you a brainteaser to suss out without making things esoteric or adding challenge for challenge’s sake. It’s a smooth experience, in other words, and there’s quite a bit of variety in how the game tasks your noggin, from memorization to translating ciphers and scavenger hunting.

This is all to say it’s very easy to get stuck into The Tartarus Key on the merits of its puzzles alone more often than not, so the unique atmosphere and story trappings added on top of them make for an engaging experience.

PlayStation [Aesthetics] Won

Plenty of games have styled themselves in a fashion similar to the titles on the original PlayStation and the early 3D era at large, but few of them have been able to recreate it as successfully as The Tartarus Key manages to. The modeling, texturing, and especially the interface all feel right out of the era, but streamlined and enhanced to fall in line with modern sensibilities.

The title uses the limitations of PS1-era graphics as an aesthetic baseline, but doesn’t adhere to them strictly regarding resolution or fidelity, thus elevating the visuals into something much more unique than they may have been otherwise. The vertex shaking of the models and the warping effect on textures to emulate older hardware are a little excessive at points, but they can thankfully be toggled off in the options menu if they aren’t to your liking.

In tandem with the puzzle variety mentioned above, each room also does an admirable job of being distinct from one another, with new sights and sounds appearing at a consistent pace as you make your way deeper into the mansion. There’s always something new to see and plenty of surprises along the way.

The sound design and music matches the game itself well, and is economically used to great effect. The tracks transition from more ambient tunes to songs more in-your-face and catchy when the situation calls for it, and it all has a lo-fi bent that further unifies it with the visual style.

Escape Game

The Tartarus Key is the rare game that’s able to faithfully recreate an older, chunky 3D aesthetic while still establishing a unique voice of its own. Its brainteasers won’t pose much of a challenge to seasoned puzzlers and its endings are rather abrupt, but the intriguing mystery, variety of puzzle types, and brisk pace work together—much like the characters trapped in the mansion themselves—to ensure a ride worth taking.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review code provided by Armor Games Studios for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Armor Games Studios.