The Tartarus Key is what happens when a development team makes an homage to games from the 90s. It's an intriguing blend of modern level design, kitschy puzzle scenarios, and a story that attempts to blend retro and modern into something new. The result is an uneven experience, but one that holds some morbid charm.
Blast From The Past
In The Tartarus Key, you play as Alex, a young woman that has been abducted by a mysterious organization. She wakes up in an old mansion that has been rigged with surveillance cameras and devious puzzles. To make matter worse, Alex discovers other residents in the mansion, all hooked up to their own elaborate death traps. If Alex has any chance of escaping the mansion, she's going to need help.
The Tartarus Key makes a great first impression when it comes to atmosphere. The entire game is rendered in a low polygon artstyle imitating early PS1 titles, and it absolutely nails the look. Not only are the character models blocky and move with distinct stiffness, the textures assets are all low detail while not turning into incomprehensible noise. The really impressive stuff is found in the small details. The way most cutscenes just show static portraits between characters. The way the character models always look off due to a mixture of a “low resolution” filter and they are animated. The combination of filters and low draw distance to emulate old hardware limitations. If this game was sold as a lost ROM from 1999, I would believe it.
This presentation pairs well with the game's overall structure. The Tartarus Key has no combat, stealth sections, or jumpscares. The core loop will have you exploring different rooms and wings of the mansion, searching for survivors Every room in the game has some sort of puzzle, either a key you need to locate or some sort of logic puzzle you need to figure out. All of the relevant information you need is in that one room. This leads to a reliable pattern of searching the room for all information, pouring over the clues in your inventory, then figuring out the solution.
Escape Room From Hell
Overall, these sections of the game are entertaining bite-sized challenges. At their best, they are entertaining vignettes with some clever solutions. A personal highlight was a section in a planetarium where I had to parse conflicting pages of notes to get a certain group of constellations to appear. At their most frustrating, there can be multiple puzzles just packed into a single area that feels like padding. The best example of this is a part in a janitor's closet where I ended up opening three different locked doors one after the other just to get a key to another puzzle room.
But these sections are just set up for The Tartarus Key's escape sequences. These are points in the game where Alex must solve an elaborate puzzle to save the life of one of the residents. These puzzles are the most elaborate in the game. They are also the most intense because you can mess up the solution and end up killing the character. In fact, your body count is tied to the game's multiple endings.
As for the sections themselves, most of them are solid. Some of them play fair by hiding the real solution in plain sight, leading to those euphoric moments when you figure it out. But there are a few that can be obtuse, leaning away from the game's broad puzzlebox structure into bad point and click game logic. A good example of the latter is a section where I had to mix a certain drink. After jumping through a lot of logistical hoops: getting clean water, finding the correct recipe, discovering substitutes for the drink, etc., the last step of the process was to put the glass into an open fireplace with Alex's bare hands.
The Tartarus Key is at its best when it comes to tension and atmosphere. Its high points are a low-fi blend of an Agatha Christie mystery and the Zero Escape series. But when it comes to characters and story, it can be a mess. Some of this hokeyness is intentional; an extension of the game being an overt 90s game homage. When it comes to character banter, Alex and the cast have great little moments of texture and personality. But all of that set dressing still doesn't hide that both the central story and characters lean on very familiar cliches. When the secret organization behind this elaborate death game was revealed, it was such a jumble of secret society tropes it ended up being cartoonish rather than scary.
Finally, while the puzzle sections can be finished with a lot of trial and error, there are no variations in those puzzles. This means if you want to see the different endings, you can just memorize the solutions and speedrun to the relevant sections, which greatly reduces replay value.
The Tartarus Key Final Thoughts
Overall, I enjoyed my time with The Tartarus Key. Each puzzle section is solidly built with a lot of variety. Every room in the mansion is dripping with dread, and the escape sequences have a good amount of imagination. If you are feeling nostalgic, this game is a low-fi spooky ride that you can finish over the weekend. But if you aren't one for this era of puzzles, or want a story that's a bit more memorable, this might not be for you.
The Tartarus Key was reviewed on PlayStation 5 with a copy provided by the publisher over the course of 10 hours of gameplay - all screenshots were taken during the process of review.
- Great Low-Poly Presentation
- Solid Character Dialogue
- Tense Horror Puzzle Design
- Occasional Obtuse Puzzle Solution
- Forgettable Main Story