Steam is full of independent puzzle games. Some, like The Turing Test, are genuinely great brain-teasers, pulling from classics like Portal and The Talos Principle. Others, like Syberia or The Witness, are more divisive attempts at challenging your mind. Tartarus doesn’t try to imitate these titles, instead harkening back to the old pen-and-paper puzzle games.
You play as Cooper, whose only skill is cooking food for the crew, which isn’t much help should things start going wrong. One night, you wake up to find the ship on lockdown and alarms going off. Helping you over the intercom is Andrews, the ship's engineer. He is the one other character in the game, and also the reason for some of the worst dialogue I’ve heard in recent times.
Almost every other word is an f-bomb or “this is a piece of shit”. The two get in random spats and are suddenly okay again one phrase later. It’s laughable, and these exchanges are nothing but distracting. I found it difficult to care about anything going on. Andrews’ usefulness barely extends beyond moving the plot forward. That said, there isn’t much to the story in the first place. It’s a generic sci-fi romp that does little to keep you engaged.
Tartarus’ gameplay involves two phases. One consists of walking around a lifeless ship with absolutely nothing to find, and the other involves solving puzzles using various command line terminals. Most of these “puzzles” don’t require any critical thinking. Instead, you’re playing a stretched out game of elimination, typing out long phrases to see which one clicks. Instructions on how to use some of the terminals are intentionally misleading, and the developer has even written a Steam guide due to how frustrating they can be. Not to mention there are countless translation issues, some of which made these tasks even more difficult. These early game puzzles are enough to turn players off from the start.
If you can push through some of the earlier parts, the later puzzles are the highlights of the game. One had me with a pen in one hand and a calculator in the other, using the on-screen legend to decipher different algebra equations. Another has me writing down 24 character codes and deciphering which one correlated to a specific engine. These more complex assignments make the dull moments almost worth pushing past. Should Abyss Gameworks come out with another title, these are the types of puzzles they should focus on.
However, there’s not much else this game has going for it. I simply did not enjoy running through empty corridors searching for the next terminal to chip away at for twenty minutes. The Alien-like retro sci-fi environments pull from some of the least inspired parts of the popular franchise. There’s no reason to stray from the main path unless you’re interested in walking through frustratingly empty rooms. Collecting main story pickups is awkwardly handled - requiring you to fumble the mouse and hoping for a “use” prompt to pop up rather than cleverly making the item stand out. Also, Cooper has an agonizingly short stamina bar. You would think there is a monster chasing you or some sort of timer to rush through, but nope.
Not until the end that is. As far as story, you’ll pick up whats going on quickly, and this final encounter will come as no surprise. What will surprise you is the hide-and-seek gameplay incorporated in this act. You aren’t solving a puzzle this time. Instead, you’re fighting with the sprint meter to hide from a boss that has no place in this type of game. Cooper dies instantly if he’s seen, and I could swear his hitbox extends further out than it should. This “fight” is a weak attempt at surprising the player to finish off an otherwise lackluster adventure.
Tartarus took me a little less than four hours to complete, with most of that time being spent on two significant puzzles and then about an hour on the last act. Despite the predictable story, cringe-worthy dialogue, and bland environments, the few puzzle ideas that do work could (and should) be implemented into another game of some sort. This is a game I wanted to like. I tried seeing where the developer was coming from, even reading through what others liked about the game. It’s an attempt at trying something new, which I can respect, but the result is a mess that I have a hard time recommending.
Our Tartarus review was conducted on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.
Tartarus' few good ideas are outweighed by the frustrating puzzle design and lackluster plot, giving you little reason to keep playing.
- Engaging Late-Game Puzzles
- An Attempt At Something New
- Cringe-Inducing Dialogue
- Early Puzzles Are A Drag
- Predictable Plot