Created by indie developer Vertical Reach – The Tartarus Key takes big inspiration from the PSX-era horror titles whilst bringing the polish of modern games. With the low-poly pixelated grit from games like Metal Gear Solid and a dash of the Saw film franchise in content, The Tartarus Key sounds like a no-brainer for anyone in the adjoining Venn diagram.
The game plays as a first-person puzzler with a heavy emphasis on the creepy and curious. It’s hard to call this a horror per se despite the presentation, as the game never outright puts fear in you. Don’t take that as a negative though as there’s so much to enjoy about The Tartarus Key. Whether it’s the brain-tingling puzzles or the engrossing and suspenseful music, all the elements help provide a mystery worth solving. Let’s get into it.
Do You Want To Play A Game?
You play as Alex Young who wakes up inside an ornate old-fashioned office. The door is locked. The first thing you spot in the room is a radio with a voice on the other end. This is where you meet Torres, a former detective turned private investigator whose trapped in her own room similar to you. Every room has a CCTV watching Alex like a hawk.
For the rest of the game’s story, you’ll be solving malevolently crafted puzzles that result in life or death – hence the Saw comparison. All the whilst getting to the bottom of who or what put you there in the first place. Everyone seemingly has a connection to the hand they’ve been dealt, it’s solely down to you to get out and get answers.
The game is drenched in Greek mythology. With Tartarus being the depths of the world in mythical terms, it really does feel like you’re going deep into the depths to escape. The subtlety in environmental storytelling is strong when creating an atmosphere and feeding you potential hidden meanings. Puzzles and rooms show off Greek symbols and characters form a narrative around the puzzles, almost like an ancient ritual.
This is contrasted by the characters and dialogue. Alex’s snark and contrasting naivety cut the often tense situation you’ll be in. For the most part, it plays off well as they bring humanity to the characters and afford some relatability. With that said, there are quite a few interactions that I met with an eye roll as some of the sarcastic quips make you feel like Alex has forgotten where she is – like a little bit of seriousness to drive home its life or death wouldn’t have gone amiss.
How Far Will You Go?
I’m trying to be intentionally vague about a lot of the plot points for The Tartarus Key as it really takes you by surprise in the last 1/3 of the game. However, early on you discover there’s more than just you and Torres trapped inside this mansion of dread. Your success or failure – depending on how you see it – does alter the narrative.
There are three different endings which I’ve obtained all of and there’s definitely a favourite of mine. Fortunately for me, I got what I consider the best ending first, meaning I can go over the subsequent playthroughs with a fine toothcomb. I found myself appreciating a lot of the subtext in the game more than Alex’s dialogue, which drags it down a tad.
Other characters you meet along the way are diverse, relatable and some even loathsome, resulting in a decent ensemble that offers more information about the world through dialogue. I’m still with some questions, maybe a couple of bits went over my head that some history research could quell. Overall though I came away satisfied with the story as a whole.
What Kind of Escape Room Is This?
Whilst the storytelling does do a bulk of the delivery of atmosphere, the puzzles are what make the game special. Now, I really don’t consider myself smart when it comes to puzzle games. Often times I’ll look it up online if I’m spending longer than 10 minutes to solve it. This is where reviewing a game early has its flaws – yes I would like a tissue, thank you for caring in my time of need.
All jokes aside, The Tartarus Key really had me thinking when solving some of the puzzles. The first one is a basic Escape Room activity of finding objects, linking the text together and figuring out a key combination. It’s a simple yet effective way of laying out the ground rules for what’s in store. As well as that, the game basically tells you via Torres early on that the first solution isn’t always the right one.
It’s an offhanded remark but it lingered in my head throughout my playtime. The puzzles are varied using math, basic problem-solving, memory retention and the golden rule of questioning your instinct. It creates paranoia throughout these tasks of whether or not you’ve done the right thing and tough luck if you’re wrong because there are consequences.
I had an immense time with the puzzles, though I do have a bone to pick with one. You’ll find yourself in a library where there’s a bookshelf that needs to have the books in a specific order, don’t tell me which order because I used brute force by going through probabilities as opposed to knowing the actual answer. Besides that though, the a-ha moments are truly there, and they feel so well-earned.
Who’s Key Is This Anyway?
The controls for the first-person perspective are snappy and responsive with no real hiccups in the gameplay, or in any of the game at all. It feels extremely polished and thankfully all the puzzles and interactions worked as intended. You can play the middle section in a different order, giving you a slight bit of freedom if you’re stuck on one puzzle. It’s a subtle touch that does a lot for it’s playability and I really appreciated that I could still progress.
I titled the review as a morbid comfort as it really did evoke that feeling when playing. Here I was, playing as Alex Young in a fight for her life but I was somehow blissful. There’s a definite nostalgia that the art style provides in The Tartarus Key that has brought out a fondness for the revival of its genre. Of course, everything is low-poly and pixelated, but Vertical Reach has achieved an intricately crafted house of horrors with the game.
Whilst nothing is overly detailed due to the low-poly nature, the lighting they’ve designed creates an eerie ambience that propels you to carry on. Whether it’s the ajar door at the end of the hall blasting an orange sheet of light through the crack, or the cold and mechanical glare in an abattoir, it all elevates the art direction to bring this retro style into today’s standards.
The Answers You’ve Been Seeking
On top of that, you have the music which could easily fit into a Silent Hill game from Josie Brechner whilst maintaining a distinctive vibe that befits The Tartarus Key. You’ll often find yourself in the main room with Torres taking stock as you prepare for another puzzle, but I would always stop to just listen like I was in a Resident Evil safe room. It’s not all as calming however, as the puzzles will always have an intense orchestral score that makes you feel like your time is already up.
The Tartarus Key – for lack of a better phrase – has a vibe. The game’s aesthetics do a great job of creating a mood that succinctly feels unique. It’s a tough feat to take the retro but inject a new feeling into it to make it feel current and Vertical Reach has pulled it off. Despite one section of a puzzle being extremely frustrating, they’re overall incredibly thought out and tantalisingly layered.
However, the story’s pace is a little bit back-loaded and once you think you’re getting it, it’s over. There are some epilogues in text but I would’ve liked to have known a bit more about the surrounding world. That said, I had a really enjoyable time with the game. It delivers on what it sets out to be, a dark and twisted puzzle adventure, just some of the writing does hold it back a little.
The Tartarus Key delivers on being a PSX-era-inspired puzzler that has a great sense of atmosphere and art direction. Puzzles are inspired, tensions are high as are as the stakes, with the only flaw being in its pacing and dialogue. There are no true scares but don’t let that dissuade you from what is otherwise a well-thought-out puzzle game.
The Tartarus Key is out now on PS5 (review platform), PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S Nintendo Switch and PC via Steam.
Developer: Vertical Reach
Publisher: Armor Games Studios
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here. If you enjoyed this article or any more of our content, please consider our Patreon.