The Tartarus Key answers the question of what you’d get if you removed the shambling zombies, stalking hunters, and eyeball-sprouting tyrants from Resident Evil’s absurdly-designed Spencer Mansion.
The result is a mansion-sized Escape Room game, with a mix of methodical exploration and increasingly obtuse puzzle rooms, all held together by an intriguing premise, creepy atmosphere, and a likeable but furtive cast. However, just like many puzzle-centric games, it’s engaging right up to the point you get stumped on a puzzle for too long and the pacing goes to hell.
Abductees or conspirators?
The Tartarus Key is best described as a retro-style, PS1-era first-person puzzler with chunky but atmospheric environments, angular but distinctive character models, and talking-head dialogue – text only – with a tone that swings back and forth between psychological horror and B-movie cheese.
It’s undeniably endearing in its authenticity and I never grew tired of discovering a new, wonderfully low-poly room to puzzle through. It’s also reasonably creepy thanks to the great ambience and an understated soundtrack, some less-than-authentic dynamic light sources, a distant shroud of darkness that emulates the PS1’s rendering limitations, and textures just blurry enough to let your mind fill in the gaps.
A big part of the unsettling atmosphere is how most of the abducted cast have no idea of where they are or why. There are cameras tracking every move and evidence that the house is just an elaborate set-up, but several inexplicable events and dozens of lengthy conversations later – to the point it can feel like a visual novel at times – I realised my understanding of the situation was entirely built on suppositions and conflicting ideas.
You play from the perspective of Alyx – seemingly well-meaning but disorganised and unable to hold a job – who wakes up with a throbbing headache and no idea of where they are. The same applies to most of the cast, each of whom fills a common archetype with their own ideas as to what’s going on and who is to blame.
Examples include a jaded detective-turned-PI that assures Alyx it must be an elaborate revenge scheme for some past event; the demonology-loving historian that believes they’ve finally uncovered evidence of supernatural powers; and an obnoxious actor who believes they offended powerful cult members.
All the abductees, including Alyx, are slow and reluctant to reveal details about themselves, making it difficult to decide if they’re all victims of some outside force, or in on some greater plan. You’ll want to save them all – as losing even one means the bad ending – if only to see how past events are intertwined and, if you push on past the obvious end point, get an opportunity to discover what’s really going on with the “true” ending.
Puzzles pose possible pacing problems
Of course, a good premise and cast do not make a good game, and how much you enjoy The Tartarus Key will depend on your love of deliberately obtuse puzzles that force you to observe the environment, scrutinise written and visual clues, separate significant details from red herrings, and iterate on potential solutions – assuming you can fail without killing off another abductee.
An early example – to claim a door key – tasks you with finding a safe code by identifying which numbers on the back of four postcards are significant, and then sorting the postcards in chronological order based on their brief descriptions. A later example involves an indoor planetarium and figuring out the correct dates for several constellations before locking in their correct orientations – again, to gain a key!
Saving one abductee involves placing runes in a banishing circle, and figuring out the correct orientation based on a travel diary and the interpretations of the runes. Saving another from a suspiciously Resident Evil-looking laboratory is a multi-puzzle affair that involves sabotaging equipment, spotting objects in the environment, pushing around rails of hanging meat, and then solving three back-to-back logic puzzles to avoid killing them.
It sounds more grueling than it is and the stakes are never that high when you can save or load just about anywhere, but is possible to become thoroughly stumped if you fail to spot clues or misunderstand a sequence. This can be particularly problematic as while rescuing the last three abductees is a somewhat non-linear task spread over multiple self-contained puzzle rooms, you’re typically locked in a room until you solve the puzzle to get out.
Of course, it’s 2023 and internet guides are always close at hand, so don’t feel ashamed to use them when needed as there are a lot of cool puzzles to experience and – perhaps to maintain the narrative pacing – the final hour of the game, for both the “good” and “true” endings, feature significantly easier puzzles that allow for trial-and-error with no consequences.
What lies beneath…
So who would I recommend The Tartarus Key to? I’d say fans of classic point-and-click style adventures, particularly those full of contrived but fair puzzles, looking for a more immersive, horror-tinged experience. As a bonus, you also get an unexpectedly positive and uplifting narrative arc despite the premise.
It’s never fun getting stumped on a puzzle and some conversations went on for far too long, but there are few puzzle room games quite like The Tartarus Key, and even less retro-inspired games that tap into that era’s inherently unsettling attempts at creating fully-3D first-person games.
The Tartarus Key was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a code provided to gameblur by the publisher. It is also available on Xbox One/Series consoles, PS4/5, and PC.
The Tartarus Key (Nintendo Switch) ReviewThe Tartarus Key (Nintendo Switch) Review
- Puzzles that are diverse, weird, and contrived but fair
- Multiple endings that expand upon the narrative
- Authentic-feeling PS1-era visuals and creepy ambience
- Getting stumped on a single puzzle can derail the experience
- There’s a lot of talking-head dialogue to sift through