I make it no secret that I am a huge fan of retro low-poly PlayStation 1-era games. I’m also a huge fan of the horror genre. So when The Tartarus Key appeared on my radar, I was instantly intrigued. Plus, you know, I also kinda think The Tartarus Key is an absolutely badass name for a game.
Lost in another creepy mansion
The story opens with Alex Young suddenly awakening in a mysterious mansion, with no clue how she got there. The door to the room she is in is locked up tight, with the key hidden behind a puzzle. This first room is just one of many in the mansion, and the player must guide Alex through them to escape alive. Oddly enough, someone or something is watching her. It’s an intriguing opening for sure, and one that pretty much hooked me straight away.
Many of the puzzles had me writing clues down and working things out in my little real-life notebook. It’s a game that is very good at making you think you’ve figured it all out, only to dramatically inform you that you didn’t solve it correctly.
Get it right the first time!
Aside from Alex, there are other people in the mansion, unwilling victims caught in their own perilous predicaments. It’s up to Alex to help them escape. And here’s the kicker. She can fail. Or rather, the player can fail. Misinterpret a clue, or input a wrong answer, and the person who needs to be saved is unceremoniously killed.
It brings a nice bit of tension when solving certain puzzles. Luckily, most of them are fairly logical to work out. None seem to use moon logic too which is extremely positive. I can’t count how many times I’ve come across a puzzle that only the creator could hope to solve. A particularly tough one did roadblock me for quite some time though, which was pretty frustrating.
It is a tense, atmospheric adventure that relies on puzzles and plot. Horror fans have a lot to love. Alongside the mansion, The Tartarus Key showcases other iconic horror tropes. Mysterious figures wandering about, as well as demonic symbols and artefacts scattered about. Some genuinely freaky supernatural moments overall. There are even doors marked with different emblems waiting to be unlocked with a specific key.
Aesthetically, this is absolutely a game rooted in the past. PlayStation 1-era horror games just had an innate creepiness to them. 3D shapes shift strangely and textures flicker unnervingly. Even down to the unsettling blankness of the simplified character models. You can tell they are human, but they just aren’t quite right. I think The Tartarus Key captures that feeling extremely well.
To enhance this experience, there are a host of Graphics settings, most of them for emulating various retro-inspired effects. Those options include Vertex Shake, Affine Texture Mapping, Anti Aliasing, and even a CRT Shader. I immediately made sure they were all toggled on to give myself the crunchiest visual experience. There are also the expected Brightness and FOV sliders too.
These design decisions also inform the voice acting. Or rather, the lack of voice acting. The majority of exposition is delivered through both text and lightly animated portraits. Each section of dialogue that appears on screen is accompanied by a subtle sound effect. It is an effect that is oddly satisfying.
Going around again
With 3 endings to unlock, there’s a fair bit of incentive to play through The Tartarus Key again. It can be pretty rough with the puzzles, so those not wanting their brain teasing may want to avoid it.
The game is a clear and loving homage to horror games of the past. So much so that it wouldn’t surprise me if this was developed back in late 1999 and somehow hadn’t been released until now. As someone who grew up with the original PlayStation, I can’t help but recommend it. It also happens to be rather entertaining too, so that’s also a plus.
If you want to watch the video version of this review, i’ve linked it below!
Disclaimer: A code was provided for this game to aid in writing this review.