As someone who has quite a soft spot for both the psychological horror of early Silent Hill games and the unique low-poly aesthetic of the 32-bit PlayStation/Sega Saturn era, The Tartarus Key immediately grabbed my attention when I saw it start to pop up online. Seeing a lot of big budget horror games largely rely on in-your-face jumpscares for their value threw me off the genre for quite some time, not wanting to partake in that kind of cheap substitute for genuinely unsettling stories. And it’s clear that indie studio Vertical Reach had this in mind as well when working on this game, with that sense of unease coming from every bit of the world presented. When the gruesome environment combines with building tension to where even the slightest shake or out-of-place noise leaves you questioning your surroundings, it’s a sure sign that you’re in quite an unforgettable horror experience.
The Tartarus Key
Armor Games Studios
PC, Nintendo Switch, PS4/5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S
May 31, 2023
Sidequest was provided with a copy of The Tartarus Key for PC in exchange for a fair and honest review.
In The Tartarus Key, you play as Alex Young, a 20-something who finds herself waking up in a mysterious mansion where she needs to solve deadly puzzles and traps to survive. Along the way, you may be able to rescue five other captured souls and figure out the secrets behind the nightmarish place where you’ve been trapped. The operative word here is “may,” as saving the other people trapped here with you is dependent on how well you can solve the puzzles the game throws at you at every turn. It’s entirely possible to make your way through the game without saving anyone and still get “an ending,” although it certainly leaves a good portion of the game out, should you leave things there.
The Tartarus Key‘s approach to the narrative—where the threat of death is tangible and not just for you as the player character—really adds to the sense of urgency in each section of the game. The first time I solved a puzzle instead of immediately giving a character an antidote for a deadly poison and they died on the spot and then the game continued anyway really drove home the point that I couldn’t mess anything up if I wanted everyone to get out of that mansion alive. The choice to let the player fail and see the consequences of their actions is a bold one, and one that more games should make to raise their stakes.
The Tartarus Key wears its influences proudly and really succeeds at capturing the feeling of an older horror game, right down to the walkie-talkie at the start and the feeling of dread accompanying an unfamiliar environment. Could I actually trust this mystery person on the other end? I wasn’t going to get through the rest of the game and Alex wouldn’t escape the room otherwise, so we didn’t really have a choice.
Capturing even the finer details of warping textures, heavy fog, and low draw distance is a level of detail that shows Vertical Reach’s investment in capturing the memorable parts of the old-school horror game experience. Designing with these “limitations” while also using models and textures that have more definition than was possible on the original PlayStation drives home the feeling of games of the era without any of the features that hindered the gameplay experience. This is something that many games trying to recreate those early 3D visuals have struggled with and are only just starting to crack with a rush of new PS1-style horror games arriving over the past few years. The Tartarus Key is a new gold standard for hitting those visual notes and doing it well.
There are only a few moments, notably in UI elements and character portraits, where the level of detail feels a little too high fidelity for the emulated 32-bit style. This is a tough line to walk when simulating a style that is known for lack of detail: do you push for immersion or for clarity in your design choices? It’s understandable, albeit a little jarring, that details like character faces are shown in higher quality than might be expected based on the bulk of the surrounding 3D rendering. There is definitely an element in the crispness of these higher-quality portrait renders that is reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid’s stylized codec art, but it would still throw me out of the experience at times.
Josie Brechner’s soundtrack does a good job at drawing you into the uncomfortable atmosphere you’re presented without being overbearing. Something that The Tartarus Key—whether due to their emulation choices or not—does better than a lot of modern video games is knowing when the best choice for atmosphere is no music at all. In particularly tense moments trying to solve puzzles and navigate dark corridors, the negative aural space created from just occasional footsteps and tremors leaves room for the player to think for themselves about everything the mansion has thrown at them so far. And when things are especially dire, you’ll definitely know as the music ramps up when confronting literal deathtraps.
The Tartarus Key is only six to eight hours long (depending on how long it takes you to get through each puzzle sequence), which feels like a perfect amount of time to keep that level of dread going without it feeling exhausting to continue. I played through it in one sitting myself—it’s a great game to put on when you want to turn all the lights off and lose yourself in a good thriller that has layers on layers of intrigue. And without spoiling anything about the actual contents, the true ending ties all the events together in a way that puts the rest of the game to shame. The Tartarus Key, while certainly not the first to try, does what games like Shovel Knight and Undertale have done before it and crafts a love letter to the games that spawned it and, in doing so, creates its own space in the conversation.
Joan Zahra Dark is a writer, organizer, and interdisciplinary artist. They love talking about queer comics, stories that can only be told through interactive mediums, worker cooperatives and gay robots. They’re based in Queens, NYC.