REVIEW: Brooding atmosphere and fascinating puzzles > jump scares in The Tartarus Key
Indie horror can sometimes feel defined by trends.
With the power of influencers, content creators, and streamers driving views and sales, sometimes looking around at the genre's offerings feels like you're seeing a lot of the same kinds of horror games: jump scare-focused with a (highly marketable) anthropomorphic, children's cartoon character-like antagonist.
I hate painting with a broad brush, and I get the idea behind chasing what's doing well, but the genre can provide so much more — and so often, horror does its best work when it's unconventional.
The Tartarus Key succeeds at leaving behind a great many of the modern traps of horror. It dips back into the well of '90s horror gaming and turns up something special within its PSX era-inspired escape room horror.
Just the Facts
Developer: Vertical Reach
Publisher: Armor Games Studios
Platform(s): PC*, PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox Series S and X, Nintendo Switch *denotes platform reviewed on
Release Date: May 31, 2023
Review key provided by Player Two PR.
Unlocking the story of The Tartarus Key
The Tartarus Key comes to us from Vertical Reach, a duo out of Portugal looking to build a niche in a specific brand of horror. Retro, puzzle-focused, atmospheric, not-jump-scare-reliant horror. Leonor Parra and Kevin Colgate make up the two halves of the familiar artist-programmer design duo that we see tons of smaller indie teams work with these days — and both are committed to the idea of building an old-school horror experience.
It all starts, as many retro horror games do, with a mansion... and a protagonist who has no idea how they got there.
Protagonist Alex Young wakes up in a daze in an oddly staged and theatrical bedroom. Nothing can be seen through the window but a pitch-black void. There's only an obviously staged walkie-talkie on the desk to push her forward...
The Tartarus Key sets the tone quickly.
Alex finds a friendly voice on the other side of the walkie in Torres, a private eye who needs Alex's puzzle-solving mind to be broken out of the room they're stuck in. As the two work together and break through to the main rooms of the manor, two things become immediately clear.
First, someone has purposefully put these people here, made evident by the eerie security cameras watching their every move and the clearly hand-crafted puzzles that need to be solved to progress deeper into the mansion. And, perhaps more pressing than the horrifying idea that someone put them here for entertainment, the manor may very well be haunted.
Doors slam with no one on the other side. Reflections in the mirror don't match reality. And you'd swear something in your periphery looked a bit like a person hiding in the shadows.
"The Tartarus Key has some of the best implementations of PSX-inspired graphical tricks because it not only evokes the look and feel of an era we all love, but it does so in a way that backs up its narrative intention too."
As Alex and Torres find themselves simultaneously looking for a way out of the manor and trying to understand what's really happening, they stumble onto a few other victims who need Alex's particular puzzle-proficient brain to free themselves from the Saw-style trap rooms they're locked in. Their lives depend on the player's ability to solve these puzzles, adding another layer of stakes on top of an already horrifying situation.
The first key to Vertical Reach's approach to horror is that it finds a way to keep a solid balance between the light and the dark. The moments of levity shared between its cast are as prevalent as the constant sense of dread they're all struggling with. It strikes a tone reminiscent of some of my favorite horror flicks — one that isn't pure darkness and manages to inject genuine human charisma into some horrifying situations.
And that starts with Alex, a main character whose ceaseless drive to get herself and her new friends out of this situation makes her endlessly likable. Her ability to always say what's on the player's mind (e.g. "Oh my god oh my god oh my god" upon seeing a frightening sight or the frantic scribbles on her map saying "NOT REAL NOT REAL NOT REAL") makes her a deeply relatable hero.
Once you have someone who you genuinely want to see free of this horror, your investment — and as a result, your anxiety — ratchets up to the next level. It's just as important in a horror story to make you invested in the livelihood of the characters as it is to create some spooky monsters, and Vertical Reach accomplishes this nicely.
Jump scares are scary, paranoid puzzles are scarier
The Tartarus Key's story is constantly shifting, introducing red herrings, and planting seeds of doubt as to what's really going on. It makes the player as paranoid as its characters. This is the next key to the game's success in developing that jump scare-less horror. It sets the expectation that the player is being toyed with and tricked in the narrative, manifests that in the gameplay with clever puzzles that require you to consider all angles (literally) of a room, and then sticks the landing by building it into the game's overall aesthetic. All this together makes for a horror experience whose message is woven into every aspect of its design.
With its Saw-like narrative setup, with these locked rooms and the absence of conflict in almost every way, it's very easy to see how The Tartarus Key's gameplay unfolds. No combat. No chases. All puzzles. As you progress, you'll find keys that unlock more of the mansion and get you into nooks and crannies previously hidden from you. Complete all the puzzles in the new unlocked areas, save another victim, and get a new key. Rinse and repeat.
While simple and seemingly formulaic, there's almost an episodic feeling to its overall flow that makes it satisfying. It's a game that can be played in one solid six- to seven-hour session with an appropriate rise and fall or played in smaller chunks, with more than enough story to leave you satisfied each time you play. (This could make a great "play with your friends watching" kind of game, between the puzzles and the generally cinematic story.)
It all results in something more akin to a spooky escape room experience than your traditional survival horror. It might look and feel like Resident Evil's setting and puzzles or Silent Hill's overbearing atmosphere — but without having to worry about health and juggling resources, it's more like a very spooky Escape Academy. And that's a compliment.
The Tartarus Key's puzzle structure is all about filling in the blanks and reading between the lines of the clues strewn about. Everything you need to solve any given puzzle room will be found within the confines of that room. There's no too-clever piece hiding ten rooms down. Your inventory is set per room, a nice change of pace from horror classics that have you wondering which torn-out diary page of clues applies to which room. It all makes for a focused puzzle experience. The primary difficulty is the tension driven by the occasional "no wiggle room" experience of having someone's life in your hands while solving a puzzle.
But there's nothing spookier than frustration
One of my metrics for puzzle games is the balance between its "aha" and "duh" moments. There needs to be a balance between being made to feel genuinely capable when you piece together a sneaky solution and being made to feel foolish because you overlooked an item you needed to pick up that turns a puzzle from mind-breaking to glaringly obvious.
The Tartarus Key tends to keep the scales generously tipped toward "aha," with puzzles that tend to keep players aware of what's being asked of them and leave the "how" up to them to figure out. But there are certainly a few "duh" moments that can bring the fun crashing down.
My biggest frustration came from some of the game's bigger trial-and-error puzzles — the more familiar logic puzzles that, even when you try to approach them cleverly, are more about poking and prodding at them until you stumble into the solution. Oddly enough, the two or three that flummoxed the most came right in the middle of some of the higher-tension scenarios, which ended up hurting my experience in two ways. 1) I spent the first half of my struggles desperately wanting to leave these areas, for fear of what was waiting in the shadows behind me. 2) But by the time I finally pushed through, those fears faded away, replaced instead by a general frustration. When a game's focused on building its horror and tension on the fear of fumbling some puzzle that'd leave a new friend dead — or the idea that lingering in some dark nook of a room long enough for some of those things you thought you were just imagining in the shadows to become real — bashing your head for an hour against a Traffic Jam-like meat locker puzzle just saps all of it away.
Tie that to the occasional issue of missing a key piece of a puzzle that's simply hidden on some bottom shelf of an otherwise un-interactable bookcase or behind the back of a door you forgot to close and, yes, you've got a handful of "duh" moments that frustrate.
But... not enough to hurt the overall power of all that the game does right.
That segues us into that last piece of puzzle: The Tartarus Key's horrifying (in a good way) throwback visual style. Between the puzzle-solving and story moments, you'll spend lots of time treading back and forth through the manor as rooms unlock and the occasional heart-stopping tremor shakes up the building and suddenly changes rooms you thought you were long finished with. You'll stop in to visit with the people you've saved, sharing a quiet moment of conversation to reflect on your journey so far. And even in these moments, when the game isn't necessarily trying to scare you, Vertical Reach's style choices help to continue the ever-present layer of paranoia.
Textures warp as they reach the edge of your vision, an exaggerated and effective version of the warping seen on the PSX back in the day. Characters shimmer and shake, their textures constantly shifting as they move. It gives them an uncanny feeling as they try to communicate that they are to be trusted and that everything's okay, despite the game's story giving you more than enough reason to question what's real or not. The constant darkness in your field of vision constantly threatens to overtake your character's eyes and shrouds things that are merely a few steps ahead of you.
The Tartarus Key has some of the best implementations of PSX-inspired graphical tricks because it not only evokes the look and feel of an era we all love, but it does so in a way that backs up its narrative intention too. When your character is struggling to parse through hallucinations and reality, catching movement out of the corner of your eye only to find out it's a texture warping as you move... or was it?... it's vaguely unsettling. In a good way.
It should be noted that almost every one of these effects has toggles in the game's graphics options and can be turned off. It's an appreciated touch for accessibility since all that moving and shaking can be an overwhelming visual quirk for some players.
Alongside a surprisingly cinematic and ever-present soundtrack — indie horror seems to rely on spooky droning noises or the complete absence of sound in many cases — Vertical Reach finds ways to leverage the audiovisual experience in a way that defies your expectations while maintaining its genuine horror.
The Tartarus Key is kind of like the gaming equivalent of the wave of stellar indie horror movies we've been treated to in recent years. In the ways it simultaneously pulls from, makes fun of, and honors its inspirations, and finds a new way forward to deliver its thrills, Vertical Reach's paranoia-driven indie horror is just end-to-end enjoyable for horror gaming fans of all walks.
Those who love the constantly unnerving atmosphere of Silent Hill and the mansion-based aesthetic of Resident Evil, all combined with puzzles that are arguably better than the offerings from either series, will find lots to love here. Any game that can get your blood pumping without screaming in your face at every turn is worth its salt.
Video Games Are Good and The Tartarus Key is . . . GREAT. (8.5/10)
+ with genuinely clever puzzles, an enjoyably cinematic storyline, and an atmosphere of paranoia that is only emphasized by its aesthetic, The Tartarus Key achieves its jump scare-less horror goals
- a few frustrating puzzles grind the pace to a halt, those that don't might be a bit easy, and on the whole, the horror lightens over time
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