The Tartarus Key is a love letter to the survival horror games of the 90s, featuring an atmospheric environment and an array of puzzles to solve. However, its leading lady lacks the charisma of other characters from the genre. Still, with a story that has twists and turns to keep you guessing, The Tartarus Key is a must-play for survival horror fans.
It’s fair to say that the 90s remains one of the most pinnacle decades when it comes to horror, especially in the realms of videogames. During that time, multiple iconic franchises hit the scene, with Resident Evil and Silent Hill arguably being the most popular of the bunch, the former of which has three games from the 90s and a whole host of games over the years, while the latter is one of the last horror games from that decade.
Unsurprisingly, even today, many people still see the impact of such IPs on other titles, and fans are in a never-ending search for their next survival horror fix. In fact, some don’t want to let go of what they consider to be the golden years of horror, which leads to the release of games such as The Tartarus Key. This new indie horror gem is a faithful love letter to those that came before it, and I couldn’t wait to dive in.
The Tartarus Key features a PS1-era aesthetic and takes place in an isolated mansion. Yes, I know how cliche that sounds and how so many horror games like to use that setting, but it works, and so long as a game shows a little bit of innovation, I think it’s okay to tread familiar ground. That’s a sentiment that carries over into The Tartarus Key as you take on the role of Alex.
You wake up in a dimly lit office, books strewn across the floor, the door is locked, and a camera follows your every move. Upon the desk, you find an old radio, one that allows you to communicate with a mysterious figure that you soon come to know as Torres, a private investigator who’s also stuck in a room somewhere in the building. It becomes very clear very quickly that you, too, are there for the enjoyment of your kidnappers as they watch you through the cameras.
That alone sets up a tense and foreboding atmosphere that stays with you throughout the game. As you progress further, escaping the office, bedroom, and beyond into the mansion, the story unravels, offering many twists and turns that are sure to keep even survival horror veterans on their toes.
But, before you can get too ahead of yourself, first things first, you need to escape from the office you wake up in. Yes, in traditional survival horror fashion, The Tartarus Key features plenty of puzzles that you must solve in a similar vein to the likes of Resident Evil and Silent Hill, two titles that clearly serve as a major influence for this horror gem. Naturally, you need to pick up items scattered around the office, inspect them in your inventory, and piece together the clues in order to unlock the safe and find the key to leave the room.
The majority of the game follows this formula, as you need to think outside the box just as much as you need to look at things logically in order to progress and solve the puzzles. Eventually, you’re able to roam around the mansion, and this is where things kick into high gear.
A looming sense of dread follows you everywhere you go. You can’t help but wonder what awaits you around the next corner, as you take a deep breath and push the fear you feel into the depths of your stomach. However, luckily for Alex, though she awakens in that dark and dingy office, she has constant contact with Torres, which does help to alleviate the feeling of loneliness, which in turn diminishes how hopeless she feels in her current situation. I’d certainly feel more at ease if a PI is in the same boat as me. Or mansion, as the case may be.
As a fan of survival horror myself, I know that the best way to experience such a title for the first time is to know as little as possible about the story, which is why I don’t intend to divulge any more information. The less you know, the bigger the impact of what transpires. Just know that though The Tartarus Key may feel familiar at times, there’s still a sense of individuality that’s bound to offer some surprises.
If you want to give the game a go but aren’t sure if you have the time due to an overwhelming backlog that continues to grow, trust me when I say, you do. The average playthrough of The Tartarus Key takes just four hours. So, if anything, it might prove to be a valuable break from those hefty games that take so much time to finish. Honestly, if you’re familiar with Resident Evil, Alone in the Dark, or Clocktower, you already have a pretty good idea of how fast you can complete The Tartarus Key.
Honestly, one of the things I love the most about survival horror games is that they don’t drag. They tend to have a concise story set in a world that, while offering exploration, has a fairly obvious path that you need to walk. The Tartarus Key follows this trend as there is a set path to freedom, but like other games like Outlast, you need to check every nook and cranny for tools or information that might aid you in your escape.
While I consider The Tartarus Key to be a solid game and a good love letter to those that inspire it, I do have to say that it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the iconic franchises we know and love. Alex, the protagonist, is never going to reach the heights of Resident Evil’s Chris, Resident Evil’s Jill, Resident Evil’s Claire, or Resident Evil’s Leon (the number of fantastic and recognizable characters in Capcom’s zombifying universe is nothing short of impressive).
Quite honestly, I feel very detached from Alex. I don’t share a sense of comradery that I do with other characters. It may well be that there isn’t much in terms of lore for you to sink your teeth into from the get-go. If we take James Sunderland, from Silent Hill 2, for example. There’s instantly a sense of intrigue. We discover very quickly that he’s heading to the Town of Silent Hill in search of his wife, Mary. One little problem, Mary is long gone, as in she passed away three years prior to the events of the game.
A little bit of background such as that goes a long way in connecting the player to the character, and that’s a substance that The Tartarus Key lacks. Even as the events of the game progress, I don’t find myself forging a bond with Alex. While this isn’t a dealbreaker, I can’t help but look at all those famous horror icons out there that are survivors – Alex just seems to lack the same oomph.
When it comes to the game’s performance, I have little to complain about. It runs smoothly in both docked and handheld modes, the controls are smooth, well, as much as they can be for a game that resonates with the PlayStation One era, and the camera actually works with you, which is admittedly refreshing for a survival horror game like this. Look, I love Resi, but those fixed camera angles just kill me.
All in all, The Tartarus Key is a gem for fans of survival horror. It features a story full of twists and turns, an atmospheric mansion that brings a sense of dread, and fun puzzles that test your will to live. While Alex isn’t going to join the ranks of James Sunderland, Chris Redfield, Heather Mason, Ellie, or Isaac Clarke, she does fulfill her role in The Tartarus Key, and she isn’t the first lackluster character to be the star of an enjoyable game.