Everyone wants to be rich, but after a certain point that wealth can make life seem a little boring, which has often caused the wealthy to entertain themselves in other ways. Some will invest in land or try to overthrow a democratic country, but Tartarus Key by Vertical Reach introduces a much more classic scenario in a seemingly haunted mansion.
The mechanics aren’t anything out of this world and most players who’ve engaged with escape room-like games will understand the puzzles. The actual world where it takes place is pretty interesting and the low-poly look applies exceptionally well to the horror aesthetic.
The game is not exceptionally scary for anyone who might be avoiding it because of that, with a better descriptor being “creepy” or “unnerving.” There’s much more focus on puzzles, mystery, and humor than there is on anything that jumps out at you. It’s a paranormal adventure that’s tense at times, but anyone who enjoys puzzle titles will likely find some enjoyment in Tartarus Key.
I’ve woken up in worse places
Tartarus Key starts like most mystery games, with the player in a room they can’t understand, mirroring the player as they become familiar with the visuals and controls. The game looks great on the Nintendo Switch, with it likely being more enjoyable as an intimate handheld experience. Luckily, it’s also likely to run natively on Steam Deck, which is something that will definitely benefit the title.
As far as the premise, the story doesn’t take any big chances, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It keeps things relatively tame, with even the blood being black to avoid Nintendo’s censors. This doesn’t harm the overall vibe as the haunted location and decaying imagery do a really good job of setting the tone for the darker moments. The game is dark both literally and metaphorically, so it’s a good pairing.
While you’ll be solving the puzzles on your own, there are other characters with you inside the mansion, each with a more complicated backstory than the last. While I might not remember the details, they all do a pretty good job of characterizing themselves in a way that you’ll remember as you move on to save the next person.
As the mystery begins to unravel and you learn more about what put you in this situation, the game becomes more interesting beyond the puzzle mechanics. There are some cute, bordering on funny, moments between the characters that are expressed really well in the written-only dialogue, and that’s not easy to do. Not all the jokes landed for me though, but that’s to be expected in anything.
While the game feels like it’s building to something, players will need to be able to naturally figure out the puzzles without the help of a guide. There is a pretty varying degree of difficulty in these challenges, with failure to do all of them perfectly ensuring that you get the bad ending, forcing you to restart from your earliest save in the hopes of saving everyone.
Use your head
The puzzles range in depth, with some feeling much easier to solve than others, leading to uneven pacing throughout each path. That being said, nothing felt too stretched out or like it was trying to take more of my time than it needed and that’s always appreciated. The most complicated puzzles may require a pen and paper, but everything you need to solve each puzzle is in the room.
As stated above, it’s very reminiscent of escape rooms since there doesn’t feel like there’s any actual threat most of the time. While there were tense moments when I tried to save people who I felt were imminently dying, most of the time I was able to save the person without any help. However, you can’t get a good or true ending if you only do some of the puzzles right.
There are a total of three endings to the game, with most players likely to get the bad one on their first time through. This punishment encourages players to start again from the beginning and try to save every person they meet inside the mansion. This punishes the player if they’ve even made a single mistake, which is a bit frustrating, but some might not mind it since it plays into the themes.
It’s not the most thrilling game you’ll ever play and there are parts that are definitely forgettable, but that’s because it relies on too many horror tropes to justify its really fun puzzles. Nothing is out of place, but it feels like the team had some cool ideas for puzzles and then worked backward from there. It does evolve, but not to anything that I felt was special.
It’s a more approachable horror game, and some more hardcore fans of the genre might mistake that for pulling its punches. This isn’t a horror puzzle game, it’s a series of escape rooms wrapped in a dark hostage mystery similar to Saw in some places, but on a much more toned-down scale.
You’re the only one who can
The Final Word
From the beginning, Tartarus Key engulfs the player in a Saw-like mystery where they’re responsible for the lives of a group of misfits. The puzzles are easy enough to figure out thanks to their escape room simplicity, but some will still have to take time to figure out each step. While it’s not the most revolutionary puzzle game, the low poly aesthetic and fulfilling puzzles make it an enjoyable one.
Try Hard Guides was provided with a Nintendo Switch review copy of this game. Find more detailed looks at popular and upcoming titles in the Game Reviews section of our website!