Review: The Tartarus Key – Master Of Unlocking

After recently completing Color Gray Games’ Golden Idol Mysteries: The Spider of Lanka, I’m on a puzzle-solving high. Luckily, The Tartarus Key has continued this streak.

Vertical Reach’s The Tartarus Key is a puzzle adventure horror game styled in PlayStation 1 graphics, similar to Headware Games’ Chasing Static from 2021.

20230508142125 1
The Tartarus Key is a puzzle horror game designed with PlayStation 1-style graphics.

Alex wakes up in a creepy mansion with no recollection of how she got there. In the room with her is a radio, and on the other end of said radio is Torres, a private investigator who has also been kidnapped and is trapped in another room. The player’s first task is to solve a series of puzzles in order to escape the room they are locked in. Once free and able to explore the mansion further, it becomes clear that everything is staged in some way; each room contains a puzzle or two to solve and much of the mansion’s contents are simply props. Once Alex frees Torres, they soon realize that they aren’t the only ones who have been kidnapped. Alex must save the others so that they can learn who is behind this –  and why! – and escape together.

The Tartarus Key does an absolutely fantastic job with its puzzle designs. Not a single one felt too easy or gimmicky, and many required me to take notes in order to solve them. In fact, The Tartarus Key is one of the best puzzle games I’ve played in a while and it only took me a couple of days to complete as I just could not stay away.

20230507163404 1
Trapped in another room is Torres, a private detective who has also been kidnapped.

The PlayStation 1-style graphics really set the tone for The Tartarus Key and it genuinely felt like I was playing an old school horror puzzle game such as Resident Evil. Matching this is Josie Brechner’s amazing soundtrack, which not only does a brilliant job of tapping into The Tartarus Key’s retro-theme, but also enhances the game’s eerie atmosphere as you explore the mansion.

Despite being a horror game, The Tartarus Key doesn’t rely on jump scares to build tension – in fact, there were none in sight, which I greatly admired! Instead, Brechner’s soundtrack does some of the work, the pixelated graphics create a ‘what you can’t see makes it more disturbing’ effect, and the level designers have also implemented some creepy timed events to help tap into the horror roots. These include books falling off shelves, endless corridors and teleporting objects.

20230508155746 1
The Tartarus Key doesn’t feel the need to rely on jump scares to build tension.

The Tartarus Key doesn’t have any voice acting. Instead, the dialogue comes in the form of text with illustrations displaying each characters’ emotions. I thought this benefited the game, especially because the dialogue is written well and I didn’t find myself getting bored with too much fluff or not enough relevant information in each conversation.

The story remains enigmatic right up until the very end, feeding us drip by drip. There’s enough strange occurrences to keep us guessing throughout, yet all the questions are answered in the story’s finale. I also thought each character was well written, and there was even some character development despite the short amount of time that passes in The Tartarus Key.

20230508154419 1
There’s a great story to uncover if you get the true ending.

Before I get to the only downfall of The Tartarus Key, I must stress that right up until this point, I was going to score this game 9/10. However, this review goes to show why we stress always finishing the games we review at GameLuster.

As an adventure game, The Tartarus Key has three unlockable endings. One is the bad ending, and the other two are good endings. However, one solves the whole case whereas the other just makes sure everyone gets out alive.

20230508132104 1
The puzzles in The Tartarus Key were genuinely fun and intriguing. 

When you come across the other victims inside the mansion, you find them in situations where you must solve a puzzle in order to save them from death. Failing this means the character doesn’t make it out of the situation alive. In my first playthrough of The Tartarus Key, I was unsuccessful at saving all of these characters. Unless you take advantage of save points, you have only one chance to solve the puzzle correctly. Otherwise, the character dies. Being the well-behaved gamer that I am, I opted to take the results as they were rather than going back on a save.

Little did I know that failing to save all of the characters means you end up with the bad ending, which abruptly cuts the game short by around three hours and you don’t learn why Alex and the others were kidnapped to begin with and by who. This was very disappointing, and I honestly felt like The Tartarus Key would have benefited without this ending coming about as a result of one or more of the characters dying. This ending left me feeling very cheated, as I wasn’t able to experience the whole game or even finish the storyline which I had been working towards and had become invested in. Fortunately, The Tartarus Key doesn’t take too long to speed-run through once you know the solutions to each puzzle, and I had also been taking notes in order to solve them, so I played through the entire game again and finally reached the true ending.

20230507162818 1
The dialogue is illustrated with animated drawings of the characters in the conversation.

The Tartarus Key is a brilliant puzzle horror game and would have been one of my favorite games of the year had it not been let down by the one simple error of the game cutting itself short if the player makes one mistake. That being said, it was still thoroughly enjoyable. Even if I had stopped after finishing with the bad ending, I had still played five hours of enjoyable and challenging puzzles which had otherwise left a very positive impression on me up until that point.

Jess reviewed The Tartarus Key on PC with a review code. The Tartarus Key is also available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One. 

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments