The Tartarus Key review - Tricky retro horror-puzzler

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Characters huddled in a lavish sitting room in The Tartarus Key.

It's tough to break new ground within the survival horror genre. Much like the heavily saturated world of FPS games, horror is dominated by a few big franchises that seem to take up all the column inches and space within the gaming discourse.

This year alone we've seen new entries in uber-popular series like Resident Evil and Dead Space, with Silent Hill soon to join the party. This constant flow of major releases to get hyped up about makes it tough for smaller indie horror titles to break through, but, fortunately, The Tartarus Key did enough to stumble onto my radar.

This PS1-influenced survival horror game is more puzzler than out-and-out thrillfest, but it's a very unique take on the genre that invokes plenty of nostalgia, while also telling an intriguing story.

A group of ominous-looking statues in The Tartarus Key.
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The setup of The Tartarus Key is a simple one: you play as a young woman named Alex, who wakes up in a lavish mansion with no memory of how she got there. Your task is to discover exactly why you and a group of disparate survivors have been locked in this decrepit building filled with puzzles and Saw-style death traps, discovering details about a secret society and their hidden conspiracy as you go.

It's a story that's much more rewarding than you may expect from the game's purposefully nostalgia-filled and minimalistic presentation. Callbacks to the original Resident Evil are impossible to look past, you're trapped in a mansion that harbours a big secret, after all, but slowly uncovering the mystery behind the Tartarus group and the proprietor of this mansion are perfect motivations to keep playing. The game flies by in around five to six hours, depending on how long you take to solve puzzles and which optional paths you pursue, making it a neat and razor-sharp experience.

The player character looking in the mirror in The Tartarus Key.
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You'll definitely be kept busy during those hours too, because The Tartarus Key can be a surprisingly gruelling puzzler when it wants to. There aren't any overtly obvious objective markers, or much guidance to tell you where to go and how to solve puzzles, which makes it even more rewarding when you clear an area.

The Tartarus Key eschews combat in favour of pure puzzle-solving, with the mansion feeling more like a massive box of escape room-style obstacles to overcome - something the self-aware writing is more than happy to remark upon. You'll be moving objects to correlate with coded messages, searching for hidden items, and using environmental clues to solve conundrums in time-pressure heavy scenarios that can alter the ending, depending on how you perform. The game doesn't hold your hand, but it's always exciting to see how a new puzzle unfolds, ready for you to solve.

Sometimes this obliqueness works to the game's detriment, as there were one or two instances during my time with it in which the lack of hints or any sort of guidance made solving specific puzzles very tough. I'm not necessarily advocating for the game being more forthcoming with tips, as it feels more visceral and involved without such hand-holding, but perhaps a few of the more gruelling puzzles could've done with a bit more subtle signposting to help you get over the line.

These are tougher puzzles than you'll come across in the average survival horror title, too. I regularly had a notepad by me to jot down numbers or symbols, with the knowledge that I'd need to decipher them at some point to get to the next stage. The progression of these puzzles always feels in keeping with the plot, and it's a refreshing take on survival horror to forego battle-based action in favour of a more methodical way of getting to the bottom of these strange occurrences.

The Tartarus Key takes a big swing with its visual design too, leaning heavily into early polygon aesthetics from the PS1 and Dreamcast era. Character models are purposefully blocky, reminding me of the original Tomb Raider games, though the smoother frame rates and more immersive sound design ensure some modern trappings are on offer to contrast the retro visuals. It's a very novel design philosophy that I enjoyed being surrounded by, though the constant stuttering and jolting of the characters could prove disorienting for more sensitive players.

Playing on Switch, my time with The Tartarus Key was near-seamless, the odd frame rate drop in larger areas and a gruelling initial load time notwithstanding. It would no doubt appear more impressive on other platforms, but something about these purposefully old-school design choices felt fitting on Nintendo's hardy handheld.


The Tartarus Key may not be the flashiest horror game you play this year, but it may well be the most fiercely unique. Its lack of overt combat and nostalgic visual style are incredibly refreshing, making for a lean, enjoyable blast through one hell of a creepy mansion.

The Tartarus Key review
The Tartarus Key is a very novel survival horror title, with forward-thinking game design to complement old-school aesthetics.
Nintendo Switch

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch. A code was provided by the publisher.

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