The Tartarus Key Review – More than just an imitation

Reviewed June 1, 2023 on PC


PC, Nintendo Switch


May 31, 2023


Armor Games Studios


Vertical Reach

Nothing is what it seems. That reflection in the mirror isn’t mine. The halls I trepidatiously navigate seem never-ending. Just what on Earth is going on with the constant rumbling of the house I’ve found myself in? In the newly released indie horror game The Tartarus Key, I’m forever uncertain of myself and on edge. That self-pause is where the game is at its strongest, causing thrilling curiosity that drives you throughout the game.

Alex Young awakens in a strange mansion. Unsure of how they got there, their key to escaping is in a voice that comes through their walkie-talkie: a private investigator named Torres. After eventually meeting, they must together wrangle the bone-chilling mansion and its secrets, uncovering plenty of dreadful imagery, finding even more survivors and finding out who put them there and why. 

Whether it’s in the iconic classic that is Saw or a cheezy more recent title like Escape Room, this is a premise you’ve seen in one form or another many times. Rather than feeling stale, though, The Tartarus Key takes advantage of some of the genre’s predictability. Players are quickly thrust into the game’s events with little room to dilly-dally. Developer Vertical Reach is aware of the familiarity and instead efficiently ushers in, prioritises and maintains some wonderful horror table setting and atmosphere.

The Tartarus Key’s most apparent influence is the PS1 era of horror. Characters and the environment around them have a low poly count, much like games such as the original Resident Evil or Silent Hill. Those names are so prestigious even to this day that, of course, they’re going to have their imitators. You don’t have to peruse the indie horror gaming scene long to see such followers of this look, often being a bit all over the place in how well they pull this imitation off. Rest assured, The Tartarus Key is not one of these instances. It is more than a pale imitation and even though it doesn’t move the genre needle drastically, it is quite impressive and mostly nails what it sets out to do.

On the Steam listing for The Tartarus Key, there’s a bit of info on the development team. Notably, Vertical Reach’s founder Leonor Parra “hates” jumpscares and “vowed to make a game that’s downright spooky without them!” That is incredibly apparent throughout the eight hours I spent with the game, chasing its multiple endings. The atmosphere again is the utmost winner here. There’s something incredibly horrific and at times unmatched about the PS1-era low-poly horror era that I’ve been trying to identify for years prior to playing this. I’ve now cracked the code. There’s a downright dread in the fluctuation between low and high detailing that can come with this look.

When I experienced the early scene that is Alex standing in front of a bathroom mirror, only to learn the reflection staring back at me wasn’t the same, I was shocked. I tried to read the reflection’s face, garner a sense of meaning and see a difference in their expression, characteristics… anything. I was given nothing. Just the typical low-detailed mostly blank face you’d expect on such a model. Entirely emotionless, I was left squinting in fear at the unknown, with no answers in sight; only dread. This is that very ‘pro atmosphere anti-jumpscare,’ design mentality, delivered to me eloquently on a silver platter.

“…maintains some wonderful horror table setting and atmosphere.”

Alex is perhaps the most perfect protagonist to be in the shoes of in such an experience as The Tartarus Key. With now decades of horror video game writing, good and bad, out there in the world, she feels like a positive result in that. As she navigates the horrors of the mansion, be it the room with membrane for walls or the many deathly traps she and her fellow survivors narrowly survive, you too are experiencing this with her. Fittingly, she has moments of resolve when players too would be experiencing this. She’s not boorish or cocky, in fact, she often is open with the fact that, though she’s inadvertently the elected leader of survivors, she doesn’t have all the answers. When this is the case, she has her companion in professional Torres to count on. She is, after all, just a walkie-talkie message away.

Of course, it isn’t a classic horror game without its puzzles. The Tartarus Key has a pretty solid set of puzzles that make for some real brain teasers to solve. A big majority of these involve rescuing one of the characters in a life-or-death situation. While there are your expected puzzles, especially sliding puzzles (I’ve still yet to ascertain with myself if the situation that had me precociously moving about meat hunks on hooks to an end goal is genius or frustrating) they do go a little bit further here.

There were puzzles that I truly got to nerd out over. One instance I was faced with was having to guide one of the other mansion occupants through a maze of tiles that if one wrong turn was taken, they’d be electrocuted to death. It was then that I learned that the readables I was situated near were relevant to this very course. What at first were apparent non-sequitur ramblings on paper became more contextual and were ‘if’ statements that let me by process of elimination guide the survivor through the trap. It’s puzzles like these that immerse me so much more in the experience. Stakes are felt and it’s far more impactful than any situation that has me moving a box onto a pressure plate.

There has undoubtedly been a lot of thought put into its puzzles. Most are deeper than any other indie horror game on the market, and that’s fantastic. Though with how commendable it is, there are a few in there that are hard to intuit to a fault. Trial and error puzzles such as one where you have to vaguely play around with electrical nodes on power generators until something clicks just aren’t the most exciting and takes me out of the escape room experience.

The Tartarus Key is so efficient at ushering you along through its eerie atmosphere, never outstaying its welcome that I wish once or twice it did slow down. Though in character design and personality each member of the smaller supporting cast is interesting in their own right, I wish I got to see more of them. A lot of their introductions are in service of the next big puzzle and upon rescue they’re whisked away to the lounge hub only to be checked in on every now and then.

At the end of the day, these are minute nitpicks, and just small factors that are all in service for the atmos that The Tartarus Key does oh so well. It’s a short but sweet horror experience, always presenting trippy imagery and making players question themselves in the best way possible.




  • Puzzles are all well thought out with plenty of fun quirks
  • Low poly art style works immensely in the atmosphere's favour
  • Alex is a wonderful horror protag
  • Short and sweet, never outstaying its welcome


  • One or two puzzles aren't as intuitive to solve as they should be
  • Would've been nice to get to know some of the smaller supporting cast some more

The Tartarus Key is a good experimental indie horror venture. It never outstays its welcome and creates a thrilling, brooding experience that never cheapens itself with jump scares. Feeling a little existential in its atmosphere, this too is bolstered by the low poly PS1 era art style the game is going for. Though not every puzzle is the most fun to work through, they are at least all well thought out with plenty of fun quirks that work well with the escape room vibes. I enjoyed being in the heat of the moment, feeling something in my brain click when I solved a brain teaser and it resulted in rescuing another character’s life. Rounding it out is a fun cast I’m needing to see more of, with Alex as a force of nature of a horror protagonist. Rest assured, The Tartarus Key is a secret little gem that should be high on indie horror fans’ lists.