Review: TARTARUS (Steam)

Easy peasy lemon squeezy! What, you thought I’m talking about the game? TARTARUS can be summarized by a few words, sure, but “easy” ain’t among them. And that is perfectly fine. It’s been far too long since I’ve had a game that pushed me so close to rage quitting. But no, I couldn’t give up and I didn’t stop until I finished TARTARUS, even if it took me longer than expected. I guess that’s the beauty of some Steam indie games. You take a good look over the Store’s official screenshots for it and you still can’t guess what aces lie under their sleeves. For a Steam debutante, Abyss Gameworks has left quite an impression on yours truly.

“Tartarus” is the Ancient Greek equivalent of Hell. It’s also supposed to be the ultimate abyss from which not even the ravenous Titans could escape following their defeat and imprisonment by Zeus. No surprise then, that the dev team also mirrored their own name into their first project. That was a nice touch indeed, capturing the very essence of the game, if you will. A reconnaissance vessel has suffered a cascading failure of its systems and is about to crash into Neptune. A cook/miner (nice combo!) with zero programming skills and a short temper, must save the day and himself in the process. Basically all that’s separating TARTARUS at this point from a Steven Seagal flick, is a terrorist plot like in 1992’s “Under Siege”.

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Cooper, the unlikely hero of our story, may not kick bottoms and bad guys like good ol’ Steve yet he’s just as creative when it comes to finding a solution at the very last moment. He won’t do it alone, but the ship was already run by a sparse crew and it’s the player’s determination that will culminate in either success or failure. Time is the initial enemy yet TARTARUS has more surprises in store for you, as you’re rushing towards the story’s conclusion. It won’t be that predictable, which is great. Titles relying heavily on logic and puzzles, represent the last genre in which you’d wish to find anticipated results. No one is going to spoil the mystery here, least of which the game itself.

TARTARUS is being powered by the Unreal Engine 4. You might even draw a stylistic comparison to Alien: Isolation’s CATHODE Engine, yet UE4 has its own quirks which I couldn’t overlook. Asking for permissions before booting the game for the first time? Only you, Unreal! On my GTX 1070, I couldn’t hope to run 60fps on recent games skillfully powered by this graphics engine at 4K resolution, but they look just as great when maxed out at “just” 2K. Stable 60 frames per second without a single drop in sight. I didn’t mention above the best Alien video game in years, for no apparent reason. They share a vital element.

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In TARTARUS, you’ll also feast your eyes upon the kind of retro-futurism and examples of lo-fi equipment which made Science Fiction movies more relatable, if not more believable in regards to their release date. In our particular case, CRT (cathode ray tube) monitors and VHS (video home system) tapes along with an interface which reminds of MS-DOS. Almost a reminiscence of Event[0], yet there’s no Artificial Intelligence to interact with in TARTARUS. Command lines shall be typed and puzzles shall be solved anyway. Didn’t find a single flaw to the visual style, textures or the scripted events.

Both the soundtrack and the voice acting are top notch. I was actually surprised to notice that a single voice actor was used for all in-game characters. Not that they’re too many, but the use of accents was definitely an excellent choice. You’ll notice that too once you start playing. As for the OST, all that tension builds up to the final confrontation between life and death. It really pays off to be as patient as you can with those puzzles and see the game through to its conclusion since TARTARUS really separates itself from Event[0] in that regard. Nothing underwhelming about it, from start to end.

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If you’re expecting some heavy action, shooting, stabbing or explosive situations while you’re scraping the blown brains of some alien lifeforms off your uniform, then TARTARUS may not the right Sci-Fi experience for you. While not inherently static, the gameplay could never be acknowledged as dynamic either. You’re not being constantly hunted by a creature or subjected to mockery and threatened by a rogue AI. In fact, the sense of progression itself is strictly tied to how well you’ll fare in the puzzle sections which involve command lines typed on those faux CRT terminals. You’re receiving a minimum amount of help but make no mistake, you’re on your own starting from the 2nd puzzle and all the way to bittersweet end.

Most games offer advice nowadays, but TARTARUS is a title you’ll really appreciate at its full potential only if you follow its rules. Pay close attention to even the smallest details in each room and corridor you visit. Set your screen brightness accordingly and if you can, do use headphones which shall emulate the 5.1 format, unless you have a speaker system capable of relaying the real thing. Sound plays a central role in the second half of the storyline and it functions almost like the echolocation on which the survival of many species relies on. Keeping your eyes peeled will only get you so far, unless you’re also listening in closely. Last but not least, you may find that keeping a pen or pencil and something to write on near your desk, is a simple yet effective alternative to memorizing details and hints. Later on, you’ll also need help with calculations. Yes, mathematics are involved, though it isn’t overwhelming at any point.

I’m a man of words, names and historical dates primarily, yet I didn’t consider the several math-based puzzles in TARTARUS, as insurmountable obstacles. It didn’t stop some players from complaining about it though. I won’t even bother sharing my honest thoughts on those which downvote or outright publish a negative review to a game which they found too difficult. We’re not talking about any technical issues or narrative inconsistencies here. TARTARUS is a stable game which doesn’t feature any bugs or glitches. No cheap tricks are used at all. You either ambition yourself to solve the puzzles or you don’t. At least take a break and retry at a later date. Throwing a hissy fit about the difficulty scale only speaks volumes of yourself, not the game in question.

Definitely not what you’d presume at first glance. It was still a pleasant surprise and appearances are once again, quite deceiving. At least you know now not to expect some subpar survival indie game in space. Both Steam and I, had our fill of that subgenre. The Linux version will be launched soon and just keep in mind that TARTARUS is a game of logic, first and foremost. The story is just there to kickstart your imagination on the right track. It’s still up to you if you’ll finish the journey or not. No one’s gonna hold your hand so use your brain, will you?

All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.


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