Outer space is a fantastic thing. It gives cause to mystery, exploration, and thoughtfulness, but likewise to fear, anxiousness, and remorse. That is why we've always been fascinated by science fiction. It's also a genre that lends itself well as a wrapper to another: horror. The trailer for Tartarus caught our eye thanks to nods to the kind of sci-fi Ridley Scott showcased in 1979 and its tight focus on the dark intrigue and mysteries of an enormous empty spaceship. It suggested a wild sensual experience, from a debuting game studio even; Tartarus arrives from Turkish team Abyss GameWorks, and it's their very first video game.
In Greek mythology, Tartarus was the underground prison-dimension where evildoers were sent to receive their righteous punishment. As we awake in the kitchen of Tartarus, though, in the form of the miner, Cooper, it seems more like a blessing than a curse. Appearances are on point from the first striking. It is orange, yellow, black and white. Working colours and CRT-screens. Lots of other references to the mythology of Ancient Greece. The setting is thorough and well executed. As a so-called walking simulator should be, the game is fantastic to explore. There are tons of fine details, references to other outer space companies and hints about both the remaining and missing crew. Unreal Engine is used creatively, with a focus on a high contrast between shade and light. The textures are crisp and, to be quite honest, we were very impressed that a tiny studio could make such a beautiful product; 60 FPS, great optimisation, and a tasteful presentation. Can you give extra points for clever budgeting?
We burned through an hour or two just trekking back and forth between the available areas, taking in the sights. Regardless, Tartarus deserves to be experienced if you are a fan of the '70s sci-fi aesthetics. Accomplished interior design, however, is a pretty necessary cornerstone in an adventure game with not much else to do than solve puzzles. And the puzzles are what is supposedly Tartarus' big claim to fame.
On paper, the developers have promised that every single of one of the puzzles are logical and not even that difficult if you just use the inside of your noggin for a little bit. However, while we enjoy adventure games, here we've been pulling our hair out because of the bizarre puzzle solutions that seemingly only make sense to the developers. Alas, the reality of the game is not exactly as Abyss GameWorks wants it to be. Granted, most of the thought processes required were based on algebra, but when things became more practical, we ventured upon endless running and back forth and more than a few red herrings. An in-game example: early on you must find a hard drive, which is present in two places. However, for unexplained reasons, you can only pick up one of them (of course, it's also the one that's easy to miss). This situation repeats itself on several occasions, seemingly as an attempt to artificially prolong gameplay.
And lo and behold, Tartarus suddenly ends with one of the most unsatisfying conclusions to a video game we have experienced in a long time. It feels like we take longer to do our dishes than the time it took to play this game. This is where the mythological context of this game becomes frighteningly real. A short explanation first; the main villain is revealed early in the game and the game is, obviously, closed with a confrontation, written in perfect accordance with the Hollywood model.
Except, in a game with little previous action, where the pace is very subdued, with a few scares but a lot of atmosphere, the concluding game of hide-and-go-seek seems completely out of place. You move behind veils of smoke, behind walls, and under pipes to avoid the only person on the ship with a gun. It's one shot, one kill. On paper, that probably sounds like a fitting setup for a final confrontation, but it is done here in such a frustrating manner, with us listening for footsteps through the seemingly unending monologue that's spouted across the entire sequence. The problem is that the level of volume and the placement of sound does not match the physical placement of the villain at all. So, scratch that idea. Oh, he can see me through walls too? Well, put up one on the death counter. After numbers two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight and so on, we're going crazy, listening to the same speech again and again. What have we done to deserve this Purgatory?
It is scary how much is ruined by this final fight; atmosphere, genre, pace, and narrative. Maladjusted in the extremes, the last part of the game seems rushed and tacked on because they had no idea how to end their story. Once more, we harken back to the search for the hard drive; the introduction of a killer seems only to prolong the game itself. Not for the enjoyment of the player but to justify the money you have to postmark to Istanbul to get your hands on it. For your investment then, you get an inadequate, although beautiful, adventure game. Furthermore, the translations are filled with embarrassing mistakes, the subtitles differ from the voice acting, and the entire linguistic part of the game could use a thorough overhaul. There is no manual save feature either, apropos timewasters again. So, if you want to complete the game in turns, you have to make absolutely sure you have reached an auto-save point, or you have to run through whatever puzzle you're on once again. And again.
Sarcasm aside, we're more disappointed than angry. The premise for Tartarus was so good, with the game coming from a genre dear to our hearts. So, it is painful seeing a project like this fall to pieces. It would have fit in so snugly with games like Penumbra, Soma, and Alien: Isolation, but the construction is just not solid.
The game is too short, the narrative is incomplete, and the difficulty of the puzzles are so oddly varying as you progress through the game. It's just very frustrating for a studio that is clearly dedicated to their craft. Not only does is it easy to tell from their website, but a studio rep has been extremely diligent in fine-combing the assigned Steam discussion boards for reports on errors and bugs. The answers are pouring in and these reports are being scrutinised as quickly as possible. There has already been a bunch of hotfixes since Tartarus went live, this because of the cooperation between the player base and the developers. To us, that speaks to genuine dedication. So whatever tinted glasses you are wearing when reading this review, and whatever your perception of the game might be now, keep an eye on Abyss GameWorks. At least, that is what we plan to do.
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