by Johnathan Irwin
reviewed on PC
About a year and a half ago I arrived at work to the sound of hysteria. I immediately ran towards the commotion to see what had the staff in such an uproar. As it turns out a toilet in one of the bathrooms had not only begun overflowing but was literally SHOOTING WATER AT THE CEILING with no sign of stopping. Our maintenance man at the time had a nasty habit of not arriving before 8AM and not being reachable before 7:30AM , and so being a problem solver, I was the one asked to deal with it. But how? I had no tools at my disposal beyond our floor-cleaning machine. The water had already spilled out of the bathroom and was threatening the hallway and nearby rooms. I stood there frozen, being yelled at by panicked nurses, but then I snapped back to reality and gave a serious, albeit nerdy answer, "DAMN IT GLENN, I'M A HOUSEKEEPER NOT A PLUMBER!"
But my distress, their distress, wasn't changing the fact that we were on our own. I rushed downstairs, I got that machine, and I did what I could until maintenance arrived. My only option was to keep using the vacuum on the machine to suck up the water and keep dumping it. It was a maintain and control scenario in a situation critical moment. What's the relevance of this story beyond reliving one of my most trying days on the job? It's that it helped me understand the world of crisis that is occurring on board the interstellar mining vessel, MRS Tartarus 220478, of which the game Tartarus is named after. Except it's slightly more dire than a toilet gone haywire.
Taking on the role of Cooper, ship cook, players awaken in the galley with a knife in the leg and no idea what's going on. The ship is on lockdown, there's no immediate sign of anyone else left on the crew, and the only one who could end the lockdown with ease, an engineer named Andrews, is trapped. It's up to the cook, with no mechanical engineering experience or understanding of a space vessel, to bring the situation under control and keep the MRS Tartarus from descending into Neptune and suffering a rather blazing end. Sounds easy right?
PEN AND PAPER
Yes and no: a lot of Tartarus' difficulty boils down to just how difficult you make it on yourself. If you go in prepared with pen and paper, you may not breeze through everything but you'll certainly make things easier and less stressful for both Cooper and Andrews. I'm completely serious, I'm glancing over at a notepad that looks like the scrawlings of a madman as I write this.
Tartarus is, at its core, a logic-puzzle game. If problem solving is your sort of affair, then it'd definitely be right up your alley, and with sci-fi flair it can even pull in those who would normally shy away from a puzzle game. The games puzzles are presented in such a way, that your pen and paper doesn't just feel like a means to an end: you actually feel like you are Cooper, hastily scrawling notes to prevent a bad situation from getting worse.
On-board the Tartarus you'll find a good dose of retro sci-fi goodness, reminiscent of everything from Alien to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The ship is dark, cramped, and there are plenty of consoles that look straight out of a 70's vision of the future. There is also enough darkness between the little bits of emergency lighting that it really drives home an atmosphere of desperation. At first glance, it'd be very easy to mistake Tartarus as another setting for an Alien game. It's truly surprising how much environmental detail has gone into what is, again, just a logic puzzle game with a sci-fi setting.
The sound quality, unlike the visual quality, is a bit hit and miss. Sometimes I feel it's too quiet, and not in that sense-of-dread type way, but it's almost as though the sound just cuts out completely for moments at a time. It may be a design choice, but considering how random it is, I've no choice but to assume it's a bug.
From a voice acting perspective, it's pretty solid. I don't know if I would say it's an award-winning performance: there are times when the characters shine, but at others they sounds a bit hokey. Though overall, a good job on the voice front.
A SHORT THOUGHTFUL RIDE
Tartarus is a short ride: my first run-through lasted just over four hours, and I didn't really feel the urge to go back through it again. But my time within, really had me thinking. There is an untapped market in games like this, one that Tartarus may have very well spearheaded here in 2017. I wouldn't be surprised if in a few years we see narrative, atmospheric, logic-puzzle games with a sci-fi flavor making a resurgence. Tartarus is a ride worth taking, at least once.
Great atmosphere, engrossing 'pen and paper' puzzles
Sound cuts out at random, a little on the short side