Why do I keep reviewing games where a solitary protagonist walks around an empty ship looking for some switch to get to the next room? Games where the biggest challenge is willing yourself awake as you scour the map trying to find that one thing you missed? It’s because I so badly want the concept to succeed. These Alien-inspired titles make a futile attempt at slow tension building because they seem to miss the point: There is no tension if you aren’t in any danger. If there is no alien, no time limit, and no way to die, you’re just a bored man on a ship. Now, don’t get me wrong, TARTARUS is not bad in some aspects, but it predictably falls victim to this same fatal flaw.
MS-DOS: The Game!
What really attracted me to TARTARUS was the fact that you, a lowly miner and part-time cook, need to use your non-existent computer skills to save your ship. The game’s description says no programming skills are required, so this instantly caught my interest. Hobby programming is one of the most addictive things you can do (badly), if you’re a shut-in like me, so I have been wishing for a game to come along and incorporate code learning in its mechanics Diamond Age style.
TARTARUS doesn’t quite hit the mark, but it does take a respectable crack at it. Apparently, in the future, crass Australian space miners have incredibly outdated computers, even by present-day standards, and it is your job to navigate command prompt style systems to save yourself. Listing and changing directories, you feel like you’re back in the early nineties messing with the family computer (again, if you were a shut-in like me).
But one puzzle in, this quickly becomes a tedious task of find the file in a haystack. You pretty much have to bear with it though, because there basically isn’t any other way to learn how to navigate the system. Unfortunately, the first lesson needs to be a little boring to set a baseline for the puzzles, and that’s fine.
Or, it would be, if the rest of the puzzles built on the skill you’ve established. Most of them don’t, and while they are thematically similar, you don’t come out of it feeling like your skills have improved. If that isn’t your goal in playing a game like this, that’s fine because the puzzles are still interesting and creative – I mean, I want to inflate the score on that basis alone.
While I want to say to the devs, “More of this please!” I can’t leave it at that. Other than the fact that my search for a solid coding game continues, there are glitches, crashes, and technical issues with TARTARUS. Not enough to make me stop playing, but the fact that you can’t die most of the game means you can jump off of high platforms and into areas you can’t leave without shutting down and restarting. And again, this also means that there is a lack of tension that would be boosted by a fear of dying. Speaking of, there is also the plot to consider.
The future of sci-fi borer
The stakes just aren’t high enough in TARTARUS. Yes, you will die if you don’t figure out the ship’s oddly outdated computer system, but the puzzles take so long to fiddle with that the tension isn’t felt. You have no time limit, and if you get the puzzles wrong the computer just rejects your answers and you try again. This is a good thing, since it would be really annoying if you had to constantly restart at the last checkpoint to keep working on puzzles, but it means the mechanics themselves are unable to contribute to the atmosphere.
The protagonist does walk really slowly – and can only run about five feet – and this would add to the suspense if there was anything chasing you – or any danger at all, really. Instead, it just adds to the tedium between already slightly tedious puzzles.
So it falls on the plot to turn TARTARUS into a horror title. An attempt at psychological horror is made, since not everything is as it seems and crewmembers are mysteriously dying, but it falls flat. Having never seen any of these so-called colleagues alive, it isn’t really all that emotional when they die. The Australian voice acting is great, but more in a funny “Go and fix tha computer ya c___!” way than anything. The protagonist does too good a job of comic relief, if anything.
The score is good in some parts, but it is used very sparingly, and the scenery is well done but can’t carry the horror atmosphere on its own. That leaves the antagonist, who never fully becomes real until the end, which is probably the most annoying part of the game. Suddenly you can die, and you are thrown into stealth mechanics you have never used before while trying to solve one last puzzle as the antagonist makes his final speech. Needless to say, you end up restarting this section over and over again and despite hearing that speech enough times to memorize it, I’m still not fully sure what the dude’s problem was.
But take all this with a grain of salt, because the TARTARUS team was incredibly small, and the cost of the game isn’t extortionate. It’s respectable that they put together something in which the acting was good (and done almost entirely by one man), the environment looked great, and the puzzles were entertaining and original. They fell short when it came to making the plot come alive, but we can’t all be Ridley Scott.
TARTARUS is a unique concept in that it makes computer puzzles come alive with realistic representations, where most titles try to make abstract mini games out of “hacking.” The plot and overall horror atmosphere don’t come together, however. Overall, this is a solid attempt at making light programming puzzles interesting, but more work needs to be done in this area before we see a title that is truly free of tedium.