Code your way out of danger in this sci-fi adventure
The developer admits that prior programming knowledge will help
The mining ship Tartarus has activated its security protocol near Neptune. It’s up to Cooper, the ship’s cook, to restore its systems before it crashes into the planet. But Cooper knows more about sautéing mushrooms than he does repairing computer systems. Luckily, he has some help. An engineer called Andrews, who’s trapped in another part of the ship, is guiding him by radio, which is easier said than done when you have no experience at all.
It’s an interesting premise for a science fiction game. Tartarus is clearly inspired by the retrofuturistic aesthetic of Alien:Isolation, but there’s no otherworldly predator to worry about on this ship; just the looming threat of it plunging into the swirling storms of Neptune and crumpling like a soda can. It’s a puzzle game first and foremost, and Turkish developer Abyss Gameworks is keen to stress that a pen and paper are required. You’ll explore the ship a little, but most of your time in the game will be spent with your head buried in chunky computer terminals trying to make sense of these complicated systems.
You have to dig through massive directories of folders and files, but without the benefit of a point-and-click GUI. It’s all based around command lines, which means learning a system’s commands before doing anything useful with it. One objective is reprogramming a set of misfiring pistons in the ship’s engine, which involves finding pressure values and entering them into the system – which is where your pen and paper comes in. The puzzles are, by design, complex and intricate. Abyss Gameworks knows this might turn some people off, but it’s committed to making a hardcore, challenging puzzle game.
The developer admits that prior programming knowledge will help and that the learning curve will be steeper if you’ve never written a line of code before. But it’s certain the game will tell you everything you need to know if you explore thoroughly enough. I don’t know a thing about coding and, at least in this demo, I found the game a little daunting at times. Games like Hack‘n’Slash and elseHeart.Break() do a great job of easing amateurs into the coding side of things, and I hope Tartarus learns a few lessons from them when it’s released. Otherwise, people who can’t write code will surely hit a brick wall and give up.
LOST IN SPACE
Abyss has the atmosphere nailed, though. The corridors of the Tartarus, like the USCSS Nostromo that inspired it, use light, shadow and an industrial ambience to create a feeling of isolation and claustrophobia. The glowing CRT monitors and bulky IBM-style keyboards make for a compellingly retro science fiction setting. But, at this early stage, the dialogue is unnatural and badly acted: presumably because English is not the developer’s first language. I’d love to see them hire a writer to craft a mature sci-fi story worthy of those visuals, otherwise it could dampen the overall experience somewhat.
Tartarus is an interesting game, although anyone looking at the screenshots and expecting something like Alien:Isolation may be disappointed. This is a game about delving into complex computer systems to solve puzzles, not running away from aliens. But the fate of a starship being put into the hands of a lowly ship’s cook is a compelling premise, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of what Abyss has in store. The developer promises that the puzzles will be constructed with a logic that means even casual gamers will be able to crack them if they persevere, but it remains to be seen whether it can deliver on that promise.
Making my way to the bridge.