Journey through a wonderful tribute to retro adventure and role-playing games as you restore the kingdom in Knights of Tartarus.
Knights of Tartarus is a role-playing game where you must enter the underworld to fight an order of knights, but a description of its story doesn’t give much of an idea about what makes the game special. The game is an old school RPG, complete with a turn based battle system, but this has been combined with the thoughtfully crafted world and puzzle solving of a classic action adventure title.
Even from the opening sequence, it’s clear that solo developer Stello Hexis is a very talented pixel artist. They skillfully manage to capture the combination of detail and minimalism that makes Knights of Tartarus‘ style so striking. Each of its varied environments has a distinct and visually pleasing colour palette and feel. There are even some extra little polish touches, such as bouncing plants and floating leaves that each give what would normally be static tile-based environments an extra sense of life and movement. The retro purists among us might take issue with a few inconsistencies, however — there are some transition effects that are too high resolution, and movements that are too smooth, which can dampen the overall aesthetic — but these are few and far between.
While there are some modern visual effects that appear to break the illusion of Knights of Tartarus running on the hardware that inspired it, the same can’t be said of the audio, which would sound right at home coming from an 8-bit machine. The crunchy sound effects perfectly evoke the era, and the music is one of the game’s most appealing aspects. The composition demonstrates a mastery of the ability to make a few channels of simple waveforms communicate so many different atmospheres and feelings, and after playing I found myself regularly humming the wonderfully mysterious melody from the main theme when I was going about my day.
The character movement is clunky, but in a way that captures the retro aesthetic, and allows for the precision needed to navigate the grid-like environments that made games of this scale possible during the eighties. I initially found the walking speed to be too slow, but eventually found out that I could run. This was mentioned to me during the opening section of the game, but I was only told what the keyboard input was, which was of little use to me, given that I was playing using a gamepad.
The dialogue, in general, is a bit rough around the edges, though this is understandable, given both the amount of text in a game of this style and the size of the team (i.e. a single person) involved in its creation. The tutorial dialogue only mentions the keyboard controls, and an early conversation, intended to send me off on my quest, didn’t exactly mention where I was supposed to go.
Having said that, Knights of Tartarus shines as a game that doesn’t hold your hand. While it never explicitly tells you where to go, the world strikes a balance between being big enough to fulfill your sense of exploration and adventure, without being too massive for you to be able to keep a reasonable mental picture of the layout. While it could do with a map, its absence means that any progress you make is due to your own lateral thinking and understanding of the environment, leading to a sense of accomplishment that is sorely missing from the bigger budget games of the modern industry. The areas which are more dungeon-like are also completely separate from the overworld, allowing for a more focused navigational challenge, leading up to the major enemies. The level design itself is well executed too — some clever puzzles, and a liberal use of goodies that are initially unreachable, in order to encourage you to look around to find a way to grab them.
While the level design is one of the game’s strongest features, it’s not without its flaws, and it could do with taking a few notes from more recent approaches. Once you beat the game’s first boss and get the first item that you can use in the field, there’s only a single place in the entire game where you can use it at that point, and that is on the other side of the map. This would have been an excellent opportunity to provide the player with a shortcut back to a closer area, which could have been unlocked with the use of this item, driving home the way the game world steadily opens up as you progress. Also, while the puzzle design itself is excellent, having to avoid enemies at the same time can interrupt your thought process. Having dodegable fights was definitely a wise decision, though, when compared to the old fashioned random encounter system on this front.
While on the surface, the battle system in Knights of Tartarus seems more or less typical for a game of its genre, the reduced scope of this title works to its advantage. It’s free of the bloat you’d normally get from a game with turn based combat, which tend to get bogged down with a deluge of items and abilities that end up pointless as you progress. Here every turn and every potion counts. There are only a small number of spells, but every one of them had a different, useful effect, such that I found myself regularly using all of them, even against bosses. The spell system itself is quite unique too, with you learning them from defeated monsters, although this can be a little too reliant on random chance. I was several hours into the game before any monsters decided I deserved to learn their secrets.
My only real gripe with the battle system is that there is a large difficulty spike between the game’s major bosses, and given the limited tactical options available, I had no choice but to halt what I was doing and level up my character a fair amount before I was able to continue. Luckily, this was mitigated somewhat by the fact that the enemies in the areas leading up to these big fights gave a lot of experience points, which made short work of the gap in power.
Knights of Tartarus is a game that is clearly made with a lot of love for the games that inspired, and is a phenomenal achievement for a single person to have made. I’ll definitely be returning for a New Game Plus run, and I can’t wait to see what Stello Hexis creates next!
Knights of Tartarus is available now on PC, Mac and Linux.