At first glance, the Razer Tartarus looks totally nuts. It’s a glowing green keypad that conjures up images of some of the outlandish game peripherals of the past, and having it on your desk sends a very clear message that you are going to be using your computer to play games and you are DAMN SERIOUS ABOUT IT.
For anyone outside a relatively small slice of hardcore FPS ad MMORPG gamers, a dedicated gaming pad is a rare sight. There are only a handful of different manufacturers of gaming keypads on the market, and the total sales for keypads are a dim shadow of what gaming mice or keyboards garner each year.
I’ve been a PC gamer for more than 20 years, and until very recently I had never used a gaming keypad. I have never been a big fan of MMORPGs, but I’ve played FPS games for hundreds and hundreds of hours over my lifetime, and never even considered a gaming keypad as a serious possibility.
Then I tried the Razer Tartarus…and I think I might have been converted.
For the purposes of this review, it’s important to note that the Tartarus is the first gaming keypad I have ever used, so it’s impossible for me to compare it fairly to the other models on the market. What I can do though is to talk about my experience with the Tartarus, including the seven different games I played with it and how it felt to play those games.
The Tartarus, like all Razer products, comes in an eye-popping package. Opening it is akin to a religious experience, even if you are left with what feels like an excessive amount of packaging garbage afterwards. Once you plug the Tartarus into your PC it lights up with a pleasant and bright green LED.
Everything seems to be going wonderfully, but then you’re tasked with downloading Razer’s Synapse software which, as previously discussed in my Razer Mamba review, often just doesn’t work very well. Most of the time I spent using the Tartarus everything ran smoothly…but there were some very frustrating periods in the mix where I had to struggle to get Synapse to recognize the Tartarus or allow me to re-map the keys. The Synapse issues were nowhere near as troublesome as they were with the Mamba, though, and aren’t serious enough to be a serious factor in whether you should purchase the Tartarus.
My first gaming experience with the Tartarus was with the innovative online FPS Superhot. You can play it for yourself here http://superhotgame.com/, which I would highly recommend. It’s a pretty wonderful game on its own, but it’s also a great tool for learning a new control method like the Tartarus. Because time in Superhot only moves when your character moves, the game flows at whatever pace you like. As you become more comfortable controlling your movement with the keys on the Tartarus you can speed things up, and before you know it you’re ready to move on to a serious game…like Minecraft.
I played a lot of Minecraft with the Tartarus, because I play a lot of Minecraft in general. Like Superhot, it’s another good game to play while becoming comfortable with the Tartarus, because it’s generally slow-paced and it’s rare that a single missed keystroke will spell disaster (unless a creeper is involved, of course). It was while playing Minecraft that I first experimented with one of the most interesting features of the Tartarus: programmable macros.
Basically, you can program any of the buttons on the Tartarus to correspond to any key or mouse input…or even a sequence of multiple inputs. I’d heard about this kind of thing before, of course, but had never thought that it was something I personally needed as a gamer. And even now, after trying out programmable macros, I still think it’s true that it’s not something I need to use…but it turns out that macros can be really really fun.
I programmed one of the buttons on the Tartarus to correspond to five seconds spent holding down the left mouse button…and all of a sudden mining became a breeze. It was no longer necessary to hold down the mouse button while mining until my finger ached.
Drunk on the power potential of the Tartarus macros, I moved on from Minecraft to the most entertaining/shameful thing I did with the Tartarus: basically cheating at Cook, Serve, Delicious.
Cook, Serve, Delicious is a game where you run a restaurant, making food for your patrons by entering a precise sequence of keystrokes under extreme time pressure. Excelling at the game requires dedication and skill…or a Tartarus and a willingness to cheat. I loaded my menu up with items that didn’t require any variations in the keystrokes (beer and chicken, for example, are always the same, while every hamburger or salad can be different) and created macros for every item and chore. After a few trial runs where I worked on memorizing which key was which (aided by a prominently placed sticky note on my desk) I was soon completing flawless days over and over again, with the difficulty of the game dramatically reduced. I felt proud of my ingenuity — though I DID realize that I was essentially removing the fun and challenge of the game.
After Cook, Serve, Delicious I moved on to Dota 2…and it was pretty much a disaster. I’m not very good at Dota 2 in general, but trying to control the game with the Tartarus was a massive struggle. I might have been able to figure it out if I had stuck with it, but after an hour of hitting the wrong keys and dying I was too frustrated to keep climbing up the learning curve.
My problems using the Tartarus with Dota 2 are indicative of one of the biggest challenges of the device. You can remap all of the keys to anything you want, but there’s no good way to remember which key is which in the middle of a game. In Dota 2, many abilities are marked on screen with the keys you need to hit to activate them – but it will say “E” or “Q” not “05” or “15,” which is how the keys on the Tartarus are labeled. Using the Tartarus for something as complicated as Dota 2 required the support of sticky notes all over my desk, with reminders of which key on the keypad did what. Eventually, of course, I would have memorized it all – but I had to do it without the luxury of being able to use on-screen or in-game reminders of what key I needed to press. The Tartarus is even capable of switching between different keymaps at the touch of a button in-game, which unlocks an insane amount of configuration options – though the memorization required to use the keypad this way is something I think would be a struggle for most gamers.
After the frustrations of Dota 2, I started using the Tartarus to play Borderlands 2 – and found that it worked extremely well. I had to do a few different remaps of the keys early on as I tried to get everything just right, but before long everything clicked into place, and I ended up playing all the way through the game using the Tartarus exclusively. It was with long stretches of Borderlands 2 that I really began to notice how comfortable the Tartarus was, and how much better it felt to use something contoured for my hand instead of a keyboard. After playing through Borderlands 2 with the Tartarus, I realized that I never wanted to go back. For any new FPS in the future, a gaming keypad would be my preferred way to play.
The final game I tried out during my time reviewing the Tartarus was Divekick, a fighting game that literally only uses two buttons. It may seem odd to use such a complex piece of hardware for a game with such a simple control scheme, but the Tartarus was so comfortable and responsive there was no reason NOT to use it. Plus, when playing with friends on a single computer, having the Tartarus meant we didn’t have to fight over different sides of the keyboard.
Here are the criteria I consider most important for judging the Razer Tartarus:
#1 –Performance – 8/10
This could easily have gotten a 9 or 10 without the hiccups of the Synapse software, but I still had very few complaints about using the Tartarus overall. It does exactly what it is supposed to do for 99% of the time, and it does it very well.
#2 – Comfort — 8/10
Hours and hours of gaming with the Tartarus later, I’m now feeling a bit annoyed when I try to play a game using a keyboard.
#3 – Utility — 7/10
It’s hard for me to say that most gamers really need a gaming keypad…but it sure was fun to use the Tartarus. The macros and keymap switching mean that there is an insane amount of customization possible as well, so the Tartarus should be able to do just about anything you want, provided you put in the work to make it happen.
#4 – Appearance — 9/10
It would be great if you could change the color of the light on the Tartarus, but even without that feature it’s an impressive and cool-looking piece to have on your desk.
Overall score: 8/10
Before I used the Tartarus, gaming keypads seemed arcane and unnecessary to me. After actually trying one for a month, though, I’ll happily be an advocate for them in the future. The Tartarus is comfortable and looks great, and performs at a very high level aside from the minor frustrations of the Synapse software. If you’re the kind of gamer who enjoys experimenting and you can accept that playing a game with the Tartarus comes with a bit of a learning curve, you just might find that you don’t want to go back to gaming with your keyboard.