Of masks and murders
In just under five minutes with The Sexy Brutale, I watched a man die. He was gunned down; left slumped and lifeless next to a stone altar, all before the murder weapon’s echo faded. There was nothing I could do except watch the grisly scene unfold through a dimly lit keyhole. I was a silent witness, complicit in murder by way of inaction.
But time has a funny way of righting wrongs, especially in The Sexy Brutale. Before I could understand what had happened, I got a second chance. Tucked among the dead man’s body was a broken pocket watch that, surprisingly, allowed me to rewind time. And so, I set out to save a man whose death I previously watched, using his own watch’s time-bending power.
The Sexy Brutale [PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One]
Developer: Cavalier Game Studios, Tequila Works
Publisher: Tequila Works
Release: April 11, 2017
Things only get stranger from there. The Sexy Brutale is a puzzle game about rewinding time and saving lives. You play as Lafcadio Boone; an aging priest stuck in a deadly loop. He, along with nine other visitors to the titular mansion-turned-casino, are fated to an early grave at the hands of the estate’s staff. It’s Boone’s job to foil the various murder plots by manipulating time and working from the shadows so that he can uncover what’s ‘really’ going on at the Sexy Brutale.
Think Clue, dressed up for a macabre masquerade, with some time traveling thrown in for good measure.
Progressing through The Sexy Brutale means being patient. Boone can’t walk into a would-be crime scene and punch his way to a solution. Instead, he observes. Every character, victim and killer alike, follow a set routine. By trailing and spying on them — either hiding in wardrobes or peeping through a door’s keyhole — players essentially reverse engineer a murder. Once Boone’s observed a character, their path gets recorded on a map, which in turn allows you to keep track of the mansion’s happenings even across multiple resets. From there, all you have to do is figure out how to stop the actual killing. Mostly, this means searching for ‘key items’ tucked away in the mansion’s labyrinth corridors, and using them to put an end to the murderous machinations.
The Sexy Brutale‘s first few puzzles aren’t too taxing. They’re a crash course in time travel and stealthy observation set in small, cordoned-off sections of the manor. You learn how to eavesdrop, hide, explore without being noticed, and most importantly, reset the day when things take a turn for the worse. Activating Boone’s watch rolls the day back to 12 PM. While the characters all start their routines over again, blissfully unaware (or eagerly awaiting) the day’s impending tragedies, Boone’s observations remain intact. Secret passwords, hidden passageways, and important clues carry over, meaning that Boone can take preventative measures and move freely, often toward a successful rescue, before any death traps are set in motion.
It quickly becomes a lot to take in. The Sexy Brutale‘s most appealing aspect is its emphasis on multiple moving parts. Like Boone’s pocket watch, the game is full of pieces that make it tick. The mansion is both the primary setting and a puzzle in and of itself. Myriad rooms and hallways spill out across the sprawling estate. Ornate artwork and descriptive flavor text color each location, creating an atmosphere that feels lived-in and mysterious. Both the guest and their pursuers are always moving. They meander throughout the cavernous halls and whisper secrets to one another during unguarded moments, faces always obscured by elaborate masks. Resetting the day, or jumping between late afternoon and evening adds another layer to the mix, all of which come together to make for an intoxicating spin on the classic “whodunit” formula.
When all of its parts are in sync, The Sexy Brutale is a compelling little game. It’s more of a mood piece puzzler than a head-scratching brain buster. The various killings aren’t too tough to prevent, and the game takes fewer than ten hours to complete. But throughout its entirety, The Sexy Brutale manages a melancholy tone that marries its art direction and tragic story. There’s an underlying hint of sadness that persists, knowing that you worked so hard to save one person’s life only to doom them once more when you inevitably reset the day and move deeper into the mansion. Take Reginald Sixpence, the man I saved in the chapel, for example. I would still hear a single gunshot ring out every day at 4pm. It was a sobering reminder that there simply isn’t enough time in one day — even with a magic watch — to save everyone. The morose mentality of saving someone’s life once, only to damn them a hundred times over, carries an emotional weight that falls right in line with The Sexy Brutale‘s gothic sensibilities.
Though The Sexy Brutale fumbles a few times — especially near the end when it rushes toward a narrative payoff — it never hurts the experience. Uncovering the mansion’s secrets and the twisted plot that dooms its guests is exciting. Compared to almost any other puzzle game, The Sexy Brutale‘s dark tone and inspired art stand out from the crowd. Solving murder might not be the most cheerful work, but it’s one hell of a good time.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]