Developer: Tequila Works, Cavalier Game Studios
Publisher: Tequila Works
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Released: April 11, 2017
Copy provided by publisher
The Sexy Brutale certainly knows how to get my attention. The name alone was scintillating – promising the devilish and the stylish in a way that had me immediately intrigued. Then I witnessed the visual direction – macabre cartoon violence in a twisted casino populated by eccentric characters with creepy masks.
By the time I found out it was a murder mystery that required observation, deduction, and time travel, I was fully sold.
Calling The Sexy Brutale a murder mystery is perhaps not entirely accurate. You get to see each murder in all its brutal glory, after all. The mystery isn’t so much in the whodunnit but the howstoppit.
Every guest at the casino/hotel mansion is killed off in some gruesome manner, slaughtered mercilessly by the very staff of the Brutale themselves. The gas-mask wearing attendants commit their crimes without remorse but it’s not the player’s job to apprehend them – as aging priest Lafcadio Boone, they’ll need to see how a victim was killed, then reset the clock and attempt to foil the plan from the shadows.
Taking place over the course of a single day that can be forever rewound and repeated akin to Groundhog Day, The Sexy Brutale offers a number of murder scenarios that must be sequentially undone. The first murder – essentially a tutorial – is a very simple matter. A man is shot with a rifle – after the staff checked to make sure it was loaded, of course.
By finding and replacing the bullet with a blank (you can’t just take the bullet out, since the staff checks), the murder plot fails, but you need to see the killing unfold first before working out the crucial flaw in the staff member’s plot.
Naturally, the other murders are more complex affairs and may require multiple Groundhoggings before a solution becomes clear. Players can track the movements of both victims and killers, spying on them through peepholes and eavesdropping to gather clues or find important locations.
For mysterious reasons Boone shouldn’t be at the Sexy Brutale and his anomalous presence cannot be detected – at least traditionally. While he can’t be seen by the human occupants of the mansion, the elaborate facepieces they’re all wearing somehow know he’s there.
Should he occupy the same room as another character, the mask will rise from their head and float toward him, dealing damage upon contact. All activity in the mansion freezes and players will be unable to interact with anything nearby. In short – you’ll stick to the empty rooms unless you’re planning to dash in through one door and out the other.
While it’s very difficult to die in the game (masks move slowly and take a long time to drain Boone’s life), the rule does what it’s meant to – stop players from directly interfering and ensure they can only ever spy and sabotage in secret.
As you may have already guessed, The Sexy Brutale plays out in real-time. Once the day begins, the plan for the murder is set into motion – characters start moving from room to room, talking to each other, and getting into position for a most unfortunate demise.
Boone’s job is to secretly tail both prey and predator, learning their movements (which will be marked on the map and timestamped for review), how the death is dealt, and eventually how to rescue the target.
The Sexy Brutale is a puzzle game, that much is true, but as someone who doesn’t usually get along with puzzles I found myself utterly adoring this one. If you’re not generally a puzzle fan, you may still want to check this out.
Because the puzzles are based in observation, there’s something notably organic about how they’re solved. It can be tricky to put all the pieces together, but with some logical thought and a keen eye, the answers are all there in plain sight and they’re often cunningly simple. Every scenario gives Lafcadio all he needs to know – the trick is gathering and then mentally sorting the information.
And boy are some of the scenarios just utterly brilliant.
Each murder is, in fact, an amazingly scripted sequence with its own unique little story, and while it’s tempting to try and immediately rescue somebody I urge players to watch each death passively at least once – not only will it obviously help provide clues, but the murder sequences themselves are often ingeniously scripted and darkly amusing.
If nothing else, the killing of Tequila Belle is one of the most deliciously vicious sequences I’ve ever seen. It’s dramatic, it’s funny, and it’s chilling, which sums up this game perfectly.
Many puzzles involve the collection and use of items, but Boone cannot keep said items if he resets the day. He does, however, retain any knowledge he’s learned, including passwords or secret passages, and the map is just detailed enough for players to work out where people are and what objects can be manipulated.
Finally, each rescued victim leaves their mask behind, which Boone absorbs for a new power. Such abilities include enhanced hearing and the power the see and talk to ghosts.
So it is that The Sexy Brutale unfolds over a tight couple of hours, players resetting and then racing against the clock to undo nefariousness in beautifully detailed sequences using their own eyeballs and ability to follow logical paths – with a little bit of guesswork here and there.
For those who want to squeeze more running time from the experience, there are 52 playing cards to find, as well as character invitations that reveal more story. The Brutale has its secrets, and players can definitely squeeze more from it if they so desire.
This would have been a terrific game if it had just remained a morbidly comic puzzler, but it’s backed up by evocatively written lore and a story that turns into something all the more incredible as it unfolds. What starts as an entertaining spot of Cluedo But Backwards becomes an enthralling tale of crime, punishment, and guilt.
To say much more would be to spoil it, but by the time the credits rolled I was wide eyed and impressed – especially since what could have been a bullshit finale ended up working surprisingly well.
While no technical powerhouse, The Sexy Brutale‘s character and environment design are top-notch with an exaggerated cartoon feel to offset otherwise barbaric scenes. Aside from some minor loading issues when entering the occasional room, the game runs well and I’ve not encountered glitches or bugs to report, hooray!
The music is fantastic, a suitably swinging soundtrack for the setting, and while there are two lovely vocalized songs, the lack of voice acting overall is a shame.
The story unfolds entirely via text, which is fine enough, but I feel a strong vocal cast could have perfected it. This is not to say the game is actively harmed by text-only dialog – in fact, bad acting would be worse than zero acting – but some of these scenes could have been utterly perfect with the right voices behind them.
I’ve only one other criticism, and that’s the lack of options when manipulating time. As well as resetting the day, you can jump forward to 4pm or 8pm, which is useful for skipping things you don’t need to see again. Unfortunately, that doesn’t quite solve the issue of having to rewatch certain scenes, especially since you’re on a time limit anyway so skipping ahead often feels like an unwise risk.
When the worst I have to offer in terms of negativity is a lack of voice actors and some minor repetition however, it’s clear this is a quality title from a studio firing on all cylinders.
More than that, as The Sexy Brutale opens up and reveals something more complicated at its heart, I have to confess a certain level of awe at just how tightly scripted this whole thing is – pulling together separate but linked stories, playing them out in real-time, then layering a personal and affecting arc tale over it all while still providing brilliant gameplay? Tequila and Cavalier created something special with this one.
Blast it all if it isn’t another impeccable entry in a year swarming with quality already. I fear this one will get lost in the shuffle of big budget games, but make no mistake – The Sexy Brutale deserves as much attention as any Horizon, Zelda, Nioh or Persona.
Rolling the dice on this one is a play I can confidently back.