The Sexy Brutale review
Adventure Gamers Awards
What would you do if you were given the opportunity to live a day over again? Would you fix any mistakes you might have made that day? Or perhaps take the day in an entirely new direction? Would you simply keep everything the same and experience it for a second time? For The Sexy Brutale’s Lafcadio Boone, the answer isn’t so benign or simple. Trapped in the titular mansion/nightclub/casino, Boone is tasked with preventing a series of horrific murders which all take place at the same repeating masquerade party. The experience is just as dark as it sounds, but its jazzy soundtrack, stylish characters, and mysterious plot give it an undeniable charm as well.
The game begins with Boone lying on the floor of the mansion’s chapel when an enigmatic woman dripping blood approaches him and leaves a red handprint on his mask. She tells him simply that this will give him a chance to save his friends, then disappears. Boone explores the chapel area and witnesses the vicious murder of his friend, the mechanic Reginald Sixpence. The bloody woman appears once more and this time gives Boone a pocket watch, which allows him to restart the day from the beginning, enabling him to change events. The watch is broken, however, keeping it from going past 5:00PM, but this can be fixed by Sixpence – if, of course, Boone prevents Sixpence’s murder. From there events expand into the rest of the mansion, where Boone must save all of his friends one by one (or, in some cases, two at a time) and get to the bottom of what is really going on in The Sexy Brutale.
At its core, this is a game about exploration. The mansion has many rooms, and each character has a set path on the way to their grisly fate. Boone can peek through keyholes and listen to conversations on the other side, but he can’t be out in the open in the same room with anyone. The power of his mask prevents him from being seen, apparently, but other masks respond to it violently, forcing you to vacate the room quickly or be subject to the day being automatically restarted. Fortunately, Boone can still tail the various characters and sometimes even hide in closets, allowing him to hear any conversations in that room without being caught. Navigation is much more intuitive using a gamepad’s analogue stick, as the mouse-controlled, right-click-and-hold movement method feels unnecessarily clunky. Either way, the game clearly identifies both interactive elements and places in the room where an action (like spying) can occur.
Following a single character and listening to every conversation they have is a solid strategy for preventing their murder. Most of what you hear won’t help you save them, but it will flesh out the relationships of the various mansion denizens and help you better understand what might be going on. Likewise, you can examine a number of objects in The Sexy Brutale, but most of them are just set dressing, making the important objects stand out quite a bit. There are only a handful of objects that can actually be picked up and many of them, such as keys, are easy to find the proper use for. The murders themselves run the gamut from something as simple as one of the guests being shot with a hunting rifle to elaborate deathtraps, though foiling them is often as simple as sabotaging the murder weapon, inconveniencing the killer, or otherwise disturbing the sequence of events that leads to the murder.
Each murder you prevent allows Boone to “absorb” that victim’s mask, giving you another ability which often unlocks a new part of the mansion to explore. These abilities can be as straightforward as picking locks to being able to hear even whispered conversations (an unexpectedly useful ability in this particular game). Over time, you will also acquire a couple more “Key Items” like your pocket watch and a surprisingly useful lighter, which will be used many, many times in different places and which, thankfully, do not return to their original position every time the day restarts like most of the objects do.
As a result of all of this, I found The Sexy Brutale to be a fairly easy game to complete. There was one set of murders I prevented by pushing a button which I had no idea would do what it did. Granted, an earlier action of mine had set the stage for this button to prevent the crisis, but it still felt like I had accidentally solved the puzzle, which made the resolution seem a bit less satisfying. Some of the later murders are a bit trickier, but once you get the hang of the game’s style, they also are fairly easily figured out, and the finale is one of the easiest puzzles of them all, which makes the climax feel a little less tense than it probably should have.
The game adds a degree of extra challenge in the form of finding 52 playing cards around the estate. Many of these cards are simply lying on the floor, but some are hidden in the objects you search and several are a lot trickier to find. Some cards open bonus information about the various sections of the mansion, and finding all of them will allow you to potentially unlock a hidden ending. Each guest also has a written invitation you can try to find. Many of these are on their respective persons, which means you just have to track down where their bodies end up after the murders, but a few are more challenging. These reveal additional character information about each guest, further explaining the relationships between the various victims.
Its relative ease didn’t make me enjoy The Sexy Brutale any less. I was never bored as I followed characters one by one, trying to ensure I didn’t miss even a single line of dialogue as they made their way through the mansion. Timed puzzles are usually a negative in adventure games, but being able to handily rewind to the beginning (and fast forward to 4:00PM and eventually 8:00PM as well) takes the sting out of feeling like you missed something crucial. The game even has a handy map that shows the locations of all of the characters and lets you rewind and fast forward on the map to show their movements. You need to have seen the characters at each time and place for them to show up on the map, but it still makes for a handy tool in trying to fill in the pieces you may have missed.
What makes the experience really work is the sheer charm of its presentation. The jazzy soundtrack is so good that I found myself listening to the title theme for at least a few moments every time I booted the game up. The characters all have a cartoony quality that belies the game’s dark tone but still somehow fits perfectly. I didn't get to spend too much time with people like the muscular ex-security chief Clay Rockridge and his blind-yet-incredibly-tenacious wife Trinity, but they were utterly engaging and made my virtual ears perk up every time another character mentioned them as I wanted to learn how they fit into the group as a whole. In fact, all of the characters shared this appeal for me, which made watching them die horribly that much more disturbing, but then preserving their lives that much more rewarding. And the game managed to accomplish this without even a single line of voice acting.
The decor of The Sexy Brutale is classic 1920s (or thereabouts). Everything from the casino itself, to the chapel, to the music room evokes a distinctly familiar Clue-like vibe that feels right at home in what is, essentially, a murder mystery (of sorts). Sculptures, paintings, and fireplaces abound, and while there doesn't seem to be an official "accusing parlor" we see in so many older British whodunits, it certainly would fit right in here. The isometric presentation and limited viewing area are unusual choices for an adventure game, and screenshots I saw beforehand didn't really make the visuals look all that appealing. But I forgot all about my reservations as soon as I started playing the game itself. The presentation offers an environment that is truly fun to explore as you walk around trying to find the next clue.
The Sexy Brutale is a game I can happily recommend to just about anyone. The well-crafted environment, appealing music, and enthralling characters should appeal to virtually everyone who enjoys a good plot-driven game, and the overall mystery leads to a satisfyingly heartfelt conclusion. I reached that point in about eight hours’ time, though I dilly-dallied quite a lot on the way in order to leave no stone unturned, so seasoned adventurers will certainly be able to finish it even sooner. The lack of challenge may turn some people off, but surely only the most diehard puzzle fanatics. The simple fact is that it’s hard not to have a good time voyeuristically exploring this strange mansion and piecing together all the information you can find to save the lives of your masked cohorts. It’s a blast to do again and again, which is good because that’s what The Sexy Brutale continually invites you to do.
Complementary review copy provided by GOG.com.
Beautiful but deadly, this entertaining time-looping murder mystery doesn’t pose much challenge but is well worth the gamble for its unique style and charm.