The Sexy Brutale is a murder mystery game where the mystery is not figuring out who did the crime, but figuring out how to stop it. It’s the first game from Cavalier Game Studios, an independent studio created by former Lionhead Studios developers, and made in conjunction with Tequila Works.
In The Sexy Brutale, you play as a priest called Lafcadio Boone (no, I can’t pronounce that either), who wakes up in a large mansion with only a few cryptic clues from a demonic woman to guide him on his way. Boone is tasked with stopping six murders that will take place in the mansion and the attached casino, with the aid of a pocket-watch that can rewind time back to the beginning of the day should he fail. The game expertly introduces you to its time-twisting mechanics by forcing you to watch a man get gunned down in cold blood, before rewinding time and giving you a chance to figure out how to stop the murder.
To stop the subsequent murders, Boone needs to spy on guests and the members of staff who are killing them. Spying can reveal anything from the location of an empty shotgun shell to the location of a mechanical arm that you need to solve a puzzle. Alternatively, you can listen in on conversations to learn door passwords or watch guests unlock secret passages. There’s no punishment if you don’t solve the murder in time, other than having to watch and/or listen to the guest meet their often grisly demise. If you fail, you can use your pocket-watch to rewind time and try again. You’ll lose any keys or physical objects you’ve picked up, however you’ll retain knowledge like CCTV codes and the location of hidden passageways.
You solve the murders one by one, picking up a new ability from each person you save and gradually opening up more parts of the mansion to explore. Abilities include enhanced hearing, lock picking, and other cool stuff that I won’t spoil here. These abilities, together with locked doors, hidden pathways, and breakable windows, create a Metroidvania-lite progression system as you work your way through the mansion.
A decent map is incredibly important for games with Metroidvania elements. Unfortunately, the one provided is a little cumbersome. It has too much detail and not enough at the same time. The map displays random furniture which makes it harder to spot important closets to hide in and chests to unlock. Picking up a key doesn’t add it to the map so you’ll have to remember where they all are which is at odds with other items of ‘knowledge’ being permanently added to the map. Navigation is also tricky; however, the mansion isn’t so big that I ever got completely lost.
Knowing how a murder will be performed isn’t enough to stop it happening. Boone takes damage when he’s in the same room as any of the mansion’s guests or staff, and he can’t interact with them directly. Instead, Boone has to interfere with proceedings in more sneaky ways, such as altering CCTV images or rerouting the power supply. Some puzzles have an element of time pressure, but I rarely felt rushed. Knowing that you can just rewind the day and start again prevents the game from ever feeling too tense and keeps the focus on solving the puzzle. You can also use your pocket-watch to skip forward in time; however, you’ll need to be at one of the grandfather clocks dotted around the mansion, and even then you can only skip to 4 pm or 8 pm. More flexibility would have been nice for those rare occasions when I was waiting around for time to progress.
The quasi-isometric presentation was presumably a budgetary compromise given the game’s indie background, but it never feels that way. Everything in the game from the homely feel of the mansion’s bedrooms, to the quirky casino, to the hidden rooms and passageways, all feel lovingly rendered and implemented. The caricature design of the guests provides a perfect contrast to the grim murders that plague the mansion. There is some occasional slowdown when moving between rooms, but it’s rare enough that it didn’t bother me.
Music design is where the game really shines. I’ve never thought to describe a game’s musical score as ‘funny’ before, but that is the first word that came to mind when I approached the casino. Every section of the mansion has a different musical theme which speeds up as the murder gets closer. Each murder also has a distinctive audio cue associated with it and you’ll hear that noise every day, even after you’ve solved the associated murder. You’ll hear a gunshot in the afternoon. A bell will ring in the early evening. The electricity will dim at night. The sounds haunt you throughout your playtime.
The dialogue has a distinctly British feel to the game, with a dry wit that made me wish the game had voice acting. Fortunately, the cartoonish characters are more than expressive enough to have you sympathizing with their plight from just a few short lines. The stereo sound does feel a little off at times as if the game was confused by its own isometric design and didn’t quite know whether it should send the sound to my right or left ear.
For most of my playthrough, I assumed the story was just a token effort to tie together an excuse for a fun set of puzzles, and I was perfectly happy with that. The simple act of figuring out how to prevent the murders was fun in and of itself, so I didn’t feel the need for a deep story. To my surprise, the game ended with a thought-provoking and emotional conclusion that will stay in my head for a long time to come. Admittedly, one of the thoughts it provoked was ‘I’m not sure this makes complete sense,’ however not many puzzle games bother with a story so intriguing. There is a payoff to the story. Whether you’ll appreciate that payoff is debatable, but it’s there.
If you want to expand your time in the mansion, you can collect 52 playing cards and the party invitations for each guest. The playing cards are a general reward for basic exploration, but some of the party invitations require a little more thought. Not all of them, mind you. Without being too specific, half of the invitations are in the same place. It’s a shame not all the invitations had the same effort put into hiding them.
I didn’t get particularly stuck on any puzzles, but I did lose a lot of time figuring out what I was supposed to do next. The game could have used a few more pointers to direct you to the next stage after completing a puzzle. I don’t want to be told how to solve a puzzle, but I’d like to know where the puzzle is.
Puzzle games often struggle to up the challenge without causing unnecessary frustration. Apart from the issue I discussed above, I never got frustrated with The Sexy Brutale thanks to its simple and intuitive mechanics. I never had to ‘think like the developer’ which is often the case in puzzle games. There are no number puzzles or line puzzles, and the only rules you’ll need to follow are fairly intuitive. You solve the puzzle by thinking like a normal human being, albeit one where masks can kill you.
Even if you do get stuck, wandering around the mansion is a genuine pleasure. I never tired of watching events play out like clockwork (sorry!) and I’m desperate for more murders to solve. The puzzles get progressively more complicated, but just as it gets remotely challenging the game ends. It felt like it ended a touch too soon, however it took me nearly nine hours to reach 100% completion which seems more than reasonable given the budget price. Unfortunately, the story conclusion doesn’t lend itself particularly well to DLC, but I’d love to revisit the mansion with my trusty pocket-watch to watch more people get killed again, and again, and again.
Like many gamers, I have been consumed with the constant onslaught of big budget games which have been of an exceptionally high quality this year. The time I spent playing The Sexy Brutale could have been spent playing Nioh, Nier, or Persona 5, and yet I don’t regret a single minute I spent with this game.
The lack of challenge is a touch disappointing but doesn’t detract from the sheer joy I got from bouncing along to the music, or the sadness of watching a man try to save his friend from inevitable death. When the main problem with a game is that you just want more, that’s usually a good sign. The Sexy Brutale is absolutely worth your time. If I had Boone’s powers, I’d rewind time and play it all over again.