The Sexy Brutale is unlike any game I’ve ever played before. I’m not just talking about the mechanics, unique as they are, or the aesthetic, as inventive as it is. I’m talking about the fact that even though it only took me six hours to play the game to completion, I feel like I know every detail of the titular casino mansion as well as my own house. The characters in it already feel like old friends, people I know personally – something I haven’t felt since 2015’s Undertale. Not only is Sexy Brutale a thoroughly enjoyable puzzle game, it’s one of the most unique and effective interactive storytelling experiences ever made.
It’s also very difficult to describe without spoilers, so consider yourself warned. I won’t be giving away any major twists, but my advice is that if you have any interest in adventure games, puzzles, or really interesting stories, you should stop reading now and go play it. For those who need more convincing, read on! The mansion is open for a day and we’d love to have you in attendance.
Every year a man known as The Marquis opens up his casino mansion, “The Sexy Brutale,” and throws a masked ball for his closest friends. But this year, something’s different. The Marquis and his beautiful wife are nowhere to be found, and the gas-mask-wearing staff is murdering all of the guests one by one. All of the guests? Well, not quite – one, an aging priest named Lafcadio Boone, is contacted by a creature of mysterious purpose and given the power to turn back time in order to stop the murders. As Lafcadio, players will have to live through the same day over and over again in real time to prevent the increasingly complicated murders from even happening in the first place.
Since you always know who the killer is (the closest staff member), this seems like it would be an easy task, but Lafcadio seems to exist outside the mansion’s rules. Neither the guests nor the staff acknowledge his presence, but the masks they’re wearing do, and they’ll attack you if you spend too much time in the same room as another person. This means that you’ll have to carefully influence events from the shadows – slipping a vial of antidote into the poisoned man’s pocket, taking the hanged girl’s rope from her room, replacing the knife with a prop fake. None of those are things you actually do (the scenarios are far more creative than the usual tropes of a dinner party murder mystery) but you get the idea.
Although the inventory puzzles might be reminiscent of adventure games like Monkey Island or Sam & Max, the fact that you can constantly reset time a la Groundhog’s Day offers a unique twist on the classic mechanics. More importantly, in large part because the puzzles are based on your own observation, stopping the murders doesn’t require any of the ridiculous leaps of logic those sorts of games are infamous for. Even as the game gets increasingly surreal and starts subverting its own rules, everything makes sense if you’ve been paying attention, and if you ever find yourself getting stuck, the answer’s probably just a little more exploration away. Not every puzzle’s perfect – I thought that Willow Blue’s scenario was particularly frustrating, and on the flip side. several puzzles towards the end are almost insultingly easy. The nature of the time loop also means that you will frequently have to spend time waiting through dialogue you’ve already heard or sitting patiently for someone to show up in a specific place. But when the entire day only takes twelve minutes in real time, the very rare moments that you have to spend sitting and waiting aren’t game-breaking by any stretch of the imagination.
And even if the puzzles were absolute garbage (they’re not), it would be worth playing The Sexy Brutale just for the story. This is very much the sort of thing where a lesser developer would have let the intriguing premise carry the game, and certainly it would still be enjoyable as a decent murder mystery with weird and interesting characters. Instead, Tequila Works and Cavalier Game Studios have crafted an emotional narrative about love, pain, and mental illness, wrapped in intrigue and a beautifully surreal world. A top-hat-wearing voodoo fish is involved, and I wouldn’t even put him in the top 10 weirdest things I saw in this game.
This is where the game gets difficult to talk about without spoilers, because the ending of the game really is what makes it so great. For much of the game, as much as I was enjoying the characters and the setting, I thought that the story was a bit disappointing. It felt like it wasn’t really going anywhere, and I had already guessed what I thought was the major twist. I was right, but that twist turned out to be only part of a much larger revelation, one which was handled with such skill and emotional heft that it was impossible not to be taken in by it. The last quarter or so of the game is an absolute masterclass of interactive storytelling, answering all the questions I had, deftly plugging what I thought were plotholes and making the existence of plotholes itself a part of the narrative. Even things I thought were minor aesthetic details – like the little fire effect that warns you another person is near – are brilliantly woven into the story. Believe me – even if you play the game and think at first that I’m exaggerating, stick it out all the way to the credits.
I will also say, because I almost missed it myself: after you win the game, go back and look at the brochure again. If you’re still looking for answers, you’ll find them there.
The quality of writing is a big part of what sells the story, but credit must also be given to the fantastic presentation. The Sexy Brutale is a feast for the eyes, combining well-rendered 3D models and backgrounds dripping with detail with hand-painted 2D elements from veteran comic artists. The style is somewhere between Grim Fandango and Pathologic – Clue as directed by David Lynch. A good example of this is the wisecracking staff, whose quips are at once funny and horrifying, each wearing a gas mask bearing a number and a suit (“Three Clubs”, “Two Diamonds”, etc.)
Even more impressive is the toe-tapping electric jazz music, which is and will likely remain the best game soundtrack of 2017. Not only is the music incredibly fun to listen to, but it changes depending on where you are and what events are happening in the mansion at that time, flowing from room to room so that it sounds like one seamless piece of music. Even if you’re on the other side of the mansion, you’ll know what’s happening to the victim because you’ll recognize the music. It’s an impressive technical feat, and deserves at least as much credit for the emotional strength of the story as the writing does.
The game does have a couple (very minor) technical issues on PC. Rooms are sometimes slow to load, and sometimes they’ll load but everything will be completely black for a moment, which can really hurt you if you’re doing something very time-sensitive and you have to wait for the actual interactive objects to pop in. Twice the music randomly cut out and cut back in, and once it refused to register that I was clicking on something until I went to another room and came back. None of these were game-breaking, and combined they took away, I dunno, maybe five minutes out of my life? But I think it’s worth noting, especially because from what I’ve hard the PS4 version doesn’t have any of these issues.
Some people may also take issue with the game’s length – it took me six hours to play through the entire story, and a more savvy puzzle-solver could probably blaze through it in four hours or less. Players looking for more playtime can collect cards and invitations that are scattered throughout the mansion, most of which require a little more thought and effort than most collectibles of that nature, but even solving those extra hidden puzzles aren’t likely to extend your playtime by that much.
But for me personally, I don’t care about how much of my time a game takes – I care about the quality of that time. Frankly, I don’t think the game would be nearly as good if it were much longer. The story is so tightly-woven and so elegantly paced that adding more puzzles would just feel like unnecessary padding. Everything The Sexy Brutale does, it does with elegance, skill, and style to spare, and it has absolutely cemented its place as one of the must-own games of 2017.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One ; Publisher: Tequila Works; Developer: Cavalier Game Studios; Players: 1; Released: April 12, 2017 ; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of The Sexy Brutale purchased by the reviewer.