A few hours in
So, an interesting thing happened. I played through all of the above, right? Everything on the last page. Then I put The Sexy Brutale down, and sort of didn’t pick it back up again for for six weeks. I know, I know, I’m sorry! I don’t know why this keeps happening! It’s not because it’s not a good game, because when I finally did pick it back up (replaying the tutorial to remind myself how this game works again), I beat the whole thing in a single 6-hour sitting.
So yeah, The Sexy Brutale: It’s good. It’s real good. I’m probably a little more reserved in my hype than the general tenor, but you shouldn’t mistake that as thinking that The Sexy Brutale is anything but a game design masterpiece. Audio-visually speaking, it’s stunning. Narratively speaking, it’s an interesting slow burn, a mystery story that’s allowed to stay mysterious until the very end — and even then. Ludically, it’s an interesting series of clever puzzles that tasks the player’s understanding of cause and effect and their mental map of the shared casino space –marred only slightly by some occurrences of Adventure Game Logic, which can’t help but rear its ugly head every now and again.
Let’s start with the gameplay. It doesn’t take long to piece together what sort of game The Sexy Brutale wants to be: A murder mystery adventure game with supernatural time travel elements, equal parts ‘whodunit’ and ‘how can I stop it’. Bit by bit, you’re introduced to the colourful guests of the casino, their environments and routines, and their predestined murders. And then you save them.
One thing that initially scared me off The Sexy Brutale a little (the reason I dropped it for as long as I did) was that I was worried the game would be overwhelming. In a giant casino with a dozen unique guests and who knows how much staff — the card theme seems to suggest there are 52 — how can I ever hope to keep track of who goes where and who does what, and what was I supposed to do again at this time — Oh, I guess that guy died, better start over. But that’s not at all how the game works, it turns out. Rather, The Sexy Brutale treats each guest (or pair of guests) as a puzzle all its own, almost a discrete level. Most guests are contained in a particular area of the casino, thematically coherent and tied together by the presence of one of the many clocks that act as save/respawn points. That guest will stay in that area of the casino and die in that area of the casino — and everything you need to prevent the latter is found in that area of the casino.
The game is so clear in this, in fact, that it all-but-announces that you reached the right next area with a fancy splash screen of the guest(s) you’re intended to save next.
What further prevents you from wandering around in frustration in the first hours of the game is the fact that you just can’t go everywhere. When you first wake up at the main hallway clock, most of the Sexy Brutale is closed off to you, through padlocked doors and frozen presences and burning doors and a dozen other contrivances. While it’s generally possible to wander around a little, and get a general idea of the lay of the land, the game funnels you towards the casino floor pretty effectively.
From there on out, the loop becomes simple: Find the guest. Study the guest. Figure out how to save the guest. Do so, and you’re rewarded with that guest’s special power, which generally opens new areas for you in the Sexy Brutale. Find those areas. Find the new guest. Study that guest. And so on, and so forth.
As for the puzzles themselves, those are… mostly alright. Bit of a mixed bag sometimes. The way The Sexy Brutale is set up, players just don’t have many action verbs: You can move through the casino, take items, use environmental cues, and apply items to the environment. But most items are reset between iterations, and as mentioned, each play area is relatively small. The trick is often to either find the right item hiding in the right place, or to jump on the puzzle designer’s train of mental logic at just the right time.
Sometimes this works very well! I particularly enjoyed the final main puzzle, which saw me run around the breadth of the casino looking for slot machines, using my powers to find secret entrances and uncover passwords — and then realizing that, wait, that’s what that sound means, so I should make this move. Other puzzles can be less spectacular, though. Sometimes, they’re too easy: I remember at least two separate occasions where I more-or-less accidentally solved a puzzle, by just messing around with environment objects — including one where a button I hit was the trigger to start the ‘guest saved’ cutscene, leading to me rescuing a guest that I hadn’t even seen before. In other cases, the logic of how to get from point A to point B sometimes makes some lunar detours, if you get what I’m saying. I have no idea how I was supposed to figure out that you feed the blood of fish to the skull fetish without meticulously using everything in my inventory on every part of the environment that had an action prompt, for instance. And while I figured out the need to pull the two switches at the same time, I’m still not sure what mode of action other than blind luck led me to talk to the ghost that revealed the location of the secret circuit breaker.
In the end, two aspects of The Sexy Brutale keep its puzzles on the enjoyable side of the balance overall. The first aspect is the limited scope and size of each puzzle, which really helps. You’d think that I’d complain about a puzzle game having small-scale puzzles, but The Sexy Brutale is aware of its strengths and weaknesses here, and doesn’t overstep its capabilities as a result. Fun puzzles are fun no matter how small they are, and while frustrating or dull puzzles are never great, at least they’re over soon.
The second aspect of The Sexy Brutale that keeps its puzzles enjoyable is everything else about The Sexy Brutale.
I’m not exaggerating. This game is such a joy to be in, narratively and audio-visually as well as ludically. What kept me playing wasn’t necessarily a desire to beat the next puzzle. That was always the overt carrot, but I was secretly much more interested in: Seeing more of the casino and its guests, eavesdropping on new conversations, finding some of the many many collectibles, uncovering hidden paths throughout the space, unlocking new clocks for new spawn points, and just generally taking in the atmosphere. There’s partially a voyeuristic pleasure in being this literally undetectable agent of change, a character nobody can detect or interact with unless you choose to make that happen, though that might just be me (and the thousands of people like me). It’s equally undeniable, though, that this game was just really well made.
You want to know my favourite part of The Sexy Brutale? I’ll tell you what it is: It’s the environment sounds. When you first make your way through a full The Sexy Brutale day, you’ll notice all these weird sounds that play, no matter where you are at the moment: The spinning of a slot machine, a crash of glass, the ringing of a bell… an electrical buzz accompanied by the lights briefly flickering. They’re little overt mysteries in a world that’s already steeped in the uncertain.
But then you start realizing… Wait, I know what that gunshot is: That’s Reginald Sixpence, getting shot in the chapel, four ‘o clock sharp. Poor man. But that means that all these other sounds are also hints of the future. Related to the murders, that’s for certain. But how? And how does it help you?
It’s a silly thing to love most of all, but this little bit of audiovisual design does such great work tying the space together. It can be easy to get lost in your own little corner of the Sexy Brutale, especially if you’re stuck on a frustrating puzzle. Both the sound and the writing constantly connect you back to the larger narrative: There’s more going on here, and you’re trying to find out what.
Related to which: My second-favourite part of The Sexy Brutale is the overall storytelling, which… I can’t really say all that much about, because the slow understanding of just what this place is and does was a significant part of my enjoyment. Let’s just say that it’s good. The story is told in overt story beats, in overheard conversations, and even in secret journal entries, which you unlock by collecting playing cards throughout the casino. Or by collecting guests’ invitations, in the case of the entries about those specific guests. Some of those, you’ll find in thematically fitting places. Most of them you’ll have to lift off the guest’s corpses.
Oh yeah, so here’s a thing you might not expect: You don’t actually permanently save the guests. You can’t: The casino resets itself every day. It’s not even possible to save more than one guest per ‘run’. You’d think it’s possible, but as soon as you set one guest’s survival in motion, the game immediately jumps into cutscene mode, giving you… this strange mix of chastisement, for losing track of its overall goal, and hints about what you should do next. It’s understandable why The Sexy Brutale does this: You wouldn’t want the later game to devolve into rote repetition of guest-saving actions. All the same, it’s a little disappointing that I can’t even try — and more than a little grim when you really realize what those cool sound cues mean.
But that’s okay. There’s always more of this beautiful, carefully-crafted casino to explore. Maybe it’ll let you forget for a moment.
There’s a risk, I’ve found, in writing game reviews several days after last playing the game for real: Your general mood will stick out and reinforce itself over time, while the smaller things — that you liked or that you hated — tend to fall by the wayside. In the case of The Sexy Brutale, I obviously had an excellent time: I played it through to the end, which (almost surprisingly in this day and age) manages to be an actually good end, an satisfying and clear conclusion to the story that nevertheless raises interesting new questions for the message board fans. Looking back over this review, I notice that that, and everything that made it possible, stuck in my mind: The clever audiovisual design, the storytelling, the sense of mystery, the gradual development of the titular Sexy Brutale as a place that you slowly gain familiar access to.
In the interest of being complete, I will end this review by dredging up a negative play memory: The whole ‘not being in the same room as other characters’ system is poorly implemented. I understand why it exists, both from mechanical and narrative points of view. But mechanically it’s lacking: All enemy masks do is slowly chase you, then drain a health bar that only exists in that particular moment — with the only consequence of ‘death’ being that you start the day over. And you can just run out of the room anyway. There’s so little consequence to the whole affair that I started ignoring it: I just ran through rooms I needed to get through, regardless of what might be happening. As far as ‘oppressive sense of mysterious dread’ goes, that’s probably not a response you want your player to have.
In general, The Sexy Brutale‘s ludic-mechanic side starts to suffer a little near the endgame, when you have all the powers and you’ve sussed out all the mechanical quirks. But I’m willing to bet that won’t matter to you, because it didn’t matter to me: At this point in time, I was entirely invested in seeing the story through. It’s not a perfect play experience throughout, but it’s definitely an experience — a game world and a story and a way of interactive storytelling that few games in 2017 can equal.
If that’s something you’re interested in, and if you’re still reading my reviews after almost five years of me babbling lyrically about these sorts of games then there’s a good chance that you are, I highly recommend you dive into The Sexy Brutale. Twenty bucks on Steam, or on any of the main-line consoles
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