As a young boy, when I finally clawed my attention away from 3D Ultra Minigolf, I discovered the Puzzle Mystery genre. Despite my broadening perspective, I still hold Phoenix Wright, Professor Layton and, dare I say, Nancy Drew games in high regard. This is all to add a little weight when I say that The Sexy Brutale may be my favourite, and perhaps the most innovative entrant, I have played in this entire section of gaming.
“The Marquis”, enigmatic figure and head of the titular casino hotel, is throwing another lavish masked ball. Masked servants wait on the guests and cater to their every whim. But this time, the guests may be served something very bitter, the taste of murder! The player must step into the shoes of preacher, Lafcadio Boone, use the power of the masks to unravel the plots of the masked murderers.
Honestly, if I were to liken the narrative and environment design to another game, my immediate response is “Cluedo”. All of the would-be victims are exaggerated, from the unreasonably strong men, to the sultry women, but never feel truly two dimensional. The death scenes only grow more ludicrous and joyous in their macabre plots. As the story progresses, there is a real sense that all is not as it appears in the mansion. I must concede I found the revelations led to a plot that was rather bottom-heavy
Now, the bit I’m really excited to dig into, the gameplay. The style is pretty simple. Your starting power is the ability to restart the day. Each day can run fully from midday to midnight, and the entire mansion runs to a strict schedule. Even this, I have to give props, because little ‘events’ that loop in that day cycle, all link back to the fatal goings-on of the mansion. It really gives a sense of all of these narratives being layered over one another.
But I digress.
To balance out your Groundhog Day type mechanic, the player character cannot be seen by the other characters. Instead any observation of the action is done looking through keyholes, or hiding in closets. You act as a spectre of sorts, making changes to objects and the environment, but even simple changes can spare the life of a guest. This may seem like a hinderance (and I mean yes of course it is), but it adds an additional layer of challenge. For example, even seeing the murder in it’s entirety is an exercise in finding the best vantage point, and moving it to avoid detection.
Now, this might seem like a confusing praise for a game, but it must be said: The star of this game is the map. At the start of a new chapter, the player has no information. Who is the victim? Where are they? How do they die? All mysteries. So generally the first run has two foci: visit rooms and find key people. As rooms are entered, they are logged on the map, but importantly so are people. Under the map is a timeline, so you can follow all information you have gathered on their whereabouts. This contributes to a truly stunning sense of progression for a puzzle game. In most puzzle games, you get the problem or you don’t, but this system encourages pursuit of what information you have. You know Greg dies in the theatre, so you can go directly there. Try following him around, maybe a throwaway comment will lead you down the right path. Didn’t work? Why not retrace the killer’s steps and see if he muttered something about a trapdoor? Ultimately, the system is primed for giving the player a constant set of possible breadcrumbs to follow. To craft a system, where every replay feels, even in the most minute way, to be edging closer to the solution, is truly awe-inspiring.
On top of that, the puzzles are crafted simply but well. Perhaps most surprising to me was the game having a real sense of the importance of timing and quick thinking. In quite a few cases, suddenly diverging and doubling back and adapting plans, was the only way to get to the solution. In a genre when the best solutions tend only be appreciated after finding the answer on a walkthrough, it was gratifying to have the player work on a technical and mental level to get the job done.
The Sexy Brutale is, to my experience, the most well-conceived and well-executed puzzle systems ever. It rarely leaves the player feeling clueless. This is truly a well-woven tale, always leaving a dangling thread to pull on, and further unravel its intricate machinations. As if that’s not enough, the story is an instant classic: whimsical, ludicrous and macabre. Don your mask, load up The Sexy Brutale and settle in for a night of bloody debauchery.
5 out of 5
+ Fantastic Puzzle Design
+ Constant Feel of Progression
+ Great Story