The Sexy Brutale brings new meaning to the phrase gameplay loop, but is it repetitive? It’s Cluedo meets Groundhog day, but is it repetitive?
It’s easy to play The Sexy Brutale and dream of the 20th century: of the over-wrought monstrosity of a mansion at its heart, as lavish and gaudy as Gatsby’s, its master equally absent; of the great procedural tradition of the whodunit, set against the performance of a masked costume soiree with the frivolous charm of a game of Cluedo; of jazz music, and of the Hopper-esque figures of lone drinkers at bottle-brimmed bars, preyed upon by demons like Jack at the Overlook.
But its heart lies in a different place… an older place. There is a sense of Greek tragedy to The Sexy Brutale. Its hero, a priest called Lafcadio Boone (!), must save his fellow party-goers at the game’s titular casino resort from the mysterious Marquis, and his cadre of murderous staff. Indirectly he must prevent their deaths one after another, as the same Saturday loops over and over, labouring like Sisyphus in Punxsutawney.
As the only one of the guests aware of the temporal dilemma, Boone smacks of tragic hero. He twists on the rack, the ghost in the machine doggedly determined to become Deus Ex Machina, railing against the cruel machinations of fate.
What you have is an adventure puzzle game with its heart on its sleeve. For all the tragic leaning of its basis, it isn’t the least bit serious; it drips with levity, replete with puns, excellent use of swearing, and a real sense of performance. As the day resets again and again, it feels like players returning to their marks and relishing their dramatic demise with gusto. A lady in red guides you on your way, giving you the mask which grants you cognisance of the time loop, as well as the magic pocket watch you must use to rewind the day. She rises from a pool of blood, hair streaked red, her glistening form covered in viscera.
Boone plays voyeuristic director as he cannot enter the same room as those he strives to save. He must stalk them, always one room behind, listening, peering through key-holes, and pilfering items with which to solve elaborate puzzles and stay their executions. Progress is permeated with languorous malaise, as even when you save someone, the day resets anyway – they return to their lethal loop as you move onto your next mark.
Despite this, you’re never unsatisfied, and it doesn’t feel repetitive: these are defiant achievements in a game that owes as much to Majora’s Mask as it does to Groundhog Day. There is distinct fulfilment in aligning the inner mechanisms. You feel like a master watchmaker. As you flip a vital switch, or stymie a demonic butler’s designs, there is the sensation of a puzzle-piece slotting into its rightful place, and watching the ensuing drama unfurl is a pleasure.
The titular mansion-cum-casino is a wondrous construct. Taking notes from Grim Fandango, the gloomy western baroque of the interiors is gilded with infectious Mesoamerican flavour: think gothic chapels lit on fire with surly jazz music and bobbing Calavera masks.
The pseudo-isometric perspective presents rooms to you like a Fisher-Price puzzle-box, and the little diorama’s are distinct in their decor and show off a hodgepodge of architectural styles from Aztec lilt to American sleaze and back around to English stately home by way of Parisian garden.
The Sexy Brutale swings its sound design like a sensor, wafting the aroma of death down hallways and into lonely rooms. You can hear the echoing of a gunshot, the ringing of a bell, or the shattering of glass – each of these signifies someone meeting with their end. It’s rare when sound is used in such an intriguing way; it has the effect of a needle and thread being stitched through the design. Contiguous rooms and distant halls are all brought together, folding in on one another and instilling a crackling sense of presence. It may be a death you’ve already prevented; it may be an acoustic omen of something you’ve yet to encounter; either way, time waits for no man, and this place is happy to tick on despite you.
The only unwanted party-crasher is the troublesome frame rate. On PS4, slowdown is noticeable in the grander, livelier environments; occasionally it grinds almost to a halt. Boone can awkwardly tarry at doors – after spying through the keyhole and deciding to enter, there is sometimes an irritating fiddle getting him through. The game responds to button-presses in its own time, which can be frustrating when Boone glitches in hesitation at a threshold and the frame rate drops. These aren’t a rain on the parade, only a slight drizzle made all the more noticeable by the pristine presentation everywhere else.
Aside from these minor hiccups, The Sexy Brutale is a tightly-wound pocket watch, each polished gear and ticking cog turning in sync. Some of the late-game is a tad predictable, but its conclusion is nevertheless heartfelt and affecting. It also doesn’t outstay its welcome: just as you become accustomed to the rhythms and revolutions of play, the whole affair draws to a close. What you’re left with is a game that, much like its tragic hero, has its feet in two worlds.
The Sexy Brutale nods back to ancient tradition while wrapped in the trappings of the 20th century, taking notes from some of the best adventure games there have been. At the same time, it looks forwards, unwinding to its own tempo, creating a game that feels distinct from any other.