I’m a mystery aficionado, and I have been since I gobbled up Encyclopedia Brown’s adventures as a kid. I graduated to Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden, preferring the latter to the former because Trixie was a hotheaded teenager who oftentimes acted before she thought, which I could sympathize with. Nancy Drew wasn’t a real girl, but I do love Kate Beaton’s concept of Nancy Drew as a crazy woman who is making up all the mysteries in her mind (h/t Ian). I strayed into dreadful teenage romance novels (oh were they horrid), but I never gave up my true love–mysteries. I read every HerculePoirot story by Agatha Christie when I was a teen, each at least four or five times, and some up to fifty. My favorites are The Big Four and Curtain, by the way. I’ve seen all the David Suchet series, too, and he IS Hercule Poirot. I’ll have to see the Kenneth Branagh version of Murder on the Orient Express, of course, but it’s going to suck. He sucks as Poirot, and the trailer is devoid of everything that makes a Poirot story work. However, to be fair, all three previous versions of this movie are terrible (including David Suchet’s. His Catholic rant at the end destroys any credibility the movie might have). I think this is a Poirot story best left as a novel and not a movie.
When I started playing games, I wanted to find a mystery game that grabbed me the way a novel did. I played all the Poirot games. Atrocious. I played several Sherlock Holmes games. Disappointing. Lately, I played Kathy Rain, and while it started out strong, in the third act, it came crashing down around my ears. I will say even before then, I was done with adventure game logic. I like solving puzzles, but not when it’s ‘combine a twig, three pieces of twine, and a stone to make a key’. An axe, maybe, but a key? Or having to backtrack through several areas just to pick up that piece of lint you couldn’t pick up before, but knew you’d need. I tried the Blackwell series, and ten minutes in, I was following a walkthrough compulsively.
I admit it. I gave up on finding a mystery game that I actually enjoyed playing. It didn’t seem possible! The things that work in a novel just didn’t seem possible to recreate in gameplay. Then, I saw a review by Jim fucking Sterling, son of The Sexy Brutale, and I was immediately intrigued. Now, as Jim Sterling notes, it’s difficult to talk about the game without ruining the brilliance of the conceit, so let me say if you’re looking for a good detective/murder game in which you have to prevent murders from happening, then this is the game for you. I bought it for $9.99 on Steam during the last of the endless Steam sales, and it’s normal price is $19.99. I’m not the best to ask about pricing because I usually wait for games to go on steep sale before buying them. I’d say The Sexy Brutale, developed by Cavalier Game Studios and Tequila Works, is worth $19.99, but it is a short game, and the replayability is very low. It’s definitely worth the $9.99 I paid for it. I might play again just to smooth out the rough edges, but probably not. If that’s enough to hook you at all, I’d suggest you stop reading and pick up the game. The rest of the review is behind the cut (after the Jim Sterling review).
The tutorial lays out the conceit of the game pretty clearly. The story is bare bones. You’re in a mansion, the titular The Sexy Brutale, during a masquerade party (actually, I’m not even sure the latter is explicitly stated), and you see someone being murdered in the chapel. I’ll try to avoid spoilers as much as possible, but it’s impossible not to give some things away. The tutorial teaches you how to spy/eavesdrop on people through locks (X), and anything in red is important. I will admit the controls are a bit clunky, at least to me. I think it’s because I’ve been playing so many games in which you have to have a quick reaction, and in this game, the button response is squidgy. I’ll be madly pressing RB on the mouse as if I’m hitting someone, and the game will get confused as to what I want it to do. I eventually learned to click the button once and then wait for the response. it’s not easy, but it made me less frustrated in the end.
I also will say that I wish the tutorials were a bit more thorough. I was confused about a few of the mechanics, and I had to look it up–which isn’t easy in and of itself because this isn’t a well-known game. There isn’t a Fextralife page for The Sexy Brutale, I’ll tell you what. While we’re on the technical side, the map is a bit frustrating as well. The rooms aren’t named on the map, which is difficult for me because I have spatial awareness issues. Labeling the rooms would have helped me with that so much, but it’s a relatively small issue in the grand scheme of things.
Back to the actual game. I love, love, love the looks of the game. The environments and characters are bright, colorful, and cartoon-y. They are whimsical and pleasing to my eyes, and I could look at the little buggers all day long. I play as Lafcadio Boone, and I wake up next to a clock. This is important as clocks play a major role in this game. The game walks me through the first murder, and I find myself watching as a staff member with a gas mask shoot one of the guests in the chapel. Then, the day ends, time unwinds, and the day start again.
This is the main conceit of The Sexy Brutale, and while it’s a simple one, it’s done so well. You keep replaying the same day over and over again in order to gather clues that help you prevent murders. You can restart the day whenever you want, and you start at the last clock with which you’ve synced your pocket watch. The clocks are sprinkled throughout the mansion, and you have to find a winding key in order to wind the clock before you can sync with it. In the later game, I found myself racing around with the winding key to find the clock before my time ran out (after the first murder, your day runs from 12 p.m. to 12 a.m.) so I could set my starting point nearby. I understand why the devs did it this way, but I felt a bit irritated as I raced through new rooms in order to find the next clock. I like slowly exploring each room as I discover it, clicking on every blue circle (tells you that you can do something with a nearby object. Either just learn about it or interact with it), before moving on to the next room. I feel like it dampened my enthusiasm to motor through a room, barely noticing anything about it except whether the clock was there or not, before going into the next room. Again, a minor nitpick, but something I noticed with the last two areas I explored.
In the tutorial, I felt pretty smart when I figured out how to undo the murder. Not totally smart because I’d watched Jim Sterling’s review, but that was seven months ago, so it wasn’t in the front of my brain. Then, The Bloody Girl comes up from the floor to tell me to pick up the mask the intended victim leaves behind and to give me a little backstory. I put on the new mask, and I suddenly have the ability to advance time four hours at the clocks. I will admit I’ve never used this ability, but it’s still neat to have.
I’ve prevented all but one of the murders, which means I’m in the homestretch. I don’t want to give away any more of the game because it really should be played to be believed. I will say that I was nervous going in because I wanted it to be good, but I’ve been disappointed so many times before with mystery games. I think what sets The Sexy Brutale apart is that it doesn’t try to mimic novels in the way it lays out its mystery. You know immediately whodunnit (although, I will say it took me much longer than it should have for me to realize it wasn’t just one person, but the entire staff), and you’re trying to prevent murders, not solve them (and the murders will happen again as you move on to the next one. It’s fascinating!).
You don’t know why the culprits are doing it (I assume it’ll all be revealed in the end), but you get to know each of them a little bit, and they all have different personalities. I like that each character is distinct, even though you don’t learn much about any of them. There’s one guest in particular to whom I really relate, and if I ever cosplayed, she would be on my list. I’m not going to say who because I don’t want to spoil it, but she really resonated with me. I am also quite fond of Lafcadio, and I’m curious to see how he fits into the whole scenario. I have my theories, and I’ll be thrilled if I’m correct. One interesting point is that everyone knows who he is. In the beginning, I assumed he was kind of the loner detective, but, no, he’s simply one of the guests in this murder mansion.
One other small issue–you can pick up any item you come across at any time, even if you don’t need it to solve this particular murder. This messed me up more than once, and it seriously impeded my progress with one of the murders. There’s an item (I’m being purposely vague) that is found in two different places, one upstairs and one downstairs. The murder takes place upstairs, and I wasted several iterations of the day racing downstairs to get the item there because I thought I had to switch it with the item upstairs. It makes sense in context, but it was completely wrong. After replying this particular day several times, I finally took a quick peek at a playthrough, and I realized I had the right idea, but I was going about it in the wrong way. The item from downstairs didn’t play a part at all–indeed, it wouldn’t be relevant until a future murder.
I understand that all these murders are taking place on the same day, and it would probably be way too difficult to make items only available for any given murder, but it made me super-frustrated for that one murder. Part of it is my own fault, though, because I was overthinking the solutions in the beginning. It’s partly because I read and write murder mysteries, but it’s also because adventure games tend to have ridiculously complicated puzzles. Once I realized that the solutions had to be pretty simple in order to accomplish them within the given amount of time, I did much better in solving them.
This game feels like a Metroidvania to me in that it’s a (limited) open world, and you unlock further areas in part after gaining new abilities (with the masks). There’s no platforming, thankfully, but I think this technically fits the definition. Even if it doesn’t, no matter. I really dig discovering new areas of the mansion or seeing locked doors and knowing I’ll be able to access them in the near future.
I have one murder left to prevent, and then, hopefully, I’ll find out why I was tossed into this mess in the first place. I’ve enjoyed my time with The Sexy Brutale much more than I thought I would, and it’s renewed my faith that there can, indeed, be great mystery games. If you enjoy sleuthing, then buy this game, exercise your little grey cells, and find out the dark secrets of The Sexy Brutale.