You’re cordially invited to a fabulous masked ball at a swanky manor, where the guests are killed one-by-one by the crazed staff, and the only way to prevent this from happening is to go back in time and sabotage their plans. This is the enticing premise for The Sexy Brutale, a mystery with a Groundhog Day twist, from the developers of Deadlight and the upcoming Rime, which amuses as much as it impresses.
From the get-go, the polished visuals and toe-tapping swing soundtrack drag you mercilessly into a masquerade of death, where your elderly priest - Lafcadio Boone - has to witness the deaths of multiple people, then work out a way to stop them from meeting their end. It’s like Columbo, but with the opportunity to save the victim from ever being murdered.
To do this, you’ll be assisted by a mysterious red spirit lady who drives the plot forward at key points, and acts as your guide to the game. The first puzzle introduces you to the mechanics of spying through doors to eavesdrop and monitor the paths of individuals throughout the mansion, as well as hiding in convenient cupboards in rooms. Your aim is to prevent a man from being shot; removing the gun before it's used isn’t an option as you’re too frail to lift it, but maybe you can tamper with it to ensure it doesn’t work as planned? It’s a neat beginning which effectively showcases the mechanics and the dark humour, before chucking you into the role of full-time saviour with increasingly elaborate murders to prevent.
Spying is a key element of the game, since Boone cannot be in the same room as any other character - if he is, a “health” bar will slowly drain until he either moves to an unoccupied room or the game ends. This is more of a deterrent rather than a real penalty - it’s simply a method of ensuring you don’t just follow people around, and forces you to manoeuvre and manipulate events behind the scenes. Everything you witness is recorded as a timestamp on your map, and you can cycle forwards and backwards in time on the map to see where different people will be at specific times, although Boone himself can only ever progress forward.
You’ll have twelve hours to try and solve each individual murder before the clock resets and you’re taken back to the beginning of the day (in this case, noon). However, everything you’ve learned - door codes, locations, and so on - will be remembered, allowing you faster access to specific parts of the mansion from the beginning. Some puzzles will actively require multiple resets before you can solve them, as you will need to witness various events happening at different times.
Furthermore, each person you save will grant you a mask which bestows a special power upon you, be it enhanced hearing or the ability to see and speak to the many spirits roaming around. Each new power will have a direct bearing on the next murder, and as you save more people and accumulate more mask powers, you’ll need to use them in combination to prevent further deaths.
Grandfather clocks scattered throughout the residence act as save and restart points, assuming you can find the relevant winding key to make use of them. They also allow you to jump forward in time to specific hours (4pm and 8pm) if you need to skip to certain events and don’t want to hang around. In conjunction with your pocketwatch, you can also make a clock the default starting point for your next Groundhog Day leap back in time, negating the need to walk to different areas and saving you valuable minutes.
If it sounds complicated, it actually isn’t. Tequila Works, in conjunction with Cavalier Studios, have created a deceptively streamlined game which at time feels like it could be overwhelming, but underneath the surface lie basic core mechanics. You have to piece together the items you find, work out how they play a part in the murder, then use them to stop it from happening. There’s only one solution to each (at least, that we discovered), which makes the replay value negligible, but when a game is this tightly crafted, it doesn’t matter.
Each character you save has their own story and unique death, and they’re all brilliantly scripted. In fact, simply hanging around to watch them meet their inevitable fate is as interesting as ultimately saving them. If you’ve ever wondered about the most ingenious method of killing an opera singer, The Sexy Brutale has the answer. As the game progresses and you learn more about the mansion and its inhabitants, the story becomes ever more impressive. The intertwining of murder plots is also noted by the characters - for instance, the gunshot from the tutorial is comically commented on by both staff and guests in various rooms. It all adds up to a painstakingly plotted experience, with people’s paths criss-crossing as the hours tick away. Additionally, a series of fifty-two playing cards are dotted around to collect, as well as individual character invitations which, while not essential, add more meat to the sterling story.
With multiple bug-free playthroughs under our belt, it seems that criticisms of the game can only really be levelled at the mechanics themselves. The nature of the time travel element invokes a certain level of repetition, since you’ll have to watch numerous scenes over and over if you aren’t observant enough to work out how to solve a particular puzzle on your first, second or even fifth outing. The death of Tequila Belle was especially taxing - not least because we believed we had all of the relevant items necessary to solve it, but just couldn’t figure out how to use them to save her. Having to sit through her (admittedly haunting) song multiple times was frustrating, but sharper eyes may not have this issue. Similarly, one early puzzle involving cameras was solved completely accidentally. When we thought about it, the solution made sense - but that feeling of “huh?” rather than “aha!” took away some of the joy in its success.
Still, these are mere quibbles in an otherwise wonderful experience, which bodes well for a developer who appears to be among the minority that value robust quality over buggy quantity. If The Sexy Brutale is indicative of their future output, then we would very much like to be invited to any further soirées they wish to host.