In Sexy Brutale, noises haunt you. The bell strikes like clockwork, the same time every time, announcing a tragedy I’ve not yet fathomed. Now, a few dozen loops later, hiding in a closet in the tower, I can finally see its cause. A masked woman strolls into the room, murmuring darkly of curses and death. She removes her necklace, takes the bellcord from the wall, wraps it around her neck, and leaps into the chasm below.
"Clockwork" is the word for Cavalier Games and Tequila Works’ collaborative project The Sexy Brutale, which released last week on Steam. It’s also the word for the game’s clear inspiration: 2000’s The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, famous for its terminal “Clock Town,” where longtime series protagonist Link seems to be the only person who notices the rather obvious signs of impending armageddon. In Brutale, however, such an apocalypse has already struck the lavish estate which gives the game its name, and will strike again and again and again. Five minutes in, you witness a butler eviscerate one of his master’s guests with an elephant gun. Soon after that, it becomes clear that this isn’t just a lone employee with a grudge – no, the entire staff of the Brutale is out for blood, and as with Majora, you’re the only monkey wrench around to gum up the works.
Armed with a magical pocketwatch, you loop through the same twelve hour bloodbath again and again, canvassing every inch of the comically-luxurious manor, watching as the colorful guests trace the same route, speak the same words, die the same horrible deaths. But while most games would have you investigate their grisly demises after the fact, here, it’s not so much the why - after all, the culprits are all faceless servants, unnaturally strong and enduringly loyal to an unknown ringleader - but the how. The Sexy Brutale isn’t a murder-mystery game, it’s a murder-prevention game, and a damn fine one at that.
Since you can’t be everywhere at once – magic pocketwatch or not – you must unravel the conniving staff’s scheme one murder at a time, in an order dictated to you by a enigmatic waif who leaves blood and viscera wherever she walks. Unfortunately, these solutions aren’t as simple as belting the would-be murder with a tire iron – your character, Lafcadio, can’t share a room with any other live humans, or time will freeze as their masks fly off to haunt you. Instead, you must play the stealthy interloper, peering through keyholes and eavesdropping through doors as the would-be murderers act out their increasingly-complex plots, waiting patiently for an opportunity to stymie them.
While the game’s isometric perspective and clear demarcation of important objects prevents the sort of King’s Quest-esque pixel-hunts that stumped a generation of adventure enthusiasts back in the early Nineties, the logic that underlies some of the scenarios can prove just as arcane as those early classics, though they never require more than a few steps. When you save the various guests of the mysterious "Marquis," you also gather their masks, which grant you further Mega Man-esque powers based on their quirks, such as enhanced hearing or mechanical acumen.
Near the end of the five or six-hour experience, the estate increasingly resembles the castle of Dracula from the Castlevania games, replete with secret passages, unexplained rooms, and bizarre anachronisms. As a setting, the Brutale itself might be the game’s strongest suite: Infamous paintings crowd its walls, decorated in the red and black of a deck of playing cards. Tinkling pianos and husky crooners echo throughout its walls, giving the macabre proceedings a festive, carnivalesque air. In many ways, the extravagant mansion and its doomed denizens feel ripped from the set of a Cirque du Soleil show. It produces an atmosphere that stinks of easy money and fake prestige – a grandiosity that borders on grotesque.
Yet the same wit that grants the game much of its appeal serves to occasionally undermine it. When it comes to its puzzles, its characters, and especially its ornate, overgrown story, The Sexy Brutale can be a few measures too clever for its own good. In particular, it has a bad habit of weighing itself down with paragraph after paragraph of exposition just as the drama begins to spin up, and the plot features more red herrings than the entire Agatha Christie back catalog. While some may find the history of the characters and the estate as compelling as the designers behind the game so clearly want you to, by the end of the game, I couldn’t care less about the history behind the damn bell tower – I just wanted to see who the culprit was. The same could also be said of the ending. It will find its fans, but, for me, the foreshadowing was laid on so thick that I could hardly see the work itself.
Still, The Sexy Brutale is a smart, engrossing, novel romp – in short, the perfect way to spend a long, rainy night.