Living worlds in modern video games are essential to not only the marketing of said games but also to the gameplay itself. Wide expanses of open world realism are the quality all great triple A releases are having in common more and more as we see the industry grow. That’s because players want to find themselves lost in these worlds for large amounts of time. They want to be surrounded by NPCs that make sense, rules that feel true to the world. In no other game is this fabrication of a fake world better than in The Sexy Brutale, but this fabrication is just that and not much more. You start off The Sexy Brutale in a weird nightmare in which the attendants of a masquerade party are being murdered one by one. You, guided by an odd sprite, must stop these murders in the order in which they ocurr. You’re quickly introduced to the powers you can wield to help you along your path, including the ability to look through door holes, hear footsteps from different rooms, and finally turn back time to redo days. It’s these beginning moments where I fell in love with The Sexy Brutale, but it’s also these moments which set me up for a game that was very different in terms of nuance.
Throughout the game you’re treated to mini-scenes where NPC murderers will set in place the things they need to commit their awful crimes. From obtaining a weapon to pouring poison into someone’s drink, these steps are all dominos on the path to the execution they wish to carry out. It’s your job to make these dominos stand up straight and for the guests to remain alive. These events felt very cool to solve. The puzzles which stood in the way of solving them felt realistic, and never did I catch myself running into solutions that didn’t make much sense. To amp up the tension, you’re given a certain time limit to complete your daring mission, and the whole time these mysterious characters are there to impede your access to certain rooms.
The most important aspect of The Sexy Brutale was the immersion carried in these slices of the week. It grabs you in a way which very few games do. The layout of the art assets makes The Sexy Brutale feel like you’re playing with toys that endlessly scurry about planning their next move. The world around you served to provide as many clues as the people themselves, and more often than not I ran into the solution to puzzles at a good rate. There were some noticeable difficulty spikes from the first mission to the rest, but after you get the hang of this eerie puzzle game, you’ll be hooked. But a couple of key disadvantages made me feel as though the Switch port of this indie masterpiece was probably the worst way to play it.
Noticeable dips in framerate ripped me from my experience, and that’s not the only thing that stuttered my progression through The Sexy Brutale’s charming little world. Save points at random rooms meant I spent at least a full hour of play time staring at the saving logo moving along at the the bottom of my screen. After these save points, the game would run abysmally slow before going back to normal. Once more, I felt as though these stutters were unearned. Yes, The Sexy Brutale is charming in its art direction, but the actual graphical fidelity in which this game ran at made me feel like I was playing a sloppy GameCube-era dinosaur. Character models and environments were jagged and even rough to look at, as the more effects came on screen the more I was just staring at a paused moment of what was once an electrifying scene. There was no use in crafting such an awesome, lived-in world if the moment-to-moment gameplay just frustrated me by continuously stopping me along my trail of Sherlock Holmes-like discoveries.
The disadvantages the Switch brought to The Sexy Brutale really outweighed the things the game did great for me. Despite setting up this great world and making me believe the situation these little humanoids found themselves in, the game ultimately wasn’t too complex. The new tools provided for my character to utilize matched how difficult these murders were to prevent. Nothing really conflicted too much in terms of gameplay, and I always felt systems brought up to the player made sense in the context of what was happening on-screen. It’s this, combined with the fact that the world you’re existing in is so charming, that saved The Sexy Brutale from completely turning me off. The narrative context given to items and places in the mansion received some giggles from my explorative adventure and didn’t run themselves too thin.
The Sexy Brutale is an experiment with crafting a lived-in world, all while keeping the gameplay and design grounded. Problems introduced to me seemed like I could never solve them, yet I was given tools and opportunities that pushed me to break my expectations altogether. This all makes for a great game in theory, but when the Nintendo Switch stutters and pauses, I’m reminded that the handheld might not be the best place to play this experience. If I were a fan of Tequila Softworks or Cavalier Game Studio, I’d rather play their fine-tuned strategy game on another platform.
Developer: Cavalier Game Studio, Tequila Softworks
Publisher: Tequila Softworks
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PC, PS4
Release Date: 7th December 2017