The Sexy Brutale (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Sexy Brutale (2017)

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My rules for reviewing movies are not the same for video games.  When it comes to movies, I carefully control my reading so that another critic's "voice" does not bleed into my own.  I made the mistake of sounding far too much like Roger Ebert when I started and it took a long time to shake that influence.  But when it comes to video games, I'm not secure in my "voice" outside of the collaborations I've done as part of Pixels In Praxis.  So, with The Sexy Brutale, I let myself drift a bit and speed through some other critic's words.  This brought me to what I think will be one of my guiding philosophies going forward - I am going to do my best not to compare video games with movies.

Article after article I see the same comparison with a varying second half, "The Sexy Brutale is like Groundhog Day meets..."

Considering one of the guiding principles of The Sexy Brutale's structure is that you can feel differently about the past, but you can't change it, critical comparisons to cinema instead of earlier video games counterproductive.  Let video games stand on their own history. For my money (and The Sexy Brutale was worth the money), the more applicable comparisons are the Laura Bow series of Sierra adventure games and the remarkable experimentation of The Last Express.  The former informs The Sexy Brutale with its nods to early 20th century speakeasy bars and inventory-minded adventure construction, the latter with a gaming apparatus that lets the player move throughout the timeline of the game world, and both with gameplay that requires paying close attention to the habits of the characters.

The best parts of The Sexy Brutale combine a macabre sense of humor with the voyeuristic element that informs the game's structure.  The Sexy Brutale's brief introduction features one of the many staff members, each adorned with numbers and card signs, murdering the clockmaker Reginald Sixpence via gunshot.  My favorite moments of dialogue come courtesy of the staff, who treat the guests of the titular hotel/casino/theater/library with the kind of condescending hostility I could only dream of during my years in the service industry.  As The Sexy Brutale rolled on I was more invested in the running commentary of the staff as they creatively disposed the guests than the guests themselves.

So it's kind of a shame that the only way The Sexy Brutale can move forward is by figuring out what you need to do to foil the murderous staff.  But you still get to engage in some voyeuristic fun in your attempts to stop each murder.  You can't engage with the staff or victims directly or you'll disappear and the day will start over.  So you need to pick hiding spots, lurk around corners, and utilize the various breaking & entering powers you obtain to track guest and staff alike.  One of the little pleasures resulting from your snooping comes in the form of a map that updates as you observe different actions.  It's like a conspiratorial message board with you trying to put the pieces together looking for the one thread that brings the staff's scheme into focus.

The time-shifting aspect is applied with thematic consistency even if the results aren't always enticing.  You can speed forward but your backwards options are limited to starting the day over.  This works excellently in the earlier murder scenarios where you have to work quickly to take in each new wing of the establishment and figure out what fixtures affect which aspect of the rooms.  Less effective, which hinders the theater murders section, are when you lack some vital clue and have to sit in one or two rooms for the entire game day hoping this'll be the spot that'll help you move forward.  It's The Sexy Brutale equivalent of pixel hunting, and not helped by the fact that some murders you may thwart more by accident and less by your understanding of the environment.

Even with these issues, I love the grim finality of your efforts in the establishment.  You solve a murder, move on to the next, and get environmental reminders that death is still inevitable.  The gunshot murder you foil in the beginning is still in the background when you move to the next as the guests rightly grill the staff on what's causing these noises and electrical disturbances.  The Sexy Brutale, in the long-term, is more concerned with how we learn to cope with unforeseeable trauma than foolishly thinking we can prevent every bad thing from happening.  It sticks the landing admirably, save for one end-game scenario that is symptomatic of the "Your choices matter" lie of gameplay that has no precedent with what comes before.

The only choice that really matters with The Sexy Brutale is if you decide to play it or not.  I'm happy I did because of the way it blends past adventure games into a sultry mix of decadence and worker frustrations.  We might have had a modern great if it had the courage of its convictions to embrace that the past cannot really ever be changed.  As it stands, The Sexy Brutale is a fine successor to the tradition of Laura Bow and a good sign of things to come.

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Posted by Andrew

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