Sexy Brutale is a bizarre, time-looping mystery game

Six years ago, a games blogger named Matthew Breit conducted a thought experiment which still sticks in my memory: he imagined what might have happened if Groundhog Day had been a videogame, and not a film.

Not just any videogame either. In this universe, Groundhog Day was one of those delectably obscure commercial failures whose plaintive lionising by critics never translated to widespread play. Many of its players didn’t even realize the time loop mechanic was intentional, rather than a glitch; most never found out that the game had an ending. Instead the journey of hedonism, exploration and redemption undertaken by Bill Murray in the movie unfolded over several years through a small but committed network of fan blogs, forum threads, and wikis. 

It’s a beautiful fantasy, not only because of how sweetly it memorializes Noughties fan culture but because of how much sense it makes. The Groundhog Day format works really well for videogames, fitting their focus on repetition, failure, exploration and perfectionism while giving a narrative explanation or their constant deaths and rebirths. It also fulfills a long-held dream of games which focus on depth over breadth – as in Deus Ex designer Warren Spector’s famous ambition to build a detailed simulation of “one city block”.

Sadly the format has rarely been used, though Majora’s Mask, Twelve Minutes, and Life is Strange (sort of) stand out as exceptions. Now an indie puzzle game called Sexy Brutale wants to join them and bring Breit’s dream to casual players too. It’s developed by a team of three Brits under the name of Cavalier Studios, in collaboration with Madrid-based indie studio Tequila Works. I’ve played about an hour of it, I’m really excited to play the rest.

But what’s with the name? The ‘Sexy Brutale’ is a sprawling, sinister mansion which is also a private casino – a “British Moulin Rouge” set up by an eccentric aristocrat called the Marquis who uses it to throw lavish masked parties for his eclectic friends and peers. One of these parties has now gone wrong, trapping all of the guests in a 12-hour time loop in which they are repeatedly slaughtered by the suddenly murderous mansion staff. You play the cruelly-named Lafcadio Boone, a Catholic priest and former gambling addict whose apparently close relationship to the Marquis and reasons for being at a party full of degenerates like this remain murky at the time of writing. Only he retains his memories, and some of his items, after each loop. And so, prompted by a cryptic, gloopy angel called the Bloody Girl, he tries to find out what’s causing the loop and how to escape it by saving each guest in turn from their assigned deaths.

Everything that happens next happens on a schedule, and Father Boone encounters it as a mystery. The player moves him around isometric hallways, interacting with objects and collecting clues. You may have gleaned by now that SB is aiming for a kind twisted, jazzy English Gothic. It’s the aesthetic of umbrella stands in dusty corridors made from the feet of unknown animals, spiced with a little Vegas pizzazz. The mansion’s décor incorporates dice, clocks, stained glass, robot grim reapers and giant stone snakes (or possibly giant stuffed snakes), with description text recalling the perverted Victoriana of Fallen London and Sunless Sea, while the corridors echo with swing music. The characters’ eccentricities, meanwhile, are sharpened by repetition; following the same desires and routines, making the same mistakes, they shuffle blindly but repeatedly to their deaths like ambulatory Miss Havishams.

The problem for the player is that you can’t be in the same room as them, which means that Sexy Brutale is a game of eavesdropping and snooping. From each keyhole you get a swivelling slice of vision, with some parts of the room only visible from certain angles. It’s a good visual metaphor for the way the player must build up an overall view of what’s happening through small, partial pictures: scuttling around the mansion, trying to follow and map the intersecting routes, taking note of which rooms are empty at which times. The screen shakes with distant noises whose sources are initially unclear, while staff murmur inscrutable plans before passing out of your view. Slowly you build up a picture of how the schedule works – and where and when you can intervene.

Early on you gain a limited ability to skip forward in time so you can jump to specific points in the schedule. Rescuing characters gives you more powers, which unlocks progressively more of the manor: as in Luigi’s Mansion, you spend a lot of time retracing old steps for new purposes as the spooky manorspace curves back on itself and discloses hidden corners. But nobody is permanently saved. At the moment of rescue these lost souls get one moment of awareness  – thanking you and imparting their gifts – before they sink back into their old routine. So the schedule only grows more complicated, and doesn’t get ‘cleaned up’ the more characters you save.

The puzzles I play through are relatively simple, but ramp up quickly, and I can see how complicated it may get. There are intricate casual chains and easter eggs which link the same rooms to different points of different characters’ loops. To help you keep track of it all there is a dynamic map with a timeline, showing the positions of everyone you have witnessed at whatever time you select. With sufficient exploration you can scrub backwards and forwards and watch the entire clockwork of the mansion in motion, allowing you to navigate in 4D. But not everything is mapped: at one point I trespass into a room and catch sight of something that Cavalier’s design director Charles Griffiths says will not be repeated. “There are some things that are off the schedule,” he tells me enigmatically.

Griffiths and his team – consisting of his brother James and his fellow Lionhead escapee Tom Lansdale – were heavily inspired by the maverick Japanese studio Love-De-Lic such as UFO and Moon: Remix RPG Adventure. These games, along with Chulip (by a former Love-De-Lic developer, “about a monkey postman trying to get villagers to fall in love”) and Gregory Horror Show, follow a rigid schedule by which their NPCs move around the game world. But while conceptually arresting, Griffiths says they were often frustrating and pernickety in practice. The windows left by their schedules for the successful execution of each puzzle were either too wide – leading to a lot of boredom and waiting around – or too narrow, adding enormous frustration to even simple tasks and causing players to wrongly question whether they really had the correct solution. That is not to mention the sheer weight of information they must remember and record.

The Sexy Brutale is trying to domesticate and smooth down the model; this is not quite the hyper-recondite riddle that Matthew Breit dreamed of. The puzzles lead you through the mansion, introducing it gently, piece by piece. Father Boone automatically remembers door codes and passwords, while the map tracks the NPCs. And the Griffiths have thought carefully about how to space windows of opportunity. Following an NPC called Tiffany, I realized that I had arrived several hours before she was due to die – but there was enough incidental dialogue to keep me happily occupied until her time came.

It felt a little ghoulish to watch her. And there were hints of moral complexity throughout my hour with Sexy Brutale. Since medieval times monks have carried the implication of perversion and secrecy; the voyeur priest, the holy pervert, is an old trope. How closely will Sexy Brutale flirt with it? Just what kind of “mentor” was Father Boone to the Marquis? What is he doing there and why is he the only one exempt from the time loop? Griffiths promises answers, and says they will take around six hours to fully unravel (though Tequila Works’ José Herráez took eight and a half). I’m personally looking forward to doing so, because I’m a sucker for doomed, Shandean eccentrics trapped in the maze of their own obsessions. L’enfer, c’est moi.

The Sexy Brutale will be released as a boxed special edition on April 11, and as a digital download for Xbox One, PS4, and Steam on April 12. Hopefully there will be an April 13.