We’re solving puzzles like it’s 1999
“Do you like Picross? Do you like Phoenix Wright? Buy this game immediately!”
…or so the Steam reviews of Murder by Numbers seem to echo. Developed by Mediatonic (Hatoful Boyfriend) with music by famed composer Masakazu Sugimori (Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Ghost Trick, and Viewtiful Joe), the game certainly grabbed my attention from the word “go.” But how was it? Well, after playing it for 24 hours, I can safely say that it’s definitely worth the attention and lives up to the hype it’s receiving, but keep that one-liner review in mind — it’s gonna ring more true than anyone could realize.
Murder By Numbers starts off with actress Honor Mizrahi getting suddenly and unceremoniously fired from her show, Murder Miss Terri. Why? Who knows — and by her friend, of all people! It seems it’s curtains for Honor and her detective days… except for that, moments later, her friend is murdered, and she’s a suspect! Luckily SCOUT, the floating computer with some serious sleuthing skills, wanders into her life and helps prove her innocence. Teaming up, they decide to track down the killer — with SCOUT’s investigative abilities and Honor’s persistent nature, the two of them uncover the truth behind the murder of Honor’s friend… and a whole lot more.
Of course, SCOUT didn’t just appear to Honor at random — he’d seen her TV show and assumed she was a detective, and he needed answers. See, he woke up in a garbage dump with almost no memory of his life prior. Why was he tossed out like yesterday’s jam, and who could have done this to him? Not knowing where else to turn, he sought out Honor’s help; despite her initial protests, she ultimately decided they made a pretty good team and vowed to help her floating friend find answers.
As the cases roll in, Honor barely seems to miss her former life on set, trading her acting career for detective digs. Of course, she’s not official yet — in fact, she seems to only get roped into cases that somehow involve her, either directly or through friends. But that doesn’t stop the pair from being a veritable thorn in the side of the grumpy Detective Cross of the LAPD; together, the trio end up doing just as much harm as good when they jump to conclusions before thinking things through. Still, they manage to get the job done at the end of the day, and, almost like a good sitcom, the bad guys get cuffed and the good guys are well chuffed (even the bad sitcom writing is there!).
Of course, it isn’t lost on anyone that it seems pretty suspicious that SCOUT and Honor keep getting randomly involved in these cases. Could it be that they’re all connected somehow? Maybe the answers SCOUT is seeking are at the bottom of all of this? Only one way to find out!
The mechanics of Murder By Numbers are charming on paper and either equally charming or equally mind-numbing in practice, depending on how much you love picross. See, SCOUT is a computer, right? So he doesn’t actually “see” things, rather he scans, or detects them. Murder By Numbers delightfully mimics this detection process via picross puzzles — instead of an instantly recognizable tampon, for example (the first puzzle), you’ll have to input each pixel in its rightful place until an image forms so SCOUT can tell what the object is. For the mechanic to feed into the storyline and vice versa like this is utter perfection and I was thoroughly delighted…
…until I had to play SO. MANY. PICROSS. PUZZLES. to get through the game. I swear I should have counted. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some picross, but with only two puzzle types throughout the entire game, and puzzles blocking progression left and right, I spent half my time feeling pretty accomplished when I guessed a pixel correctly and the other half of the time wanting to smash my laptop out of rage. I had picross-induced headaches staring at the screen for so long, and the puzzles dragged on for ages to the point where I’d kinda forget where I was in the storyline.
Gameplay generally featured SCOUT… well, scouting… for clues by scanning a room (i.e., moving the mouse over the backgrounds) until something beeped, then the puzzle would start. Depending on the difficulty, puzzles could take up to an hour without hints (or maybe I suck at picross?); with hints, that time decreases, and with assistance — either by having the game input five random squares or showing errors — the puzzle could be completed in mere minutes. Of course, using ANY assistance whatsoever drops your score, which, if you’re trying to unlock bonus content later, is simply not an option. What’s frustrating to me was that it didn’t matter if you used assistance once or used it to clear the puzzle automatically, your score was the same at the end, so if you’re going to just use it one time, might as well use it to solve it completely just so you can move on with your life.
When the puzzles were introduced in that manner, it made sense, and the flow moved naturally — SCOUT would scan, Honor would deduct, and dialogue would ensue. It was more than once, however, when the puzzles seemed to be thrown in randomly, like a progress block for no reason. At one point, a character asked me to find her toolbox in Honor’s apartment, despite the fact that this person had been hanging out there for… days? And had been using them the whole time. I was something like 20 hours in at that point already, and an extra puzzle thrown in a seemingly arbitrary fashion made me groan in frustration; thank God for that auto-solve feature, because I am not sure if I would have survived without it.
Of course, Murder By Numbers isn’t just picross — it’s also a detective game. Where SCOUT’s mechanic was puzzles, Honor was more about dialogue. Using the clues SCOUT uncovered, Honor would show persons of interest the items found during picross puzzles, asking questions and getting leads — just like Phoenix Wright. Unlike Phoenix Wright, there’s no courtroom section, so Honor’s only in it on the investigative side; still, there’s lots of work to be done on this end with plenty of colorful characters to interview. Despite the fact there’s no way to lose (the game forces you to choose the right answer eventually), it’s still feels great when you choose the right answer anyway.
As much as I really loved the storyline, I didn’t feel like there was enough of it; additionally, the first two cases were pretty easy “whodunits,” and diehard fans of the Phoenix Wright franchise should be able to guess the third case easily as well. Nonetheless, I can confidently say that the fourth case wraps up everything — and I do mean everything — very, very nicely, and the writing was solid throughout. It’s just unfortunate that it felt like I was wading neck deep through puzzles to get a morsel of wonderfully written dialog. I couldn’t help but feel like SCOUT was doing all the heavy lifting in this outfit, and Honor was just along for the ride to help him navigate through the human side of things.
If I’ve been overtly critical of Murder By Numbers, let me tell you, that ends here; everything else — EVERYTHING ELSE — was perfect. The art style, although it had to grow on me, was so fun, and the ’90s setting was well-utilized. The sound effects of the typing mechanism are the same sound effects used in Phoenix Wright, so that was instantly fun. The menus are easy to navigate, and there’s little backtracking involved when it comes to investigating. The writing is honestly stellar — I’d die for SCOUT tbh — and the characters were so well-defined I wanted some of them to be my friends (K.C., call me, let’s have a wine night). There’s also an entire level with LGBT themes, which touches lightly on some issues they face in a positive, informative way.
I’ve saved the best for last — the music. Oh GOD the music. I am genuinely never going to get the music out of my head and I’m 100% okay with that; in fact, the music is SO GOOD that I would purposefully look for more puzzles just to listen to the songs. Sure, I’d hate myself a little for getting into yet another puzzle, but the Murder By Numbers soundtrack is painfully catchy and almost criminally upbeat. It’s so wonderfully similar to Phoenix Wright while being its very own thing. I sincerely miss playing Murder By Numbers specifically for the soundtrack, and it really is an effort to force myself not to play the bonus content just to hear the music again.
“Do you like Picross? Do you like Phoenix Wright? Buy this game immediately!”
I do like picross, and I LOVE Phoenix Wright; to be honest, these three sentences would have sold me on their own. In truth, I can’t fault Murder By Numbers for having so many picross puzzles — in fact, it was a fantastic example of a perfect execution of a core mechanic. I just wish there had been a little more puzzle diversity or more weight on Honor’s part of the game, as that extra yard would have taken it to the next level. Regardless, Murder By Numbers is absolutely solid, and I don’t regret a second spent on it.
Murder By Numbers is definitely your game if you love picross and Phoenix Wright — heavy emphasis on that order. With a seemingly unending amount of picross puzzles at your disposal and plenty of murders to solve, Murder By Numbers accomplishes everything it sets out to do (and then some). With delightful characters woven through intricate storylines that stay interesting, Murder By Numbers will keep you clicking pixels until your eyes bleed to figure out what happened next. Also, the soundtrack is going to live rent-free in your brain for the rest of your life and you’re going to be totally happy with that. If you’ve been dying to get your hands on more well-written detective content, this is absolutely your game, and, from what I can glean, best experienced on Steam. Be sure to give Murder By Numbers a shot — just remember that the auto-solve button is your best friend!
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Switch, PC (reviewed); Publisher: The Irregular Corporation; Developer: Mediatonic; Players: 1; Released: March 6, 2020; MSRP: $14.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a copy of Murder By Numbers given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.