Murder by Numbers — Killing me softly with picross

When it comes to logic puzzles, picross is king. Don’t talk to me about sudoku or crossword. Rubik’s cube? Nuh-uh. This is a nonogram only household. It combines the spacial awareness of sudoku with a prize of having a nice picture at the end. What it didn’t have was murder mystery — which is something Mediatonic is bringing to the table with their newest creation, Murder by Numbers.

Picross the line

Murder by Numbers takes the player along for the story of Honor Mizhari, an actress for a crime drama, who ends up having to figure out a murder mystery for real after some sudden changes in her life. (I’m trying my best not to spoil anything). Thankfully, other than years of experience in acting as a detective, she also has a new partner to help her on her way.

Murder by Numbers - Honor and SCOUT talk with K. C.
It’s important to keep your options open

And it’s no ordinary partner — considering that the game takes place in 1996 a robot is quite unusual. SCOUT is… well, other than a robot, they don’t know much about themselves. Thankfully they are good at finding clues through picross, and who knows, maybe it will bring them closer to finding out the truth about themselves.

The game in itself is a visual novel — much akin to the Phoenix Wright series — with picross (explained in-game as video recognition by SCOUT) breaking up the investigation. The player uncovers the clues and then uses them to investigate and present them to characters to further the story.

Nineties running wild

The first thing welcoming us into the game is a wonderfully made anime intro — something I think more games should implement. It introduces us to the cast that was actually designed by Hato Moa, the creator of Hatoful Boyfriend that I absolutely loved. And in-game the characters are looking great as well — it is clear that a lot of care has been put into the art style.

Murder by Numbers - K. C., one of the main cast
K. C. is the gay best friend of Honor – an obvious cliche but it’s 1996, I’ll let it slide

That is also noticed when looking beyond Honor and others. The backgrounds are all meticulously crafted and filled with details. During the picross parts the main part is obviously just white and black squares, but the finished pictures, while obviously of low aspect, are still readable as what they are supposed to be.

Another notable name is Masakazu Sugimori — a composer most known for Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Ghost Trick and Viewtiful Joe, that also made the soundtrack to Murder by Numbers. The tracks give off that jazzy feel, picking up when the story does as well — the loungeiness is something of a calling card for Sugimori.

Fill in the blanks squares

Picross is an important piece of the puzzle as to why Murder by Numbers works. At this stage, a Visual Novel type of game needs something extra to breakthrough. For some it’s amazing art, for others great storytelling — here the griddles (not a great name but I’m running out of synonyms for picross) add an extra level of involvement. The fact that I have to spend a few minutes to figure out that what I’m looking at is a fake ID makes the player connect more with SCOUT and Honor.

Murder by Numbers - A semi-filled picross
It’s a picross, not much to say here

Thankfully for some it’s not just nonograms, as between those the protagonists go around to talk to people and present them with evidence. The whole game feels like a procedural TV drama, even more so thanks to the fact that it is split into four cases.

Something that the creators really managed to nail is the cast — they are incredibly colorful, sassy, and the writing is fantastic. The devs had me eating from their hand — I despised the characters they wanted me to hate and enjoyed the characters they made fun. And I genuinely couldn’t tell who was guilty at a point or two, as every suspect had a sensible motive.

And as murders are the main ‘motive’, if you can call it that, they are realized well. All of the clues that the players uncover relate to the case in one way or another, and even if there are some red herrings there’s a lot of squares to paint in. And then discover.

Honor and SCOUT question a character
Sadly, Honor does not shout TAKE THAT! while presenting evidence.

Murder by Numbers is an amazing piece of work. It kept me interested enough to go back, held me long enough to get some picrossing done, and gave me some laughs — all in a perfect, portable package. (since I was playing on a Nintendo Switch) I can’t wait for more adventures with Honor and SCOUT.

Murder by Numbers is available on Nintendo Switch, Steam and GOG.

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