The incredibly easy elevator pitch for Murder By Numbers is “Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney meets Picross.” Many elements of the experience borrow heavily from the iconic Capcom murder-mystery series, from the sharp anime-style character artwork to the murder-solving shenanigans and even the identical sound effects that sputter out whenever dialogue boxes fill in with text. Of course, instead of constantly yelling “Objection!” you’re solving Picross logic puzzles that reveal images and clues to help your detective work.
Look, I’ll be real here. I’m pretty freaking awful at Picross. I’ve appreciated the sudoku-style math puzzlers for a while, and I’ve even tried jumping into the recent anime-inspired spinoffs like Kemono Friends Picross, but my five brain cells simply aren’t much use for grid-based maths puzzles. I often find myself slowly clawing my way through a handful of missions in a Picross game before I give up and put it down permanently, either due to the frustrating repetition or the mind-boggling difficulty. Murder By Numbers fixes both these problems, though. Not only has this been the most Picross I’ve easily ever played, but it’s also the most fun I’ve ever had playing it.
The biggest thing that sets this title apart from the usual crowd of mathematic grid puzzlers is the fact that these puzzles are sprinkled throughout a 15-hour murder mystery visual novel. The story of this game focuses on Honor Mizrahi, a television actress going through a rough patch. On top of dealing with a rough divorce and losing her job, one of her closest friends has just turned up dead. When she meets a mysterious floating robot with a chipper demeanour named SCOUT, she gets to put those television detective skills to the test and solve some real crimes.
Honor is a solid protagonist; headstrong and confident, but sometimes a little too confident. Her dry demeanor pairs perfectly with the adorably oblivious nature of her amnesiac robot companion. Unfortunately, their moments of charm and wit are diamonds in the rough. So much of the dialogue in Murder By Numbers is simply groan-inducing and miserable.
For starters, the game takes place in Los Angeles in the 1990s. I don’t know this because of a title card or a date on an in-game calendar, but because every fifth line of dialogue is a forced and incredibly awkward reference to some kind of archaic pop culture entity. It’s hard to get immersed and invested in the fictional world of the game when I’m being ripped out every minute by talk of Jeffrey Dahmer, Casablanca, Wrestlemania and more. One of the characters raves about how her fashion is all the rage in the 90s, which probably isn’t how someone currently living in the 90s would actually talk. It’s like the generic decade songs from BoJack Horseman.
The other issue is that, for a good chunk of the game, most of your supporting cast consists of absolute dicks. Honor’s co-star Becky is a spoiled and conceited Hollywood brat, her ex-husband Ryan is a manipulative douchebag, and her out-of-touch mother cares more about retired television stars than her daughter. People are putting Honor down at almost every turn, and while these negative entities help to contrast with the unrelenting optimism of characters like SCOUT or her flamboyant best friend KC, it’s hard to stomach headstrong bullies and forced 90s references all at once.
These elements of the writing also serve to contrast awkwardly with the bright and vivid art style of the game, which boasts gorgeous background art and consistently wild and memorable character design. It also sounds right on the money, as we come back to the Phoenix Wright comparisons. There’s actually veteran talent from Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney that worked on the game in the form of one Masakazu Sugimori, the legendary composer behind the original game, as well as Viewtiful Joe and Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective. Sugimori develops a collection of addictive, bubbly and energetic tracks that dug their way into my head and never let go. While many songs in the soundtrack craft their own identity, a few borrow moods and melodies from the classic Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney soundtrack, and those familiar sounds are sure to please fans.
Apart from being a vehicle for some of the funniest and most charming dialogue in the game, SCOUT is also the reason you’ll be doing so much Picross through the game. As you investigate crime scenes and look for objects, he’ll perform scans and, upon discovering a potentially useful item, will need to visually decode it by solving a Picross puzzle. These puzzles end up forming a pixelized silhouette of the object in question, with some puzzles being small and simple while others are much larger and more detailed.
I would probably have given up after the third puzzle, had it not been for the incredibly accommodating difficulty options in the game. A hint system shows you which rows should be tackled next, while the Easy mode also automatically marks finished rows or columns and can even instantly correct you if you incorrectly mark a square. I bounced back and forth between Easy and Normal pretty frequently, as sometimes I would want a proper challenge and other times I would end up wanting a mild head-scratcher that didn’t keep me too long from pressing story revelations.
If you’re expecting true investigate action and mystery-solving along the lines of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, don’t. The crime solving in this game is much more hands off, as you’ll simply be talking to characters and presenting very obvious clues now and then in order to progress the story. Most of your big thinking will be applied to the various puzzles in the game, including optional unlockable puzzles that explore some of SCOUT’s lost memories and some timed network hacking puzzles that put pressure on you regardless of your Picross skill. It’s a shame that the game never tested my investigation skills much, but the overarching mystery was still kept me motivated to see it through.