A detective, a robot, and a drag queen walk into a bar. That’s not the start of a joke, it’s an actual level in Murder by Numbers, a charming visual novel/mystery-puzzler that’s chock-full of charismatic characters and colorful locations. It may land just shy of reaching the admittedly high bars set by its inspirations, but I still had a great time solving this series of ‘90s-style whodunnits.
Screenshots from Murder by Numbers:
Murder by Numbers’ premise can be quickly summed up as “Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney mixed with Picross,” and if you’re the kind of person who read that and immediately let out a thirsty “Ooo,” then chances are you can probably just stop reading now and buy this game. It accomplishes that simple brief with flying colors, to the point where I can easily recommend it for either of its parts, let alone the sum of them together.
Rise Like a Phoenix
You play as Honor, a TV actress unexpectedly thrust into life as a detective, accompanied by an adorable, scan-happy robot named SCOUT. Honor is an excellent protagonist: smart as a whip but a touch too overzealous for her own good. Watching her grow into a more confident person and adapt to an unexpected new profession as she helps solve a series of murders is genuinely rewarding. Meanwhile, the way in which SCOUT’s strange story unfurls is a little more hamfisted (it is a robot nonchalantly flying around Hollywood, after all), but their peppy and endearingly naive demeanor brings vital levity to some otherwise heavy scenarios.
All of Murder by Numbers is set during the ‘90s, and developer Mediatonic has done a fantastic job of capturing and then intentionally exaggerating the iconic look and feel of that decade. Neon colors and wild geometric patterns brighten every area you visit, even defining the style of its UI and menus. Be it a TV set, a fancy award show, or just Honor’s messy apartment, every location backdrop feels distinct and lively – despite actually being conspicuously devoid of any characters who aren’t taking part in the foreground conversation.
Thankfully, the characters you interact with are also beaming with personality. Most of them – and there are quite a few – are dressed like they could be walking down a Fashion Week runway that same day, and I don’t think I saw a single character I didn’t love the look of. The character designs, both visually and how the roles they play are weaved into the story of each case to guide you along or throw you off the scent, are top notch.
That said, Murder by Numbers does make the somewhat tiring decision to have a majority of the people you interact with be strangely agitating. I know you’re investigating a murder, but so many of your conversations will either be angry, impatient, or flippant, often making SCOUT’s charming jokes an oasis of optimism in a dessert of negativity. There are certainly pleasant and empowering moments, but like in life, you gotta go through the lows before you make it to the highs.
Overcoming life’s lows is a running theme of the overall plot, a story that’s more mature than the generally lighthearted Phoenix Wright games. We join Honor at what is essentially the darkest point of her life and watch as she struggles to find her footing again – dealing with a shitty ex-husband, gaining confidence in a new job, and unpacking lots of well-traveled baggage. The smaller stories that make up each of Murder by Numbers’ four cases follow similar themes, intertwining with Honor’s journey while being independently entertaining (if somewhat predictable) mysteries to guess at as you interview suspects and gather evidence.
While the Phoenix Wright DNA is undeniably clear here, there’s certainly a lot less of its actual active crime-solving. The story is more on rails in Murder by Numbers, and your job is mostly to find evidence and show it to the right person to move that train along. It’s still fun, but you won’t be given those high-stakes opportunities to yell “OBJECTION!” in the same satisfying way, making most of the big revelations feel like the script’s instead of your own.
Instead of cleverly connecting evidence, you’ll be doing some quite literal puzzle-solving in the form of Picross challenges. SCOUT will occasionally be given the option to scan for clues, which is a fairly uninteresting task that puts an ugly green filter over a location’s otherwise lovely backdrop and has you hunt for an arbitrary spot where your cross hair turns red. It’s a boring but mercifully short process, and finding something launches you into a Picross puzzle where the real fun begins.
Full disclosure: I flippin’ love Picross, and this is some good Picross. If you’re unaware, Picross is a visual puzzle in the same realm as Sudoku – you are given a grid with numbers on each line and have to use those numbers to fill in the grid and reveal an image – in this case, a piece of evidence SCOUT is scanning. That “scanning” flavor is really just an excuse to shoehorn in these puzzles, but it’s a cute excuse all the same.
While Murder by Numbers is missing a couple of the desirable features I’ve come to rely on from developer Jupiter’s best-in-class Picross S series (small things, like a timer or a way to easily count squares), it’s the closest competitor that I’ve played in terms of polish. It does a decent job of teaching newcomers as well, with plenty of helpful hint systems if you’re more interested in the story and want to breeze past the puzzles.
However, one area it absolutely surpasses Jupiter is music. The songs here are fantastic and varied enough to keep me listening for a long time – by contrast, I rarely play Jupiter’s Picross games without unplugging my headphones and listening to Spotify instead. The best way I can describe Murder by Numbers’ bubbly soundtrack is that anyone who unironically loved the Sugar Rush theme song from Wreck-It Ralph will likely be obsessed. I certainly am.
You’ll be listening to these songs a lot too, as there are dozens and dozens of puzzles to solve spread across the four cases and beyond – it took me about 15 hours to beat the story, though a few of those were spent doing optional puzzles as well. After an easier introduction, their difficulty stays in roughly the same neighborhood throughout too. Its 10×10 to 15×15 grid size range is the perfect sweet spot for providing puzzles that were big enough to make me think without ever threatening to stop me dead in my tracks when I was eager to continue the story.
On the flip side, if I just wanted to solve some Picross puzzles, progressing through the cases unlocks loads of optional ones in the main menu. I’d often dip into these when I needed a break from the dialogue, which made for a welcome retreat. However, unlocking them is strangely tied to a “score” for each case puzzle, which is basically determined by whether or not you use hints. I wish I could revisit specific case puzzles after finishing that case, or see any I may have missed within it, because otherwise unlocking the last of the optional puzzles means annoyingly replaying the entirety of that case.