Murder by Numbers Review: A Picross Deluge

Murder by Numbers has a fun cast and pleasingly twisty plot, but it’s bogged down by too many puzzles.

Murder by Numbers’ protagonist, TV actor Honor Mizrahi, isn’t having a great day. She’s been fired, her now-ex coworker is grumpy and unsympathetic, and her boss has been killed in mysterious circumstances. There is a silver lining, though. Their name is SCOUT, and they’re an adorable, amnesiac flying robot.

SCOUT’s sudden appearance in Honor’s life is another mystery to solve, but first she has to weasel her way into the investigation of her late boss’s murder. It’s very standard mystery fare — from the grumpy detective to the clutch of possible suspects each with their own potential motives. Honor begins her investigation, questioning the people around her and, with SCOUT’s help, searching for clues.

SCOUT can scan areas in this hybrid number puzzle game and visual novel, using their radar to pick up clues easily with a loud beep. This is helpful for eliminating any irritating pixel hunting that can stymie investigation sequences in similar games. Instead, each clue comes in the form of a nonagram, a.k.a. a Picross puzzle, if you’re familiar with the games Nintendo has been publishing since Mario’s Picross on the Game Boy. These gridded riddles require players to fill in the correct squares in a box, according to numbers displayed around its edge. It sounds more complicated than it really is, and usually makes for a soothing distraction.

Get a puzzle right and you’ll reveal a picture. In Murder by Numbers’ case, that’s a pixel art drawing of something relevant to the investigation.

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Picross is a fiddly thing. Given its long history in both paper and digital forms, it’s not surprising that it’s also so compelling. But it can easily become frustrating. It’s easy to make mistakes. It’s less easy to notice until it’s too late — and the whole puzzle is skewed. Murder by Numbers has a few hint systems to help with this, akin to the Picross S games also available on Switch, but anything beyond a small nudge to show where available moves are results in a lower score. Said score unlocks bonus puzzles, which unlock bonus scenes in turn, so more robust help like showing where mistakes are is highly discouraged. Ultimately, sometimes the only way to continue is to start over.

The game also has certain inconsistencies in the puzzle department. It’s supposed to grey out the clues once they’re completed, but didn’t always apply that consistently in my experience. I swear I once got the same puzzle back to back. And there’s simply nothing good about the occasional timed puzzles. Their challenge is way too tight, particularly with the sometimes slippery controls of the Switch. Even though there’s no penalty for failure, going over them again and again until you get lucky is… stressful.

Then there’s how the game gels with its visual novel structure. I must have missed a puzzle somewhere in the third case — something I didn’t realize was possible. That means I never got to see all the bonus scenes anyway, completely invalidating my struggle to avoid hints. I could go back through the act, hunting for the missing side puzzles with the help of SCOUT’s radar, but that seems like a slog. I decided to skip it.

Murder By Numbers Review

No Flow to Go With

All this, combined with the general repetitiveness of Picross, makes the game served best in small doses. But Murder by Numbers has a lot of puzzles. In fact they often slow down the plot of the 90s murder mystery, and completely throw off the pacing. It’s impossible to build tension when any revelation that seems pressing is immediately held back by an hour of puzzling.

This is an extra shame because Murder by Numbers’ plot is a lot of fun. Each of the four main mysteries has all the genre appropriate twists and turns. Meanwhile, showing a suspect just the right bit of evidence to get them to talk is always satisfying. Each case is also loosely tied together by an overarching plot about SCOUT’s origins, and SCOUT is easily the best part of the game. As well as their character arc and plot being compelling, they benefit the most from Murder by Numbers’ limited but effective sprites — their CRT face flicking between just a few endearing expressions. Any time their arms droop forward with a sad little beep, you just know you want to protect them.

The other characters cover a wide spectrum of tropes (and fashion) you might expect from a 90s Hollywood setting: the spoiled white girl star with parent issues, the by-the-books cop with a secret heart of gold, or Honor’s best friend, the gay British makeup artist.

Murder By Numbers Review

Not Quite There

Most of these characters do get some depth as the game progresses, but it feels somewhat overwritten at times, compared to the relative shallowness of the nostalgia trip. The third case, for example, takes place in and around a gay bar and drag club. Characters in these settings often take great pains to explain their identities. To be utterly, completely clear, I’m not saying these characters should not exist. If anything, Murder by Numbers could take more steps toward representation. It’s more that people don’t typically talk about themselves as if they’re reading the opening sentence of a Wikipedia page, making parts of Murder by Numbers‘ dialogue feel unnatural, though well meaning,

This doesn’t just apply to characters’ identities, either. For example, the game is intently aware that Honor breaks all kinds of rules and procedures by inserting herself into each murder investigation. Not to mention she’s pretty rude about her snooping. But instead of hand-waving it away as part of the genre, Murder By Numbers tries hard to justify why she continues to get away with it all. It’s stilted, doesn’t really fit with the over-the-top aesthetic, and does little more than draw attention to the writing problems in the first place.

It’s impossible to finish talking about Murder by Numbers without mentioning the music, though, composed as it is by Masakazu Sugimori of Ace Attorney fame. As you might expect, it’s good. It doesn’t quite have the same range as Ace Attorney, but Murder by Numbers is an evidently smaller project. Most importantly, its catchy-as-hell theme for when you’re play Picross never gets old — no matter how long you get stuck.

It’s still a shame that it’s quite so long, though.

This review was conducted using the Nintendo Switch version, with a code provided by the publisher.