Honor Mizrahi used to play a detective on popular TV series Murder Miss Terri. But when her boss gets murdered, Honor decides to start investigating for real. Accompanied by SCOUT – an intelligent robot who can hunt down clues by solving Picross puzzles – Honor embarks on a new career as an amateur investigator.
It’s quite possible you’ve never wondered what the illegitimate offspring of Phoenix Wright and a Picross game might look like. It had certainly never crossed my mind until a colleague casually mentioned that such a thing existed. And once I knew it was out there, I was intrigued enough to find out more.
Murder By Numbers is a stylish combination of the two genres. The core structure is that of a murder mystery visual novel, with four different cases to solve. In this regard, the game proceeds much like the investigation sections of Phoenix Wright – you search for clues at various different locations, talk to suspects, and try to provoke a reaction by showing them relevant evidence. On top of all this, however, there’s an additional layer – every time you locate a clue, you have to solve a picross puzzle in order to identify what it is.
There’s plenty of content here, and as far as the picross puzzles go, it definitely felt like there was a difficulty curve. Early in the game, I was able to blaze through puzzles, but later on, I was definitely taking longer on each one. That being said, apart from a couple of puzzles right at the end, the game sticks in a 15×15 comfort zone, and I never once felt compelled to use the game’s hint system. Veteran Picrossers might find themselves craving larger grids. There are also a few times where you have to solve a series of timed 5×5 puzzles, with penalties for making a mistake – this is a fun but also stressful gimmick.
When it comes to the picross puzzles, there are a few quality of life issues you need to be aware of. First off, there’s no easy way to reset the grid if you mess up – if you’re lucky, you’ll have a recent enough save that you can reload, but otherwise, you’ll just have to resort to manually erasing the entire grid. Secondly, none of the puzzles from the main story can be replayed individually – you want to do them again you’ll have to dedicate several hours to replaying the relevant case. This might not seem like a big deal, but there are actually two missable puzzles in Case 3 which, if not solved, prevent you from getting the maximum score for that case. That in turn stops you from unlocking some extra puzzles and an additional scene. I missed one of those two puzzles on my playthrough, and by the time I’d realised what happened, it was too late to go back. By that time, I’d already sunk a lot of hours into the game, and didn’t really want to replay an entire case.
If you just want pure puzzling, however, then you might be better off sticking with something like Picross or Pictoquest. This isn’t a game where you can get just get straight to the Picross – it’s inextricably interwoven with the story and plot elements. If you’ve played Phoenix Wright or read a visual novel, you’ll know how this goes – there are a lot of people to talk to, and lots of text to read. Personally, this blended gameplay style is exactly my sort of thing, but it won’t be to everyone’s tastes.
Story and Characters
Murder By Numbers is set in the 1990s, and is meant to be a joyful celebration of nostalgia for that decade. Cases are a blend of glitz, glamour, and classic detective tropes, peopled with an extensive cast of over-the-top characters.
Overall, the plot works well, and I enjoyed meeting all manner of characters, from scientists and police officers to drag queens and TV celebrities. There were characters I genuinely like, and a few I loved to hate – the latter category being most exemplified by Honor’s manipulative and gaslighting ex-husband. As you might expect, however, with so many characters to pack in, we don’t get to spend nearly enough time with all of them.
The fourth and final case also felt a bit weaker than what had come before. This case has the job of both introducing a new murder and suspects, and wrapping up the overarching story. The case felt weaker for trying to fit in so much – by the time we got to the larger story elements, I had somewhat stopped caring about what happened at the very start of the case. It feels like it would have been better to either trim some elements, or split this into two shorter cases.
Visually, Murder By Numbers has an arrestingly bright and colourful aesthetic. Moa of Hatoful Boyfriend fame lends her talents to character design – there are no pigeons to date here, but the eclectic cast is well-served by her designs. The music is similarly upbeat and catchy, although I must admit that I spent so much time with the game that I eventually tired of listening to the soundtrack for the picross puzzles, and instead just switched to whatever was on my Spotify playlist. I did purchase the soundtrack, but more for the included artbook than for the tracks themselves.
I put a lot of hours into Murder By Numbers, and had a lot of fun with its brightly coloured setting and fun Picross puzzles. There’s no doubt that I wrung every last drop of enjoyment out of this title to the point of almost burning out on it, but even so, I wouldn’t be averse to diving into a sequel.