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Whilst That Dreadful Disease forces us all to sing Happy Birthday to ourselves over and over again in the bathroom, I’ve been spending the last few days catching murder suspects by solving numerical puzzles with a robot. No, I haven’t gone completely insane through isolation (yet) – I’ve just been playing Mediatonic’s visual novel puzzler Murder by Numbers. The game is fairly unique in combining numerical grid puzzles known as “Picross” with the bright anime stylings of Hato Moa, creator of another visual novel Hatoful Boyfriend. As a non-Picrosser before this began, the sheer number of puzzles without too much change of pace did get a little tiring. But the lively cast of characters and fantastically upbeat soundtrack courtesy of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney composer Masakazu Sugimori manages to add some much needed sunshine at such a dreary time.
It’s 1996, Los Angeles, and you play as Honor Mizrahi, a TV detective who soon finds herself having to become a real life investigator when someone is murdered on set. She’s joined by SCOUT, a sort of flying robot, who boots up in a nearby rubbish dump, unsure of why he’s been thrown out and what his purpose was beforehand. Seeking answers, he bumps into Honor whilst mistaking her for an actual detective, and so they form an unusual crime-fighting duo throughout four cases featuring different murder victims and locations but a recurring cast of characters.
It’s pretty handy that SCOUT decides to stick around, as it’s through his scanning function that you find objects of interest, which often become useful evidence. In each available location – static 2D backgrounds that you can choose to visit once unlocked from a list of destinations on the map – you normally have two options: “investigate” or “question.” The latter lets you interrogate any characters present and produce any evidence you might have. Choose to investigate the area and the screen will turn Matrix green as you use your robot chum’s viewfinder to scan the room with the mouse. When the cursor turns red, you’ve found something of relevance and by clicking you’ll launch into a Picross puzzle.
There’s a brief tutorial at the start of the game if you, like I, have never played this type of puzzle before. Thankfully the premise is fairly simple: fill in all of a certain number of squares in a grid and a picture will appear. There are numbered clues on the side of each grid to tell you how many squares on that row or column need to be filled in, and with a right-click on a square you can mark a cross to remind yourself it shouldn’t be filled in. Once you complete a picture by filling in all the correct squares, you’ll then be able to see what the object is, be it a screwdriver or a bottle of Sambuca, then add it to your inventory, with the potential of using it as evidence somewhere along the line.
As the game progresses, these grids get a little trickier to solve, either with groups of numbers in one line or more squares to fill in. You can choose at any point between easy and normal difficulty, easy meaning that “hints” are on by default and that completed rows are automatically crossed out, whilst normal mode sees hints having to be toggled on and off. The hints themselves however aren’t that handy in a pickle, as they only highlight which lines you can make a move on. A little more useful is the option to check for errors at any time in the puzzle, and even to fill in a few random squares. What would have been a great help but is sadly missing is an “undo” function to help you retrace which squares you’ve filled in previously to get to the root of a mistake without having to resort to hints at all. Such a feature might rankle Picross purists, but it would definitely have stopped me from straying to the hint option so often.
At the end of each puzzle, you get points depending on how difficult it was and whether you used any hints to complete it (use even one and you won’t get any points in that section – Murder by Numbers is a harsh taskmaster). These points contribute to your detective rank for the case, which starts at F and goes all the way up to A then S. Ultimately I found myself not really minding how many points I got or what rank I was – each rank achieved unlocks another short bonus Picross puzzle, and I had enough of those to get me by in the main game.
There’s something quite satisfying about methodically working your way through the grid in each puzzle and everything fitting together. But there are A LOT of them to solve throughout the four cases, and the gameplay does start to get repetitive fast. Some of the more complex puzzles can take up to ten or fifteen minutes each to complete (at least for a tired brain such as mine), meaning that it’s probably going to take you about twelve to fifteen hours to finish the full game. There is a wrinkle introduced when you have to hack computers – it’s yet again another Picross puzzle, but this time it’s timed and if you fill in a wrong square you lose some of that time. But there’s no real punishment if you fail, you just go back and try again. These quicker bursts of puzzle solving don’t happen often enough to really change up the gameplay pace, however.
How much enjoyment you get out of playing Murder by Numbers probably depends on how much you love completing Picross problems and being constantly thrown into yet another brain-teaser every few minutes. Fans of this type of puzzle may well relish having so many of them to solve, but whilst I certainly did enjoy the slow burn of successfully filling my way through a grid, it felt like at least one more gameplay element was needed to keep things feeling fresh.
Accompanying the action is Sugimori’s delightfully bombastic soundtrack, all catchy synths and bubblegum pop at its finest. It’s a testament to the composer that you’ll hear the game’s five or six short tracks over and over again as you work your way through, but never tire of them. There’s no voice acting, just text dialogue, but there are some excellent sound effects like a “slap” noise when someone is shocked, in keeping with the game’s anime styling.
Moa’s designs add another level of slick style to the presentation. Much like in other visual novels, the 2D characters are superimposed over static backgrounds, but as with the sound, little animations – such as sweat droplets when a character’s caught out – bring them to life. There’s also a great amount of distinguishing detail brightly drawn into everyone no matter how small a part they play, like the red-nosed, doughy parking inspector with a burst shirt button. Moa brings little touches to their appearances that straight away tell you so much about them and who they are. Environments range from the commonplace like a parking lot to the more unusual, such as a drag queen’s dressing room. And as it’s set in LA, naturally there some Hollywood settings like a glitzy award ceremony to attend too.
Alongside this riot of colour, for the most part the dialogue doesn’t disappoint either. There are plenty of jokes and sassy lines to enjoy, many saved for Honor’s gay best friend, make-up and hair “artiste” K.C., who serves up shady put downs like “the real crime are those eyebrows” with cruel regularity. Amidst the whimsical tone, however, the game isn’t afraid to be more mature at points too. I was surprised that halfway through the story the issue of gender identity was thrown into the conversation, as SCOUT, being a robot, is unsure why people keep referring to him as a “he” and what that means. Considering the game’s overall slapstick style, it’s thankfully dealt with in a sweet and thoughtful way – not what I was expecting from a Picross game about murder, but all the better for it.
Perhaps it’s to be expected with this madcap cast, but the story itself does suffer from wild leaps of the imagination. Plot lines tend to jump from one strange conclusion to the next, and after a cursory line or two no one seems that shocked at a flying robot that can talk and solve crime in the 1990s. You are given chances throughout the game to make your own mind up about who’s a prime suspect or what their motive might be through a list of dialogue options. But an incorrect choice just sees SCOUT explain why that doesn’t make sense and you’ll be asked to pick again, so there’s no real feeling that your choices matter too much.
Ultimately, Murder by Numbers feels less like a real detective game and more like a very detailed Picross game with a narrative attached, albeit one with a brilliant soundtrack and vivid graphics. For puzzle enthusiasts this will be probably more than enough, but story fans may wish for a little better balance so that the mystery elements could be given more time and the grid challenges broken up that little bit more. Either way, at least when you’re washing your hands you’ll have some excellent new tunes to hum along to.
Murder by Numbers combines the unlikely trio of maths, melodrama and murder in a stylishly animated equation that is somewhat unbalanced by its repetitive Picross puzzles.