Murder by Numbers has just about everything you’d expect from an interactive crime drama: surprise twists, complex motives, brutal murders, and lots of clues to uncover. In some ways, it’s straightforward, a story that’s both tense and serious, but also sweet and lighthearted in the mold of the Phoenix Wright series. But there’s one element of Murder by Numbers that makes it entirely unique: you solve the crimes by figuring out complicated number puzzles. The game is essentially what would happen if you mashed the charm and style of Ace Attorney with Nintendo’s venerable puzzle series Picross. Somehow, it works.
The experience is split into two parts. First, there’s the story, which plays out a bit like a visual novel. You play as Honor Mizrahi, who starts out the game as an actress playing a detective on TV (her show is called Murder: Miss Terri), before eventually becoming an actual detective who solves murders with the help of a flying robot named Scout. The story is goofy, but also has a warmth and earnestness to it that makes it work. As Honor keeps getting herself pulled into solving dark and grisly murders, you’re also constantly sucked into the lives of her friends and family, from her overbearing mother to her obnoxious ex-husband. Scout is particularly lovable, an amnesiac machine slowly learning to understand humans, and its own past. Unravelling Scout and Honor’s backstories is extremely satisfying.
The writing is smart and witty, brought to life by great comic book-style visuals and wonderful character designs. (This might be the best-dressed cast in video games.) There’s even a catchy, upbeat soundtrack courtesy Phoenix Wright composer Masakazu Sugimori. But the story and characters are only part of the experience. The rest is filled with puzzles.
If you’ve never played Picross, think of it kind of like sudoku, but the goal is to create an image. Just like in sudoku, you’re presented with a grid, but here there are numbers listed along each side, like this:
The goal is to figure out how to correctly fill in the required number of squares in each row. If you get it right, you’ll end up with a low-fi pixel art drawing that kind of looks like an actual object. It can feel a little like slowly chipping away at a block of marble to find the statue hidden underneath. Things start out simple, but eventually the game ramps up to gigantic 15 by 15 grids that can take quite a while to finish. Luckily, there’s a forgiving hint system if you do get stuck.
If that previous paragraph bored you, I have some bad news: you can’t get away from the Picross puzzles in Murder by Numbers. The brainteasers aren’t something you can skip over so you can just enjoy the story. They’re everywhere. Controlling the robot Scout, you’re constantly scanning crime scenes in search of clues. Every time you find one, you’re sent into a puzzle. Occasionally, Scout will also hack into computers and you’ll have to solve a series of basic puzzles very quickly. You spend more time fussing with numbers than doing anything else in the game.
For a certain type of player, this is an ideal scenario. The combination doesn’t make a whole lot of sense narratively, but as a fan of both Phoenix Wright and Picross, the experience felt custom-designed for me. But the shifts can be jarring. It’s always odd to be pulled out of a tense situation to spend 20 minutes ticking boxes in a giant grid. If you’re not really into the puzzles, it’s probably not worth the effort, as good as the story is. But if you’re smack in the middle of the venn diagram of “people who love numbers” and “people who want to solve fantastical anime murders” there’s really nothing else like Murder by Numbers.
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