Murder By Numbers (Review)

What do you get when you combine the investigation style gameplay of the Ace Attorney series with the mind bending puzzles of the popular picross games? The answer is Murder By Numbers. This murder mystery visual novel game created by Mediatonic had all the hooks for me when it was announced back in December. The pop art style visuals combined with the music from Capcom and Ace Attorney veteran Masakazu Sugimori pushed all the right buttons and it was clear to see that this game would take inspiration from the Ace Attorney franchise which I am a big fan of.  

However, I think it’s wrong to necessarily pigeon-hole Murder By Numbers as an Ace Attorney-like. Although it takes clear inspiration from the spiky haired lawyer, it takes that inspiration and works to carve it’s own niche.  

Just when Honor thought her day couldn’t get any stranger.

Set in the mid 90’s, you play as Honor Mizrahi an actress on a popular show called “Murder Miss Terri.” Very quickly into the game however, she’s fired from the show under strange circumstances and even sooner after that her boss is found murdered in his office and in what seems to be a  sequence of increasingly bizarre events she meets a sentient robot called “SCOUT” who has amnesia and the two decide to partner up to solve the crime.  

SCOUT assists Honor by scanning the environment for clues and this is something very similar to the Ace Attorney series and other games like Danganronpa. Except here, when you find a clue, Scout will have to analyse it even further and that’s where the Picross elements come in. The game features a variety of different Picross puzzles and definitely scales them by progression. What starts off in the early game as simple 5×5 puzzles soon extend to 15×15. The game does a good job of easing you in and even features a nice hints system which allows blocks at random to be filled in. Using hints, will affect your end of case score and make it harder for you to unlock hidden puzzles which upon solving allow you to view additional cutscenes which flesh out some of the mysteries in SCOUTS past.  

As a complete Picross newbie, I grew to really enjoy these challenging puzzles

As someone who was a complete newbie to Picross, I found myself being quite lost at first, but the game really does start simple and progress from there. Over the course of my playtime I found myself enjoying the puzzles, although I found some of them to end up taking me way too much time. I’d often spend hours and hours on puzzles only to come back to the investigation to find I’d kinda forgotten what it was I was investigating in the first place.  

The time spent solving Picross puzzles does mean that the game misses out on the ability to have epic courtroom battles in the vein of Phoenix Wright. The courtroom exchanges and opportunity to solve logic puzzles in those games in many ways are the best part and unfortunately Murder By Numbers doesn’t have those so much. It does have more abridged parts where the game asks you to logically piece together two pieces of evidence to draw conclusions and these were fine when they would appear, but there was no real downside to making a wrong call so you’re free to just click on any option and not rewarded for making a correct deduction.  

Presenting evidence to characters will open up more dialogue options and let the story progress.

One key area where Murder By Numbers shines is in the presentation, especially the art style by Hato Moa. Every character has an over the top wardrobe that looks like it’s just came straight out of 90’s shows like Saved By the Bell and a pop art visual design that makes them pop on screen. The use of colours across the entire game works really well even on the UI. The music composed by Masakazu Sugimori is also great in particular the tracks that play during the Picross puzzles are of note and were playing over and over in my head well after a puzzle was done.  

Most of all, visual novels like this live and die on their characters and story and I’m happy to say that Murder By Numbers has great diverse characters in spades. With a great variety of characters in terms of design, race and nationality it is able to touch on more sensitive topics that other games in the genre wouldn’t be able to like sexuality and gender. Honor Mizrahi herself is a woman of colour which is quite interesting as you don’t get many of those as protagonists in games and the game doesn’t so much use these things as tokens and the inclusivity doesn’t effect the story in any kind of pandering way. Just honest upfront depictions of varied characters.  

Even more traditional character archetypes have a particular visual flair in Murder By Numbers.

Murder By Numbers is a great detecitve visual novel that wears it’s inspirations proudly on it’s sleeve but doesn’t lean on them. It has enough that sets it apart from the Ace Attorney series that you should come in expecting a 1 for 1 experience. The more mature setting, art style and mind bending Picross puzzles are all great additions that give this game the identity it has and although I think the detective parts of the game are somewhat lacking and I would love overly dramatic court battles, but, the story of Honor, SCOUT and the gang is so great and it makes the game worth playing for that alone.  

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