Mediatonic’s Murder by Numbers is here and, well, it’s something. I mean that in a mostly positive way. It’s a mash-up of two sorts of gameplay that you might not thing could work together, but do. Players follow Honor Mizrahi, an actress who plays a detective, as she works alongside an amnesiac robot named SCOUT to solve various real-world murders that keep happening around the people she knows and loves. How does she solve them? By having SCOUT analyze pieces of potential evidence with Jupiter-style Picross nonograms.
Murder by Numbers attempts a rather even balance of both elements. In each of its four cases, Honor and SCOUT end up being in the right place at the right time to aid in investigating untimely deaths. These are broken up into investigation and interrogation segments. When investigating, SCOUT looks around a room for things that are suspicious. When he finds something out of place, a nonogram comes up to solve. Doing so provides Honor with a piece of evidence she can use when interviewing people connected to the current case, which are presented in an Ace Attorney sort of fashion. (Adding to the Phoenix Wright allusion is a Masakazu Sugimori soundtrack. It fits well with the 90s Hollywood vibe.)
While all of this works, there’s a downside to treading this sort of line. While the Murder by Numbers nonograms eventually become larger and more complex as Honor and SCOUT take more cases, the mysteries themselves are rather clearly telegraphed. The “villain” is rather obvious in every case. In the first, it was especially frustrating to have the option for the right answer to be in front of you, but not be able to actually pick it and pick the correct suspect.
Not to mention the nonograms themselves suffer a bit for the sake of convenience and to serve a purpose within the story. Let’s use Jupiter’s Picross series as an example. As you chip away at every image, the process is rather logical. The developer is excellent at crafting puzzles where the final picture starts to come into view even when colors and animations aren’t involved. This doesn’t happen in Murder by Numbers. It is very rare to be able to discern what an item is as you fill in the boxes. Hell, there were a lot of times when I solved it, was rewarded with the actual pixel art and an explanation of what it was supposed to be, and I was legitimately surprised at the result.
Murder by Numbers also lacks the difficulty options that make Jupiter’s Picross entries so satisfying. You have two levels to choose from: easy and normal. In easy, the game will alert you if you fill in an incorrect box and it will automatically complete a row once you have marked all of the filled in boxes. But there are no penalties. Your score isn’t reduced for incorrectly filling in a box, so someone on easy could completely fill in every one to swiftly finish an image with no consequences and enjoy the story. On normal, you don’t get incorrect mark notices or rows automatically completed. I didn’t even realize that there are options for using hints, which can reduce your score, until I began playing around with options in the third case. There are puzzles that are timed and more challenging, but they are fleeting and tend to involve multiple 5×5 grids that pose no challenge.
As a positive, Murder by Numbers does scale well. (It seems like this is one cue from games like Jupiter Picross titles that was very much taken to heart.) Its puzzles start incredibly small, with 5×5 grids, then end up reaching 10×10 and 15×15 sizes by the time the first case is over and the second begins. There’ll even be some unusual grid sizes in later cases, to cover different sorts of evidence. Also, by case three and beyond, you’ll have more challenges where you have to really think about where boxes could be filled.
Though the puzzles might not always satisfy, Murder by Numbers’ story is delightful. It is often very obviously telegraphed, but it is fun. SCOUT is a joy. Honor is clever and in situations where you can’t help but root for her. Even the case files that involve delicate situations, such as the third case that involves a murder that could have been considered a hate crime and has some drag queens as suspect, were handled more tactfully than I expected. It’s easy to become invested, which provides ample motivation to complete its puzzles.
Murder by Numbers combines two sorts of gameplay that work well together. After all, you use clues to solve nonograms. Evidence provides support to solve cases. The story may not have many twists or hide its truths particularly well, but it is compelling enough to urge people through each puzzle. It’s an enjoyable affair that will leave you rooting for Honor and SCOUT the whole time.
Murder by Numbers is available for the Nintendo Switch. It will come to the PC on March 6, 2020.