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Murder by Numbers review: a visual novel/puzzler hybrid with heart

By Jon Bailes. Posted

What do you get if you cross Phoenix Wright and Picross? A puzzling crime? A Pi-cross examination? Well, no. You get a visual novel about solving crimes that’s interspersed with number puzzles. And it works. Sort of.

As a visual novel, Murder by Numbers has an easy, cheesy appeal. Protagonist Honor is fired from her acting role on a 1990s network detective show, only to get drawn into real murder investigations with her robot buddy, SCOUT. It’s a premise that smartly establishes the glossy irreverence of budget Hollywood then extends it into the game. Honor’s cases recreate cheap TV tropes of shifty suspects, contrived plot twists, mild peril, and corny jokes, soaked in period styling and LA sunshine.

At first, it relies too heavily on stereotypes for its characters – dumb blonde starlet, camp make-up artist, dumb security guard – but many of them later reveal hidden depths. In fact, it’s surprising where Murder by Numbers goes with its themes of manipulative ex-husbands and queer identities. It’s rarely subtle, but it works to make diversity feel refreshingly ordinary.

It’s especially welcome since the actual detective work is fairly thin. During a case, you can converse with persons of interest and scan scenes for evidence, which you then reveal to suspects to try and catch them in contradictions. In practice, it’s a case of methodically exhausting the small number of variables in play at any moment. Scan until there’s nothing left to find, trigger all dialogue options, and show new evidence to each character until something changes.

There’s not much in the way of animation, but the character designs are generally excellent.

Except, whenever SCOUT scans a clue, you have to solve a Picross puzzle before he can identify it. As always with Picross, it’s simple to pick up, as you work out which squares on a grid must be filled in based on numerical clues. But larger grids, up to 15×15 squares, mount a solid challenge. Occasionally, a hacking minigame has you complete smaller puzzles to a time limit, but otherwise, it’s Picross as usual. Learn a few techniques, and it settles into a taxing but relaxing rhythm.

The question is whether the two game styles gel – they do and they don’t. On one hand, the process of elimination in Picross creates a parallel with detective work, giving you some deductive reasoning to do with regular tangible results. But when larger grids can take 15 minutes or more to finish, it breaks the plot’s momentum, and you might resent the frequent interruptions as you reach the climax of a case. It’s like reading a crime novel where every other page is a crossword.

Still, because the plots and characters are bold and clear, you can pick up the threads again quickly enough, and while there are too many big puzzles, each sparks an engaging challenge. Yes, the pace stutters and the two main elements clash, but Murder by Numbers has enough heart and style that it’s hard to raise an objection.

Picross puzzles provide the meet of Murder By Numbers' challenge, and they're as absorbing as always.

Highlight

Murder by Numbers’ soundtrack enlists the talents of Phoenix Wright composer Masakazu Sugimori, whose jazz-pop earworms perfectly fit your crime scene investigations. The upbeat title song sets a cheery tone, but it’s the lounge muzak that loops around behind the Picross puzzles that’s most effective, as you tap along to its addictive melodies.

Verdict

An awkward blend held together by strong writing and the evergreen power of Picross.

70%

Genre: Visual novel/puzzle | Format: Switch (tested)/PC | Developer: Mediatonic | Publisher: The Irregular Corporation | Price: £11.99 | Release: Out now

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