Murder By Numbers is a visual novel meets picross puzzle game with so much character and enthusiasm packed in, it's almost bursting at the seams. With an intriguing, over-the-top story, there are integrated picross puzzles that work to further the narrative and open dialogue options. The visual novel style of storytelling, combined with the challenges of the picross puzzles created a fairly unique experience that I've personally never had before. Buckle up, because you're in for one heck of a ride.
NOTE: As implied by the name, the game centers around the topic of murder. Even with a bright, cartoon-eqsue art style, there are still blatant portrayals of crime scenes, dead bodies, and somewhat heavier content.
Investigate a range of murders across TV studios, glitzy award shows, drag clubs, and more - all set to an energetic soundtrack from famed composer Masakazu Sugimori (Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Ghost Trick and Viewtiful Joe).
Uncover a dark conspiracy by interrogating a wild range of weird and wonderful characters, designed by the incomparable Hato Moa, creator of Hatoful Boyfriend.
You play as Honor Mizrahi, a T.V. actress playing a role on the show Murder Miss Terry. But shortly after you are introduced to your protagonist, bad news falls onto her almost immediately. She is let go from the show by her producer and long time friend of the industry, Blake, who is murdered shortly after! But before the murder, she meets a floating, sentient computer who goes by the name S.C.O.U.T. (like, I said - wild ride). I won't get into much more detail than that, but the story overall revolves around Honor trying to help S.C.O.U.T. figure out who he is, why he was created, with a bit of murder solving along the way.
Now the game itself breaks into two categories: visual novel, and picross. The story is told in a layered, 2D paper-craft art style that felt like it really suited the aesthetic of the type of story being told. Serious and detailed, but still boisterous and full of life. Only a small fraction of the story is told in a narrative capacity, the rest of it being dialogue-driven. Something worth mentioning is that if you are looking for a choice-heavy, option-based visual novel, this is not the ticket for you. Your opportunity to select dialogue choices are somewhat far and few. Anytime I can recall having a choice is usually when you are prompted to use the clues and information you have found to decide what leads to follow. These do not lead down long, winding game paths either, as if you select the wrong lead, there will be a bit of roundabout dialogue to allow you to correct yourself and pick another option. As someone who doesn't normally play visual novels, I was okay with the lack of depth in the choices. I was here to enjoy the story that was unfolding, and the picross.
Right off the bat, I want to point out - there are no timers attached to the puzzles. I thought this was a great choice given the context they were being used in. Although they rarely ever got bigger than a 15x15 grid, the idea of a timer running out and you having to a) start the puzzle over again, or worse b) be brought back to a checkpoint earlier in the story, would’ve been super redundant and tedious in this scenario. Not having to worry about regressing back and re-seeing the story and dialogue took away any fear of failure. As well, this picross system in particular has no immediate penalty function which I personally really like. Yes, if you made the wrong move and say, placed a square where it should have been a blank, you wouldn't know until potentially way later. However that just adds to the puzzle solving! Getting to the last pieces, everything satisfyingly falling in line, and then realizing a column and a row don't match up, that alone was the beginning of another puzzle in itself. Going through and seeing if maybe you have too little on a row, or maybe a column with too much. It added that extra layer of challenge without implementing any further gameplay.
If you found that you're really stuck however, or don't feel like throwing in that extra brain power, there are some hints you can select to help correct errors. When you complete a puzzle you receive a score for it, which goes towards your Detective Rank. The only cost for using your hints is losing the bonus you receive towards that score (which alone isn't a huge loss). Increasing your detective rank by finding all the available picross puzzles at each location goes towards unlocking more post-game puzzles associated with S.C.O.U.T.'s memories (a fun bonus).
The only instances of timed puzzles, it seems, is during hacking sequences. S.C.O.U.T. using his hacking capabilities in specific moments will start a sequence in which you are presented with 3 or 4 small grids (about 5x5) and you have to complete all the grids within the time limit. They are fairly simple in terms of difficulty, so they are not something to be concerned about even if you are new to picross.
On a larger scale, I would say the game is fairly beginner-friendly if you aren't someone who is a frequent picross player, or are new to the puzzle game genre in general. You do have your choice between Normal and Easy Mode in the Options, which you can change at any point. I did my playthrough on Normal Mode as I play a lot of picross, so I can't attest to what kind of modifications the game makes for easier game play.
The way the game integrates the challenges into the narrative is very clever. The puzzles that you complete are evidence and clues that you find in order to piece together the mystery that's presented in front of you. Finding pieces of evidence and presenting them to folks who are available to chat can open new dialogue options. It allows you to slowly see the bigger picture, both in regards to the murder sitting right in front of you, and also how everything seems oddly interconnected with S.C.O.U.T. There are 4 cases in total that you play through, each with their own mystery to solve, but as you advance, you slowly start to understand what's really been going on!
Something worth mentioning is Case 3 of this game. I wasn't sure if I was going to bring it up at all, so I'll keep it brief. Case 3 involves a murder on the property of a drag club. Finding this out, as a trans guy, honestly had me a bit nervous initially. Media has a bad habit of not doing its homework, and screwing things up royally when it comes to the treatment of queer characters and portraying queer culture. In regards to Murder By Numbers though, I wouldn't say this is 100% the case. Although the language isn’t fully up to par with my personal standards, I've also accidentally consumed media that is exponentially worse. Usually you can tell whether a queer character is written by an actual queer person, and in this case, I'm honestly not sure! Which I would say, given the track record of other things, is better than nothing. There's no explicit derogatory language, or villainization of any of the drag queen characters you meet. But like I said, there were a few instances where I was like "Hmm. Alright then". It's nothing that I would consider telling people to avoid, but it's enough that I would say "Hey, just an FYI".
All in all, I absolutely adored Murder By Numbers. As someone looking for a good picross challenge and a fun narrative, it checked all the boxes for me. A somehow simultaneously whimsical and upsetting story following S.C.O.U.T. and Honor had me well-invested in the duo, far before the story was close to being over. The humor and wit, broken up by the challenges and emotion, spun a really great web that is the game as a whole.
If you're not a puzzle person, or someone who dislikes visual novel style games, that's okay! This just would not be the game for you. Regardless, please watch the intro to the game, because it's unbelievably catchy and just so damn cute!