A mash-up between Phoenix Wright and Picross nonograms is the unlikely concept behind this new indie murder mystery.
We’ve always loved picross. Also known as nonograms, they’re a common subject for video games and there’s always been a lot of them on portable consoles and smartphones. They’re not usually the sort of thing we can review, since they’re all basically the same, but Murder By Numbers isn’t your run-of-the-mill puzzle game. Instead it tries to shake things up by combining number-based logic puzzles with the most blatant rip-off of another game we’ve seen in quite some time.
That other game, if you haven’t guessed by now, is the Ace Attorney series by Capcom. Phoenix Wright and co. are nowhere to be seen but the structure and presentation of the game is almost exactly the same, right down to the music cues and sound effects. That’s not necessarily a problem – Ace Attorney clones aren’t exactly legion and there are major differences beyond the presentation – but it does make Murder By Numbers an even stranger game than it already would’ve been.
Split into four chapters, Murder By Numbers stars an amnesiac flying robot called SCOUT who befriends second-billed TV actress Honor Mizrahi, who is mysteriously sacked just moments before her boss is murdered. She naturally becomes the number one suspect and is only cleared by trying to solve the murder herself, which she does with the help of SCOUT and… picross puzzles.
As you might imagine, none of this really makes any sense but that certainly never stopped Ace Attorney. And yet somehow Murder By Numbers ends up being even more contrived as you alternate between talking to people and looking for evidence. Sometimes picross puzzles pop up automatically as part of a conversation but more often you have to search a room as SCOUT, via a pseudo-first person view, and then a puzzle pops up in order for him to ‘decode’ what it is.
Picross puzzles are vaguely similar to sudoku and while they can be solved with pen and paper, they do work particularly well in video game form. The puzzles start with an empty grid, with a sequence of numbers arranged at the end of each column and row. These are clues, which indicate how many sets of filled-in squares there are in that row or column. All you have to do is fill in the squares according to clues, at which point you start to uncover a little pixelated picture.
That probably sounds like the dullest thing imaginable, but we’ve always found them peculiarly mesmerising for their reliance on both cold, mechanical logic and necessary leaps of faith. However, there’s nothing different about how the picross puzzles work in Murder By Numbers compared to anything else and taken on their own they’re actually slightly less interesting than usual, as the pictures they make are always really boring objects like screwdrivers or bow ties.
In the grand scheme of things that doesn’t really matter but the boring objects conflict with the comedic tone of the story and only widens the disconnect between the two elements of gameplay. That in turn puts even more weight on the script and characters and, unfortunately, they’re not quite up to the challenge.
The tone of Murder By Numbers is similar to Ace Attorney but not identical, although it starts on a very odd note as the first picross puzzle is for a dropped tampon. That’s very much out of keeping with most of the rest of the game though, as while the humour is a little more adult it’s never as actively funny as Ace Attorney and fails to replace Phoenix Wright’s innocent charm with anything of equal appeal.
This has been one of those awkward reviews where all we’ve done is complain, even though we generally enjoyed our time with the game. But the flaws are obvious and irritating, not so much because they ruin the experience but because their absence would’ve made this something we could have recommended to anyone, rather than a great idea that falls short of its potential.
There are other irritations too: an auto save that you can’t rely on, no undo button when playing picross, the usual baffling refusal to use the Switch’s touchscreen, and background music so bad we at first took it to be a parody. To be honest, that’s how a lot of the characterisation comes across too, which is clearly trying to be as inclusive as possible with its characters but ends up making them all simplistic clichés, from your gay hairstylist friend to the histrionic owner of a drag queen bar.
They’re all played very sympathetically but whereas Ace Attorney had the vagaries of Japanese translation to thank for its bizarre scenarios and characters, developer Mediatonic are British and know exactly what they’re doing. That wouldn’t matter so much if the game was funnier but while there are quite a few silent chuckles to be had there’s nothing close to a full-on belly laugh.
There’s also the problem that the picross puzzle element doesn’t really have anywhere to go. There are some timed variants that pop up occasionally but the only way the game really has to up the difficulty is to make bigger and bigger grids that take longer and longer to solve. Which means the game starts to leave ever longer gaps between each one.
We still enjoyed it, because we love picross, but by the end we’re not sure we wouldn’t have had more fun with a dedicated game that cut out all the murder mystery stuff. Which really isn’t the conclusion you should be coming to when dealing with a mash-up as high concept as this.
Murder By Numbers review summary
In Short: A highly unlikely combination of Ace Attorney and Picross but despite the game’s best efforts it’s a mixture that never really gels together.
Pros: Picross is great and trying to combine it with a proper narrative is a good idea. Honor is an interesting lead and the whole game shows a lot of imagination for a low budget production.
Cons: The script really isn’t that funny and the characterisation relies too much on cliché. The picross puzzle objects are really boring and you can go a long time between playing them.
Formats: Nintendo Switch (reviewed) and PC
Publisher: The Irregular Corporation
Release Date: 5th March 2020
Age Rating: 12
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