"Make the right connections and we'll find what's true." The introductory song for MediaTonic's Murder by Numbers really says it best when describing why nonograms and murder mysteries make a surprisingly thematic pairing. Looking for logic and intrigue, with some 90s style and a page from Phoenix Wright's book? Look no further, you've found the object you were scanning for.
"Cause Murder's Never Far Away"
Murder by Numbers follows Honor Mizrahi and S.C.O.U.T. through the course of four murder mystery investigations, with an overarching plot involving the two of them connecting. The story kicks off when the showrunner on Honor’s show, "Murder Miss Terri" (Ya get it? Get it? Mystery!) is found murdered. After being forced to prove her own innocence, Honor decides to take it a step further and assist the ever-grumpy Detective Cross in solving the whole thing.
The overarching plot follows the duo as they attempt to recall S.C.O.U.T.’s lost memories and piece together his past while trying to carve out a future for Honor who’s trying desperately to shed her toxic history. Without giving too much away, it deals with some surprisingly mature and thought-provoking topics, without getting bogged down by emotional baggage or overshadowed by some particularly vile antagonists.
Honor and S.C.O.U.T. lead a cast of refreshing characters with a diverse range of personalities. Honor is in her late 20s with a psycho ex-husband and a career on the rocks now trying to piece her life back together, but she’s resilient and resourceful, with a witty streak that gets her past the trauma of encountering several dead bodies over the course of just one summer. S.C.O.U.T. is probably the cutest little robot you’ll ever meet, as he’s earnest and eager to learn, trying out human mannerisms like quips and puns in a surprisingly non-grating fashion. He’s innocent and takes many things way too literally, but he has a heart of gold and cares deeply about Honor and their friends, though his naivete is arguably his defining trait.
The supporting cast consists of both allies and enemies of our duo, including Detective Cross – the cantankerous police detective assigned to these murders, who gradually warms up to Honor, despite his all too reasonable dislike of involving a civilian in murder cases that should just be handled by the police. K.C., Honor’s very British and very gay best friend, follows the two and provides much levity and over-dramatic tension-breaking to the situations, even as his care and concern provide the real foundation for his character. There’s also Becky, Honor’s co-star on "Murder Miss Terri", and typical Hollywood diva, as well as Sharon Mizrahi, Honor’s (to put it politely) overbearing mother.
The suspects and victims in each case all have their own quirks and bizarre personalities. Special mention goes to Honor’s psychotic ex-husband and manipulative, abusive control-freak Ryan as well as Fran Tasia and Roz Mosis, beautiful and over the top drag queen friends of K.C.’s and Eirin Kino, the eccentric movie director who talks in riddles and may be completely unhinged. She’s also wearing a Japanese kimono over what looks like a ratty college hoodie, so that takes some time to process.
"Use Your CPU, Look at Every Clue"
Murder by Numbers is chock full of nonograms, the game's crown jewel. For those who are unfamiliar with nonograms/Japanese crosswords/picross, they’re a type of logic puzzle where you use the numbers around a grid to figure out what squares in the grid are filled in and to then form a picture from it. For those unfamiliar with them, the game does include a basic tutorial at the beginning and instructions that are accessible from the main menu at any time.
Personally, I’m a big fan of logic puzzles, and though nonograms aren’t my favorite, I do enjoy a few from time to time. A word of warning – this game is really not meant for a casual puzzle enthusiast. This is really intended for hardcore fans of the genre, as you will hardly go more than 5 minutes in between puzzles on grids ranging up to 15x15. For the first two cases, it’s fairly standard, but cases 3 and 4 really ramp up the difficulty to an unholy degree. I found myself chucking my pride out the window in case 3 and using all the hints and error checkers I needed, nevermind the detrimental effect on my score. Easy Mode doesn’t make the puzzles easier, but allows you to use more hints and assists – either Fill 5 Random Squares or Error Checker - without lowering your score.
If you’re looking to spend a good long while puzzling over these grids, it’s perfect. However, I was getting caught up in the story of Honor and S.C.O.U.T. and it became frustrating to have to keep stopping for puzzles so frequently. They are well-integrated into the game, as S.C.O.U.T.’s visual scanner is damaged and the puzzles are how he identifies items, but it hit a certain overload point. Getting through four cases took just over 30 hours, as mentioned before with using hints and error-checkers, and that’s without getting into any of the numerous bonus puzzles available.
Like most puzzles, nonograms are usually meant to be taken slowly and figured out over a nice cup of tea, perhaps a biscuit or two, as you go at your own pace. The regular puzzles in the story have no time restrictions and are perfect for this. However, someone decided to add some casual torture to the game to ramp up the fun and included hacking sequences for S.C.O.U.T. These hacking sequences take the form of timed 5x5 grid puzzles, at one point forcing you to solve 5 such puzzles in 50 seconds. This was almost impossible to beat, and I ended up having to close out the game and load up the main menu settings to kick it down to normal just to get past some sequences.
While I understand trying a new twist on a classic puzzle type, and I will say the sequences make narrative sense in the game, I was also very close to throwing my laptop out of a second-story window in frustration. I realize that not everyone is as swift on the clock as myself, and God help anyone who struggles on the speed puzzles on Easy mode, as there is no obvious recourse.
"Shine A Light of Truth And Make It Clear To See"
As much as I enjoyed Murder by Numbers, there were a few flaws. Firstly, the dialogue can't be rewound or seen in some kind of tracker. That's rather annoying, especially whenever I accidentally clicked through a scene too fast and skipped what may or may not have been an important few lines. Speaking of going backward, the lack of an Undo button in the nonograms was the biggest hurdle to get over. If you realize after a few moves that you’ve made a mistake, unless you can remember exactly how you got there, you’re forced to use the Error Checker option, which itself was glitchy and kept messing with my top lefthand square.
The pacing of the nonogram puzzles also sharply contrasted with the fast-paced murder mysteries taking place, and it was jarring to be yanked out of some high octane situations where time is of the essence to work your way through S.C.O.U.T.’s scanner grid. In fact, I suspect I would enjoy playing the game more the second time around already knowing the plot and not racing to unravel it.
Fitting with its 90s setting, Murder by Numbers contains copious amounts of retro fashion and bright colors, with clean artwork, if not a minimum of 90s grunge fashion. The soundtrack is basic but nice, and it fits in with the relaxing vibes that the puzzle-solving is supposed to induce until you get to some of the more high octane scenes.
Special mention goes to the sound effects and the motion of the characters as well. With no voice acting in the game, clearly taking part of its inspiration from Phoenix Wright, the characters’ movement on-screen as well as the sound effects for things like shocking moments and S.C.O.U.T.’s computer beeps, really help to make the story more dynamic. That, along with the automatic pacing of the dialogue as you click through and the accompanying sounds, really brings Honor and S.C.O.U.T.’s world to life.
Overall, Murder By Numbers’ strong points outweigh its flaws. The story and characters are compelling and engaging, with hilarious dialogue and heart to spare. Each case feels distinct, and the overarching structure works well to connect them, as does the constant presence of the nonogram puzzles. While there are definite puzzle improvements to be made, it’s a promising start for a franchise, if the sequel hook at the end is anything to go by.
TechRaptor reviewed Murder by Numbers on PC via Steam with a key provided by the developer.
- Well Thought Out Overarching Plot, Engaging Individual Cases
- Funny Characters and Great Dialogue
- Colorful, 90s Style Art And Designs
- Overwhelming Amount of Puzzles For Casual Fans
- Lack of an Undo Button For Puzzles
- Speed Nonogram Rounds