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Monday, December 14, 2020

KoopaTV's Murder by Numbers Game Review

By LUDWIG VON KOOPA - Solving murder mysteries with evidence obtained by solving Picross puzzles.

I used to look at Picross-based games (otherwise known as nonograms or paint by numbers) like Murder by Numbers with derision. Then I played Mario's Super Picross thanks to the Nintendo Switch Online SNES app, and really enjoyed it, but I thought that a game that's JUST a bunch of consecutive Picross puzzles could be improved by adding other game elements to it, like a story.

Murder by Numbers, by British developer Mediatonic (you may know them from developing Fall Guys, though I didn't realise they did that until writing this review; they also developed the Hatoful Boyfriend remake), seeks to combine the thrills of Picross with the classic adventure game trappings of murder mystery. I'll review how well they did that, and minimise any spoilers, since the game has a story it wants to tell and you won't want to know the details of that story before playing it for yourself.

Fast Facts

Name
Murder by Numbers
Console
Nintendo Switch—note, this review is of the Switch version
Steam
Developer and Publisher
Mediatonic and Irregular Corporation
Genre
Puzzle (Picross), Adventure
Space Required
Approximately 1.1 GB
ESRB rating
T, including depictions of tobacco use, blood, violence, and some language
Number of Players
One
Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price
14.99
Demo?
None

Murder by Numbers Story and Characters


Murder by Numbers takes place in 1996 Los Angeles. You play as Honor Mizrahi, a 26-year old actress in Hollywood, though she quickly has a forced occupation shift. By her side is the very smart flying robot, SCOUT, whom has some very fancy searching capabilities that involve interpreting the world around it via Picross puzzles. However, SCOUT has lost its full database memory and wants to regain its wherewithal, so Honor and SCOUT will be working together throughout a series of four cases. These cases are all connected by learning Honor's backstory (which she, at least, isn't amnesiac about, though there's some details she doesn't know at the start), figuring out SCOUT's backstory, and the conspiracies of the current day.

Murder by Numbers Honor Mizrahi Los Angeles weirder every day Gridmoore Studios
Wait until you see how weird Los Angeles gets starting in the mid-2010s!


Given that this takes place among Hollywood elites (though Honor doesn't act like an elitist, some characters she interacts with certainly do—and yet other characters she interacts with scorn that), the scenarios and narrative are pretty “progressive” by the standards of the games I'd usually be playing. This includes Honor's best friend being a gay guy, a case taking place at a drag club, and other things. That said, I rarely was bothered by this, especially since the game does a decent job of not making it so the “diverse” cast is all morally “good”, a trap that some other games fall into. The game isn't preachy except for probably one instance, though what I have in mind not only was foreshadowed, but also goes into an even bigger theme. There's some other themes involved, too, like divorces and how tough-on-crime three-strikes criminal laws provide bad incentives for people's behaviour. The biggest story theme involves robot ethics, which is a hot topic. The game makes several 1990s references and, to my knowledge (especially given the specific “Hollyweird liberal”—exact quote from the game, by the way—setting), isn't anachronistic.

Murder by Numbers Ray the media often anything but truthful fake news
FAKE NEWS MEDIA is also a theme, including tabloids, criminal allegations, and RIGGED votes!


The actual details of the individual cases aren't super elaborate mysteries. It's more of a “who did this?” than “how did they do this?” The murder plots not very riveting on their merits. The dialogue is pretty fun, and I like the reoccurring characters, especially Detective Cross (whose leitmotif is embedded in the music section). He plays the straight man trope, though Honor isn't crazy or anything herself. SCOUT is cute, too. In an odd pacing decision that's justified by “Honor and SCOUT aren't real detectives”, sometimes the on-going case is put on hold to have Honor and SCOUT focus on their personal lives. These are more interesting than the murders, and it's sort of clear that the characters are more interested in their lives than solving the murders.

I'll comment in the gameplay section on how the gameplay is actually integrated with the story progression.

Murder by Numbers Graphics and Artwork


If it matters to you, the character design was done by Hato Moa. The graphics are great, though there are a limited set of character expressions. You're going to see Honor with her arms crossed. A lot. A lot of other characters, too. It makes everyone come across as uneasy and pretty unhappy, though since the game is a series of murders, perhaps that's justified.

The graphics for the set art are fine, and for the full-screen non-UI scenarios, it's a treat.

Murder by Numbers Music and Sound


This part does matter to me: The soundtrack to Murder by Numbers was done by Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney/Ghost Trick composer Masakazu Sugimori. Since Murder by Numbers and Ace Attorney hit similar beats, there are a lot of comments in the 30-song soundtrack on YouTube that's all about making a one-to-one comparison between how a song is used in Murder by Numbers and its Ace Attorney equivalent. I'm not disappointed at all with the leitmotifs or area themes, many of which are “bops”.





The songs that play during the actual Picross-playing aren't bad—they're quite nice to listen to when not playing the game, though they do get repetitive in-game when you're hearing them for the umpteenth time. There are several of them, though by the time I'm done with the game, I don't know if the different choices between which song plays in which puzzle are random, or if certain songs are supposed to give a certain mood or convey a certain difficulty. It's actually a highlight if the story puts a not-normally-played-here song as the background music while solving a puzzle, like the certain panicky moment in Case 2. (You'll know what moment I'm talking about if you've played the game, or if you will play the game after reading this review.)

Murder by Numbers Gameplay Overview


There are two parts to Murder by Numbers's gameplay: solving Picross puzzles, and the adventure game part where you are investigating crime scenes and interviewing witnesses/potential murder suspects.

Picross


For the Picross heads out there, the vast majority of the game's puzzles are 15x15 or smaller, which isn't that difficult. The game does a decent enough job explaining Picross concepts, though soon expects you to be applying them very well, or use the game's hint/assist options. Those include colouring the row/column headers purple if there is a possible (by logic standards, not guessing standards—you won't want to guess) action in that row/column. I'm not going to teach you how Picross works in this review, but just know that there is always a logical way forward—it's either a matter of scanning the puzzle area very carefully, or using the hint option to do the search-work for you. Personally, I didn't use the hints and did relatively fine, though I'm a genius, so your mileage may vary.

Murder by Numbers picross gameplay nonogram plunger
If I pressed L/R, I could make some of the rows/column headings purple, including the second row, indicating that I should fill in the information in the second row now that we know more information about the first row.
The purple square marks (Y button) are a visual way for you to mark a space for whatever purpose you want.
In my case, it's what minimum space would have to be filled by the 2 and 1 hints in the first row.

The other assists (and these will lower your puzzle rank) include having the game randomly fill in five squares for you, and doing a check to see if you've filled in a square by accident. There's no rewind or automatic undo feature, so you'll want to pay attention to the moves you make and not make careless accidents. That's not to say that if you fill in a square you shouldn't have filled in, you can manually undo that.

I mentioned rank. For each of the four cases, you'll get a rank, and S-ranking them means you've cleared every puzzle on Normal difficulty (as opposed to Easy, which will automatically fill in Xs on the puzzle area if you've filled in everything on that row or column already, and it'll toggle the hints on automatically) and without using any assists. S-ranking the cases will give you access to the SCOUT's Memories puzzles (69 in all), which are their own main menu item. These are a series of straight-up Picross puzzles, but if you clear all of them associated with a case (Case 1 has 12, Case 2 has 17, and Cases 3 and 4 have 20 each), then you'll get a small rewatchable dialogue sequence of SCOUT's backstory.

As for the puzzle controls, your cursor wraps around the puzzle area (from the far-right to the far-left, and vice-versa; along with up and down), though whenever I do this it's never intentional. Compared to Mario's Super Picross, the quality of life features are much better (like it will automatically grey out numbers in the row or column headers if they mathematically are certain to have been filled in on the board, as opposed to you doing that), though I haven't indulged in other Picross games to know if there are certain industry standards that are or aren't being followed.


Murder by Numbers Plunger picross nonogram SCOUT's Memories
Plunger? Were the Mario Bros. here?
(By the way, the above screenshot is of the same puzzle, if you couldn't tell.)

Adventure/Investigation


Your investigation phase will involve a loop of traveling to the five or so different possible locations in a given case (though you'll have less options available to you at any given time), and clear out all of the search-the-scenes or talk options at a given location. Once you're searching a scene, a red flashing circle will indicate when you've found something, and then off you go to solve a Picross puzzle. Once that's done, Honor and Scout will discuss the evidence you just picked up, which may or may not trigger a reaction if you present it to someone.

Murder by Numbers present dirty rag Sharon Honor mother
Reactions may include the above, or it may include “Why are you showing this to me?” Or it may include something that advances the plot.


The game won't proceed until you gather all of an area's evidence and you trigger all of the necessary conversations. Not all evidence gets used in terms of having a story progression impact, and in some instances, you're solving Picross puzzles to get evidence that doesn't really do anything at all and it's just filler. I would say filler evidence is a red herring, but unlike Ace Attorney (and by the way, the game is closer to Ace Attorney Investigations than a mainline Ace Attorney title...if you had to do a Picross puzzle anytime you picked up some evidence), you aren't actually presenting evidence in an argument to prove a point. When you do have end-of-case (or sometimes mid-case) logic moments, you're picking from a set of three dialogue options, and if you get it wrong, you get to pick again without consequence. You probably won't pick wrong, since the game dialogue makes it pretty obvious to the player what the right option should be. Otherwise, the game is highly linear and almost always makes it obvious what your next action should be.

Since you have only a limited number of environmental set pieces, you're often going to be searching the same area for evidence many times throughout a case, with no real in-universe explanation for why this important-looking critical piece of evidence is suddenly available for examination now and not thirty minutes ago. There are certainly gameplay reasons for this happening, but it canonically makes Honor and SCOUT look incompetent. (Well, their competence is constantly called into question during the story, and for... good reason.) How long a Picross puzzle may take depends largely on your skills, but you might be taken out of the action for over half an hour at a time. This may be a good reason why the story isn't that complex—if it'll be 45 minutes or so looking at two pieces of evidence before you can proceed with the story, then you might be forgetting some particulars of the case in that time.


Murder by Numbers Concluding Thoughts


100%-ing Murder by Numbers took me 35 hours or more, according to my Nintendo Switch. The majority of that time was spent doing Picross puzzles. This is a Picross game with a story, not an adventure game with Picross added to it. (Picross game with a story is better than Picross games without stories.) If you don't like Picross, you won't like this game, and the story isn't so good that you'll want to sit through hours of Picross to witness it. If you do like Picross, I recommend you buy Murder by Numbers. While there is no demo for this game, there are demos of other Picross games on the Nintendo eShop, or, if you're like me and have a Nintendo Switch Online subscription, you can play Mario's Super Picross and see what you think of that gameplay.

By the way, that playtime was going through the game on Normal difficulty and S-ranking the cases the first and only time I did them, plus all of the SCOUT's Memories puzzles. There is certainly enough content in the game to justify buying it at full price, but again, if you want to compare it to Ace Attorney, most of that content is in the puzzles instead of the dialogue/decision-making. The cases are shorter.



Ludwig obviously liked the game or he wouldn't have marathoned through it so quickly between late November and early December. It's not quite his vision of what a Picross game with integrated story and gameplay would be like, but Murder by Numbers is still a good experience. He'll answer any questions you have about the game—or on his opinions—in the comments section. By the way, if you'd like to purchase it (or anything else on the eShop), then you should look into winning KoopaTV's own metagame, the KoopaTV Loyalty Rewards Program. You can win money-equivalents like eShop card codes through that.

14 comments :

  1. Puzzles and murder? Reminds me of Layton and Ace Attorney. I'm glad the review is here and it was a good one. Although I'm not the biggest picross fan at the moment, the game is certainly on my radar. In your opinion, do you think this s a game that would justify a sequel? On creative terms, regardless of financial affairs. I just love seeing new IPS grow.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Aw, thanks.

      There is a sequel hook at the end, and I'd buy a sequel.

      Delete
  2. It sounds like you enjoyed it more than I did, although I might have had more tolerance for the non-stop picross if I'd played it more slowly over a longer period of time.

    And you must not have had an issue with the one message (possibly the preachy part you referenced) that really bugged me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If you played it more slowly, you'd probably appreciate it more. I marathoned it, but I also marathoned Mario's Super Picross, too.

      I was super tempted to put the line about repressed Catholics in the review just to annoy you. Bwahahahahahaa. I saved the screenshot.

      The preachy part was about people's pronouns.

      Delete
    2. Oh, that wasn't the part I had in mind, then.

      It was its message about pacifism, which seemed to go a little too far in the final section.

      Delete
    3. Oh shoot, I never saw this comment.

      The pacifism bit was fine if you look at it from a 1990s perspective. It's odd in 2020 because now the kinds of things they were trying to avoid actually came true. (And the world probably is worse off for it.)

      Delete
  3. i dont think i will get this sorryu.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Is Picross icky to you? I KNOW you like the Ace Attorney-ness.

      Delete
    2. ya i dont really like picross i go sleep with those types of games :<

      Delete
  4. At first I was just going to skim this article, especially when I saw the anime graphic style in the images. Then I noticed it was actually a Picross game. THEN I noticed it also had Visual Novel investigation style stuff. Then I went and actually read the article.

    Now, I guess I'm gonna get this game, lol! I'd like to ask a question about the difficulty: I'm around Level 5-6 in both the Mario and Wario sides of Super Picross, and I do struggle occasionally at that level. How hard will this game be for me to complete without using hints or other assists, do you reckon?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If you made it to Level 6 in Wario, you should be fine.

      It's more comparable to Wario's side because there's no hint roulette and the game doesn't tell you if you fill it in wrong.

      Delete
    2. As it turns out I haven't made it to Level 6 Wario, quite. And the final puzzle on Level 5 is giving me extreme trouble.

      Delete
    3. I wonder how online "multiplayer" on that works...

      Delete

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