Scroll to the end to see the video version of this review!
Let’s get this out of the way up front: If you love Ace Attorney and Picross, buy this game. For everyone else, the answer is a little more complicated.
In Murder by Numbers, it’s the good ol’ 1990s! You play as Honor Mizhari, a supporting actor on the hit detective TV show, Murder Miss Terri. Minutes after Honor is fired from the show for dubious reasons by her producer, he is found dead in his office. Unwilling to leave the investigation (and her fate) in the police’s hands, Honor takes on the case herself. Thankfully, she is randomly assisted by an adorable flying robot of unknown origins who introduces themselves as SCOUT. The two of them become an epic crime-fighting team, solving cases across L.A. while also slowly uncovering SCOUT’s mysterious origins.
To play Murder by Numbers, you need to know about Nonograms. More popularly known as Picross, these are number logic puzzles where you use deductive reasoning to determine how many blocks are in a row or column. It may look like math, but it’s not! Your enjoyment of Murder by Numbers is going to be entirely dependent on how much you enjoy these types of puzzles. While most of them are solvable by casual players, some of the later puzzles can be tricky. Thankfully, the game’s difficulty curve slowly ratchets up chapter by chapter, so you should be a Picross-solving pro by the end. As I love Picross, these sections are a home run for me. My only complaint is that the developers should have included “undo” and “reset” buttons as quality-of-life features.
As for the visual novel side of the game, Murder by Numbers wears its Ace Attorney inspiration on its sleeve. The second I heard the music and sound effects, they instantly triggered all kinds of fond memories. Dialogue is “typed” on-screen with an almost identical sound effect to the one used in every Ace Attorney game. Musically-speaking, themes like “Cross-Examination” and “Pursuit” are regularly evoked; which makes sense as the composer, Masakazu Sugimori, created the original Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney soundtrack.
The gameplay is a cross between Ace Attorney‘s investigation sections and, well, Picross! Whenever SCOUT scans a room, the gameplay switches over to Picross mode, where you need to complete puzzles to reveal clues. As much as I love Picross puzzles, however, the never-ending stream of them continually interrupts the storytelling. Every single time someone hands you an item or piece of evidence, SCOUT enters scanning mode to identify it. In the first few chapters, it only takes a few minutes to solve a puzzle, but as they increase in difficulty, it can take upwards of 15 minutes or more. That’s a big interruption!
On top of this, when entering a puzzle, the music automatically changes to one of the upbeat puzzle-solving themes. If you’re at a point of dramatic tension, like trying to escape a burning bathroom, jumping into happy, bouncy music kills the mood. It’s a shame the puzzles and storyline couldn’t be more integrated. Yes, I want to play Picross, but I also want to enjoy the story without interruption every minute or two. Even a time limit would have helped build a sense of urgency, but for the vast majority of puzzles, you can take as much time as you like.
Murder by Numbers’ presentation is all that and a bag of chips (Are you FEELING the 90s?!) The eye-catching art style utilizes distinctive “paper-cut-out” character portraits, all adorned in “fabulous” ’90s fashion. The cast of characters also features a fantastic level of diversity. Honor is a woman of color, and many other minorities and body types are featured throughout the game. I was particularly taken by the LGBTQ+ representation, as many main characters are openly queer. SCOUT even adopts gender-neutral pronouns later in the game, as the sentient robot feels neither masculine or feminine.
Unfortunately, there are parts of the game where conversations about sexuality and gender identity descend into after-school special territory. Thankfully, as it is somewhat styled after ’90s cartoon shows, these “the more you know” sections aren’t too jarring. I only wish they could have worked these conversations more organically into the plot rather than relying on expository dialogue. The game is much more successful in the way it delves into themes of emotional abuse, with Honor being gaslit throughout by her powerful and controlling ex-husband (truly the most loathsome villain in the game, and that includes the murderers).
Murder by Numbers offers a much higher level of replayability than the average Ace Attorney clone. After all, if you can remember the solution of every Picross puzzle you’ve ever completed, you have a much better memory than I do! Plus, there are dozens of extra puzzles you can solve in the “SCOUT’s Memory” section after you complete the game. The further you get in the story, the more new puzzles you unlock. As you complete them, SCOUT will begin to recover their memories. These do provide some nice backstory, but seeing as you can’t get the final memory until the last chapter, they come off more as deleted scenes than vital plot points. I didn’t mind though, as playing Picross is its own reward!
If you’re looking for something to scratch that Ace Attorney itch, Murder by Numbers will do the job nicely! The music and effects will sound instantly familiar, and the basic mechanics are great as well. The game brings a lot of its own style to the table, with more mature themes and a ridiculously catchy animated theme song. If you’ve ever found yourself passing away the hours playing Picross or Ace Attorney on your Nintendo DS, there is a lot here for you to enjoy. If not, I might try out a few sample Picross puzzles before purchasing.