Have you ever wondered what a nonogram game would be like with a story? Neither have I. Despite that, Mediatonic has provided an answer in the form of Murder by Numbers.
Publisher: The Irregular Corporation
Release Date: March 6th 2020
Reviewed on: PC
Available on: PC, Switch
For those of you who aren’t already familiar with nonograms, also known as picross, here’s the executive summary: they’re logic puzzles that involve filling in squares on a grid using numeric clues located in the columns and rows of said grid. Typically the result is a simplistic image. I’m very deliberately establishing this information now because the overwhelming majority of your time in Murder by Numbers will be spent solving these puzzles. No joke. Over seventy percent of my playtime was spent on them. If that sounds like your wheel house continue reading, but for those who aren’t thrilled by the idea of being buried in logic puzzles the rest of the elements of Murder by Numbers won’t sufficiently prop up the experience.
That’s a bit of a sour note to start on, but I genuinely enjoyed doing all of the puzzling in Murder by Numbers. Nonograms are a well established formula and there are many games built around providing the player with a multitude of them to solve. Slowly working your way through each puzzle tickles the brain in the same way that Sudoku does and that makes for some genuine low-key fun.
Instead of existing as a collection of unrelated puzzles, Murder by Numbers establishes a story and characters for all of the logic puzzling you’ll be doing. You see the title comes about as you’ll be investigating various murder cases. You step into the shoes of Honor Mizrahi, a Hollywood actress known for her work on the fictional television show Murder Miss Terri. Due to a number of plot conveniences she finds herself tangled up in a string of murders and must apprehend the guilty party.
Honor is not alone however. Joining her is a sentient robot SCOUT who acts as her sidekick for the majority of the story. SCOUT lost its memories and asked Honor to help recover them after mistakenly thinking that she was a detective upon watching an episode of Murder Miss Terri. It’s a bit of a goofy setup, but then the character writing is equally charming despite the grim focus on investigating death.
Fundamentally I’m okay with this kind of setup. Story isn’t a big ticket item for me like it is many others, but I still enjoy when writing helps to provide context for player driven actions. You’re investigating murders, interrogating suspects, and cross referencing statements while the nonograms are used as a representation for SCOUT scanning and identifying objects in the over-world. It’s a really great setup and works wonders in the first half of the game.
Sadly, the game has some serious pacing issues with regard to the story. In later cases the nonograms are more complex. From a gameplay perspective this makes sense, but it has the unfortunate side effect of dramatically increasing the ratio of time you spend doing puzzles versus actually engaging with the story. Furthermore, the later cases have higher volumes of red herring clues meaning more nonograms. This brings progression to a screeching halt and killed off a lot of my enthusiasm for the story. It’s hard to stay invested in a murder mystery when interruptions are this frequent.
Story spoilers ahead. You have been warned.
What I think is worse than the pacing issues, is the lack of creativity in the cases. There are four cases you’ll be solving with Honor and SCOUT and all of them follow the same structure. A murder happens, an early piece of evidence points toward a single suspect, Honor jumps to accusing this suspect, SCOUT does some more digging around, Honor realizes she jumped the gun, the actual culprit is revealed. Every. Single. Time. It is hard to remain invested when you’ve realized this pattern and can immediately identify the guilty party after a murder happens.
What’s even worse is that you have to wait a painfully long time for the cast to catch up. There is no worse feeling in detective fiction than figuring out the entire case and having to wait an excessively long time for the characters in the story to stumble toward the same conclusion.
Spoilerinos end here.
I have two final pieces of, what I hope will be, constructive criticism.
Firstly, while I really enjoyed the soundtrack please include more than four songs for when players are solving nonograms. All the tracks that played during this part of the game were one to two minute loops, which becomes very familiar across the dozens of puzzles. A little more variety here would have gone a long way in reducing the tedium of hearing the same songs ad nauseam.
Secondly, please include a reset puzzle option. Having to manually reset an entire grid when you discover a mistake is a lot like getting kicked while you’re down. You already discovered that you messed up, but now you have to clean up your mess too. Just as a rule this kind of feature should be in every puzzle game so that players can easily return to the starting state of a puzzle to try again.
So, how is Murder by Numbers? It’s fine for what it is, but it’s hard to give the game a lot of credit when its biggest strength is nonograms. If you’re an existing fan of these puzzles then Murder by Numbers delivers in spades. If you’re hoping for an elegant blending of a visual novel with logic puzzles it fails to really hit the mark by virtue of some serious pacing issues within the story and a general lack of creativity across the four cases you’ll be investigating. I appreciate that effort went into providing story context for the gameplay, but it falls a bit flat. At least the characters are charming as heck.