Murder by Numbers Review — A Blast in the Past!
Murder by Numbers had me hooked from the moment I laid eyes on it.
A detective-themed visual novel with Picross puzzles featuring legendary composer Masakazu Sugimori — best known for the Phoenix Wright series and Viewtiful Joe — is a combination that a nerd like me could only dream of. But boot up the game and you're met with an outstanding anime intro that will blow you away.
I'll give you a few seconds to recover.
Whereas Murder by Numbers could have buckled under its own weight, thankfully, everything holds up to the quality and caliber that I was expecting. Murder by Numbers is something truly special — and I say that as someone that bought my copy as soon as it was available.
Murder by Numbers Review — A Blast in the Past!
The comparisons to the Phoenix Wright series are instantly evident. Not only do the visuals share the same motif of hand-drawn 2D sprites, speech boxes, and thick lines, but the gameplay is very similar, too.
You'll hunt for clues, solve puzzles, question witnesses, and present evidence to unravel each mystery. Murder by Numbers has a more grounded narrative and cast, though, which often plays to its advantage.
There are enjoyable pop-culture references throughout that establish the mid-90's setting. Everything from Miss Marple to MC Hammer gets a mention, while the game's clothes, cars, and other titbits scream reinforce that aesthetic. A younger audience may have less appreciation for these nuances, but the art-style representing them is lush, vibrant, and drop-dead gorgeous.
With good reason, too; Murder by Numbers' characters have been designed by Hato Mao, the star behind Mediatonic's previous endeavor: Hatoful Boyfriend.
The characters may be drawn brilliantly, but the writing is where Murder by Numbers really shines. SCOUT, the lovable AI side-kick to our protagonist, starts off as a simple robot who doesn't understand that humans aren't always literal. SCOUT soon learns, though, to recognize — and execute — the nuances of lying and much, much more.
In fact, the cast almost universally finds personal growth throughout the game's four cases, but it would be a disservice to Murder by Numbers to spoil those.
What I will highlight is that Ryan is a scarily accurate portrayal of an abusive, gaslighting ex, and K.C.'s tender charm and quippy flamboyance paint a wonderfully well-rounded picture.
Some characters definitely grate at times, but there always seems to be another side to them that develops along the way and explains their behavior. It shows that humans are complex, multi-faceted beings with much more going on than we can immediately understand — a powerful lesson we can all learn from.
The writing is often so good that you often find yourself playing long after your puzzle-solving capabilities have abandoned you and your brain has turned to mush.
As much as that is a compliment of the writing, it is also a small shortcoming of the gameplay. Picross puzzles are certainly enjoyable for a while, but I would have preferred more puzzle variety than the smattering that Murder by Numbers occasionally provides.
There is an Easy mode and various hints if you're not feeling like the Riddler, however, and the game provides bonus puzzles for hardcore geeks that want to find and solve everything (like me!)
This keeps Murder by Numbers accessible and interesting to a much wider audience than it might otherwise, which is no small feat for a puzzle game. Less than $15 for 10-15 hours of enjoyment is a pretty sweet deal, too!
Finally, let's talk audio. I've written entire articles before on Masakazu Sugimori's superlative command of music, and their talent is as evident here as it's ever been.
The soundtrack is lively, bouncy, and upbeat. It's inspirational and uplifting when the moment is happy, it's imposing and harsh when the pressure is on, and it's cold and gloomy when the protagonist doubts themselves.
I could go on and on but to save us all a few hours: the soundtrack is fantastic. Pump it directly into your veins and it will grant you immortality... probably.
Murder by Numbers Review — The Bottom Line
- Top-class writing that's constantly evolving to keep you entertained and enthralled
- Gorgeous graphics and audio; some of the best in any visual novel to date
- Simple puzzling fun that's accessible to all players
- Character sprites and music don't always match the situation
There are a couple of instances where Murder by Numbers stumbles, such as when a lively tune takes over in spite of the threatening circumstances that proceed a puzzle. But this seems to be a small oversight as most occasions retain the imposing tracks that played before starting the puzzle.
Another minor issue I ran into was with the character's expressions; they're limited by the number of sprites drawn for each cast member, and they could all use at least one more sprite to capture a wider range of emotion, often more. And though Mediatonic has mostly matched the expressions to dialog, there are a few notable occasions where someone's face just doesn't quite match their dialogue.
These small gripes might keep it just out of reach of a perfect score, but Murder by Numbers is an exceptional title that joins the list of games I'll be recommending to anyone that will listen for years to come.
It's just that good.