Capsule Review: Murder by Numbers

A solid but imperfect murder mystery Picross mash-up with a Saturday-morning cartoon vibe.

A mash-up of a Picross puzzle game and a murder mystery visual novel. Solve a series of four murders by interviewing suspects in simple dialog trees and investigating crime scenes for clues by completing Picross puzzles.

The narrative is delivered via the traditional visual novel method of portraits and dialog boxes over background art. Much of this is linear, though when interviewing suspects the player can choose prompts from a dialog tree and occasionally the player is tasked with choosing a conclusion from a list of three options (though there is no penalty for making the incorrect choice). When there are clues to find, the player also has the option to scan the area by scrolling through a zoomed-in version of the background art with the reticle flashing red and beeping when near a clue. This is more tedious than it might sound, since with very few exceptions you can’t use any actual visual cues from the scene to find what you’re looking for - particularly because what clues are available at any given time is determined by your story progress and you often need to rescan the same area multiple times as you advance through the plot. Each time, you’re just sweeping through the enlarged background art playing hot-and-cold with the reticle with no actual pattern. Once you do find a clue (or occasionally, receive one from another character or through the narrative), you are then tasked with solving a Picross puzzle to identify the clue.

Picross puzzles start at 5x5 and range up to 15x20, though most are 15x15. The puzzles are played with free rules with some optional hints and assist features - however, you need to play with no assists to get the maximum score and unlock all the bonus puzzles (which themselves unlock a few short bonus dialog scenes, though these add very little). Also, there’s unfortunately no undo function or easy way to totally reset the puzzle - a few times, I got most of the puzzle filled in only to realize I’d made a mistake at some point but had no idea how far back it was and had to manually clear the entire puzzle to start over. Once the puzzle is completed, the clue enters your inventory and you can ask other characters about it during interviews.

The soundtrack (by Ace Attorney veteran Masakazu Sugimori) and character art are full of personality and charm, and some of the characters end up being quite likable. Combined with the 1990s setting and the main character being an actor-turned-detective with a robot buddy, there’s very much a Saturday-morning cartoon vibe at work. Unfortunately, the story is less satisfying than it could be - some significant plot elements make very little sense and there’s a late-game shift in focus that means payoffs aren’t always proportionate to their setups. Also, Picross puzzles aren’t front-loaded in each chapter but keep coming throughout, meaning that even as each chapter approaches its climax it’s frequently interrupted by puzzles that can take several minutes even for Picross veterans, which seriously disrupts the tension and pacing. The mysteries themselves unfold in very linear paths with no real reasoning or deduction required from the player, and about once per chapter the player is forced to follow an obvious red herring - which to me felt like I was being punished for actually engaging with the mystery and trying to figure things out.

All in all, the combination of Picross and murder mystery is an interesting one and this experiment shows promise with some clear room for further improvement. Solving puzzles makes the act of finding clues more engaging, with the player doing actual (if abstract) deduction as part of the character’s investigation, but this is undercut by the aggressive linearity that prevents the player from applying deduction to the actual mysteries. It’s still an enjoyable romp for fans of Picross, the 1990s, and lightweight murder mysteries. By the end, I was mostly disengaged from the actual plot but I still enjoyed the characters and didn’t regret my time with the game.

I Stopped Playing When: I finished the game including all bonus puzzles.

Docprof's Rating:

Three Stars: Good. I liked the game enough to finish it (or just play it a bunch, for games that don't end). I recommend it to most genre fans.

You can get it or learn more here.