Murder by Numbers is a “nonogram,” “griddler” or “pixel puzzle” game mixed with a bit of visual novel style detective work. You can sum the entire game up by saying take a healthy dose of Picross and mix it with some Phoenix Wright and you now have an entirely new game.
The comparison with Phoenix Wright starts and stops in the visual novel category, though. There is no in-depth investigation periods like in the Nonary Games or in Phoenix Wright. No courtroom trials like in Danganronpa or Phoenix Wright. There is pixel puzzles and a story and in a lot of ways, that’s fine.
The gameplay loop is simple. There is a mystery to solve. You investigate by scanning a scene (you have a radar type mechanism to tell you where to go). When you’ve found something you’re thrown into a pixel puzzle which you solve and then obtain the item. Rinse and repeat until you’ve found all of the items. Then you interview all of the people available. At which point, you will do more investigating and more interviewing until you reach a point where the game asks you what’s going on – which you can fail to no consequence.
Pixel puzzles come at you both in finding items and while talking to people. They’re not timed and come in an easy (clicks are validated as right or wrong) or hard (pure pixel puzzle) with a hint system (show errors and insert random blocks). The score is static for each puzzle with minor modifiers for difficulty and hints. At the end of the case you get a ranking from F to S, which unlocks various bonus puzzles known as SCOUT’s memory. Playing on easy and finding most clues will usually get you an A ranking.
There are two parts of the game I want to review. The visual novel aspect and the pixel puzzles.
The visual novel aspects, this game is absolutely STELLAR and a must play alone. The story is very, very well written. The characters are authentic, have proper reactions, motives for what people are doing are well explained and there is little to no deus ex machina. Everything is well explained, great art and sound effects pull you in.
The pixel puzzles though are a different story. They’re pixel puzzles, which if you love them then that’s great – this is definitely going to be great for you and if you don’t, you can still read through the story and just have fun at them on easy, where you can just run your mouse around and automatically fill in the board. The UI is great and greys out when you’ve filled in a column progressively (so if it’s 2,3,2 and you’ve put in 2 pixels and marked them off, the 2 will grey out).
My issue is that around the end of chapter two they get very boring. You end up doing only 15×15 puzzles with nothing bigger and they’re constantly coming at you in order to move the story forward. The puzzles also involve a lot of, at least to me, guess work to find the right anchor point to even start building off of. The art at the end isn’t that great and you rarely know what you’re drawing until it tells you.
The fatigue is also real, because there is not innovative about the puzzles and they don’t throw you any bones around chapter 3 and 4. Columns and rows that are 13 or more are rare and the game doesn’t challenge other pixel puzzle games in anyway – there is no new features, no curve balls, nothing. It’s just 15×15 puzzles.
Again, the art is also really hard to understand what it is most of the game.
This is of course countered by the great story and a verbose hint system that lets you make the game as hard or as easy as you want it – so if the pixel puzzles start to become boring or you want to ramp the difficulty down to chew through them, it obliges. There is no time limit, except on the hacking segments, so overall it’s really not that terrible.
The one thing I’d warn consumers about the game, though, is if you don’t like Picross or never tried pixel puzzles before (search nonograms and give them a try) then this game will not be fun – even with it’s super cool story and retro 80s vibe. At its heart, it’s a pixel puzzle game and that’s where the action is, the Phoenix Wright detective work is secondary and not very deep.
There is also no game over state and no risk of failure, so it’s a very relaxing and soothing adventure with an amazing story – so if pixel puzzles ARE your thing, then this is a must buy for sure.
I played all four chapters and had a lot of fun – but again, I love pixel puzzles. If you do to, then try it out. If not, see if you like the puzzles before you get the game.