Pacing has got to be one of the trickiest things to nail in a mystery story. Rush through things too quickly, and the audience will never have time to formulate their own theories. Drag things out too much, and they may figure it out too soon and grow bored. Keep your would-be sleuths guessing, but don't keep them waiting.
For the most part, Mediatonic's Murder by Numbers—a new detective game out now for the Switch and PC—does a good job presenting fun, engaging murder mysteries. The cast is made up of a diverse array of entertaining and, often, over-the-top characters. Each of the four chapters have twists and turns in the right places, and none of the resolutions strike a false note or leave you thinking about some hanging threads. As for its pacing, one of Murder By Numbers' core strengths can become, at times, a hindrance: its puzzles.
Murder By Numbers' beginning is strong, and it establishes the visual novel elements of the game. We meet Honor Mizrahi, a '90s television actress-turned-detective, and Scout, a CRT-headed robot that wakes up in a junkyard one day with little memory of its purpose or its creators. The intro sees Honor and Scout meeting on the day Honor is suddenly fired from her gig on Murder Miss Terri, a cheesy crime procedural—and naturally, losing her job and meeting a robot pale in comparison to the next surprise waiting for Honor. Soon after, a dead body is discovered at the studio. Thankfully, Scout is equipped with scanning technology, which comes in handy at crime scenes.
Scout's scanner is the in-fiction framing for Murder By Numbers' puzzles, which are all nonograms, or as they're maybe better-known in gaming circles, picross puzzles. With each puzzle, you're presented with an empty grid accompanied by numerical clues on each column and row. The numbers tell you how many separate segments of filled-in boxes there are in that line, plus the order they're in. In a line that's 5 boxes long, if the clue is just a "3," you know there must be a segment of 3 filled-in boxes. You can also deduce that no matter where that segment is, the middle box in the line of 5 must be filled in. Gradually, you'll form a complete image of some evidence from solving the puzzle.
As Scout regains abilities and the cases get tougher and more complex, so does the puzzle gameplay. Apart from talking with characters and presenting the evidence you collect to them, these puzzles are your only way of advancing the game's plot. If you've never really done a lot of them before, as I hadn't before starting Murder By Numbers, you're in luck. Mediatonic has definitely created the game with a nice on-ramp for beginners.
From a reductive angle, you could say that the visual novel murder mysteries and colorful characters are all just a delivery mechanism for all the picross, but even so, you would be hard-pressed to brush off Murder By Numbers' style and positivity. The writing is cheery and humorous without ever being cloying, the characters (designed by Hatoful Boyfriend's creator Hato Moa) all leave an impression, and all the songs on the soundtrack—without exception—are a joy to listen to.
The music comes from Masakazu Sugimori, best-known as the composer for Capcom's first Ace Attorney game and Viewtiful Joe. Murder By Numbers borrows a lot from the Ace Attorney series in terms of its mystery craft and presentation, and when there's the right alignment of emotion, intrigue, and music in the story, Murder By Numbers comes close to the pulse-raising heights of a great Phoenix Wright courtroom moment. Close, but not exactly there.
There are two reasons for this: one, Murder By Numbers is committed to being it's own thing, and as a cohesive package it's better for it. Honor is trying to become a detective with the help of a spunky robot, a gruff LAPD detective, and K.C., her out-and-proud best friend and former make-up artist. The cases Honor is drawn into are usually centered in Hollywood glam with an undercurrent of shady dealings that only make the tabloid news. None of the twists are that hard to predict, but they also don't feel dumbed-down or rote thanks to the writing's pitch-perfect tone. Over the course of the game, Honor meets talk show hosts, an obsessive fan, drag queens, and more. But these encounters are never in a courtroom, nor spiral into squaring off in an escalating volley of contradictions. That's Ace Attorney territory, while Honor's got all of LA.
Second: if there is one thing that the Sugimori jams and solid writing of Murder By Numbers makes me want, it's those moments of pure momentum. That's a trick that usually plays out in Ace Attorney games thanks to those turnabout battles between attorney and prosecutor, and Murder By Numbers lacks its own tool for ratcheting up the tension in a similar way. There are, occasionally, timed picross puzzles you need to complete as a hacking minigame, and at the start I thought they'd grow into Murder By Numbers' way to really make you sweat—enjoyable as they are, they don't really evolve or grow in difficulty over the course of the game.
That leaves throwing bigger picross grids at you as Murder By Numbers' only option for increasing the difficulty, and that impacts pacing. Right as you're about to see the conclusion of a thrilling case, it's a bummer to first stop and solve a tricky picross. By the last case, I could probably knock out a large grid in around 5 minutes, but what if you're doing multiple puzzles in a row, or have to put the game down and pick it up again later? Are you five minutes of dialog away from a case's end, or 30 once you add in the puzzles?
The good thing is that the picross is great, and the better you do, the more you'll unlock; each case has rank-associated "Scout's Memories" puzzles that gate access to some additional background on where Scout came from. The bad thing, if you can call it that, is that the puzzles are a worthy enough challenge to take you a while to finish.
Again, I should stress that Murder By Numbers is great for picross beginners, and if its story sounds appealing, you shouldn't let a warning of some occasionally lumpy pacing dim your interest. On the easy difficulty, you get indicators for which rows and columns have available moves, and you can even use other assist features. If you're really not feeling the puzzling, you can even just drag your cursor through a whole grid and it'll basically solve itself on easy.
With Murder By Numbers, Mediatonic has succeeded at making a solid picross package and a memorable visual novel. I'd wager that if you take this game as a slow burn, say a puzzle or two at a time on a commute, you'd likely not feel the way I do about the pacing. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Honor and Scout, and once some of the twists and grids have faded from my memory, I'd be happy to do it all over again—or, if we get a sequel, to tackle some new cases with the actress and her bot buddy, partners in crime-solving.
Mediatonic's Murder By Numbers combines visual novel storytelling with picross puzzling, and it makes the pairing feel just right. Now and then a huge grid to solve may slow your roll as you're edging closer to a big reveal in a case, but the puzzles themselves are always satisfying regardless. With four lengthy chapters, catchy music, and several charming characters in its cast, Murder By Numbers is an easy recommendation for anyone who likes either mysteries or picross, and you'll be eager for more of both once you're finished.