There's a lot going on in Murder By Numbers. Mediatonic's rather mad mashing together of Ace Attorney-esque sleuthing and Picross-style pixel puzzles manages to cover sexism in the workplace, divorce, suicide, overbearing parents, the dangers of social media, the vacuous and often sleazy nature of the Hollywood TV industry and, of course, lots of murder all whilst having you mill around LA in the latest 1990s fashion trends with your best pal and detective sidekick, who just happens to be a floating amnesiac robot. It's a miracle it makes any kind of sense whatsoever, nevermind the fact it manages to emerge as an extremely entertaining game that successfully mixes an engaging story filled with admirably kooky characters and some very satisfying puzzling – and all for an almost ridiculously reasonable price.
You assume the role of Honor Mizrahi, a TV show detective who ends up having to turn into a bit of a real-life Luther when her boss, who has just fired her, winds up dead at his desk. No sooner has Honor gotten over the shock of this when she happens upon SCOUT, a floating amnesiac tin can who needs to find himself a detective in order to fill in the blanks in his memories and find out why he's just woken up in a dump full of spare parts. It's not long before Honor and SCOUT are wise-cracking their way through the four cases on offer here, both of them learning – in time-honoured buddy-cop fashion – lots about themselves whilst coming to a deeper understanding of one another.
They're hugely likeable leads and are surrounded by a strong cast of characters who help infuse the whole thing with that perfectly-pitched zaniness that saw the likes of Ace Attorney and Ghost Trick – two games on which Masakazu Sugimori, the composer here, also worked – garner such huge cult followings. It's a level of idiosyncratic weirdness that we expect from any project involving Murder By Number's character designer (and Hatoful Boyfriend creator) Hato Moa, and one that allows for the relatively successful mixing of serious social issues, moments of quiet reflection and grisly murders with relentless silliness, oddball characterisations and slapstick comedy. This game throws literally everything into the mix in terms of narrative and it mostly all sticks.
The actual detective work you undertake in Murder By Numbers sees you moving around various locations – in a very on-rails manner – questioning the wonderfully eclectic mix of individuals you meet along the way, as well as using SCOUT's scanning ability to search environments for clues to help you unveil the identity of the various killers you'll hunt down over the course of the game.
As you scan environments and reveal pieces of evidence, you'll then need to uncover their exact nature by solving a Nonogram puzzle. These puzzles start out gently – the game has a nice little tutorial to make you feel at ease if you've never attempted this style of thing before – and get progressively larger and more difficult as things go on. Early cases, for us, have the best balance of puzzles-to-story and there are perhaps a few too many Nonograms slipped into the mix towards the back end of proceedings, but overall it's a pretty good ratio; the puzzles are fun and the story is always entertaining enough to make you want to press on and see exactly where things are headed.
Beyond the standard Nonograms, you'll also have a few occasions where you'll need to use SCOUT to hack into certain things. This throws up a series of little 5x5 puzzles which needs to be solved on a pretty tight timer without making mistakes; these can be pretty tense and were the one area where we found ourselves having to repeat things to the point of getting a little frustrated here and there. However, overall, the game does do a nice job of providing hints and helping you out, as well as having the option to blast through things in an easy mode, which lets you pretty much switch your brain off and enjoy the wacky story.
You'll also find yourself wading through dialogue choices, questioning potential suspects, presenting them with pieces of evidence to further progress in certain scenes and putting all your collected information together at the end of cases to have a go at guessing who the murderer is before the truth is revealed. There were a few occasions, due to the on-rails nature of proceedings, where we found ourselves backtracking through conversations and evidence to find some missed trigger to move things forwards, but it was quickly resolved and wasn't something that really got in the way of our enjoyment.
There are a few other issues here and there, however; we didn't particularly enjoy the pixel-hunting nature of searching for clues with SCOUT at times, and towards the end of the game you may find yourself cursing the thought of another puzzle barrier coming between you and the endpoint – this is a surprisingly long game that took us a solid eighteen hours to blaze through – but overall, Murder By Numbers manages to absolutely nail its idiosyncratic narrative style whilst providing puzzle fiends with a ton of content to get their teeth stuck into.
In the end, it's hard to be too critical towards a game as surprisingly fun and generous as this; a game that manages to reference Die Hard's John McClane, Misery and Cagney and Lacey whilst making tampon jokes at the expense of a robot who's on the verge of having a mental breakdown. We love the characters we met across the four cases that make up the story, and we love the delightfully funny and immaculately-observed ways in which characters enter and exit the screen during conversations, sometimes bumbling off, slinking away or making seriously awkward exits; this is a game that makes good use out of its simple animation style as well knowing exactly when to drop a stupidly loud noise in to back up a bit of onscreen slapstick silliness.
Murder By Numbers successfully manages to combine an entertainingly wacky series of whodunnit mysteries starring a properly entertaining cast of characters with some excellent puzzling that'll keep Picross fans happy for a good long while. There's an engaging, funny narrative at the centre of proceedings, and you'll find yourself rooting for Honor and SCOUT as they make friends and alienate people on their way to solving murders and finding out the truth behind SCOUT's mysterious past. This one's an easy recommendation and a genuinely delightful surprise.