Murder By Numbers
As we're between the holidays and New Year's Eve, there are many sales going on for the season. This means that the thought of finding hidden gems for 80% off or more is part of the experience. Sometimes, all it takes is one look at a developer who worked on a title and say "Huh, I didn't know Fall Guys created a Picross game." As this was released before Fall Guys, Murder By Numbers was an "I didn't know Hatoful Boyfriend created a 'Nonogram' title." It was then I realized that Mediatronic had been a very prominent indie developer spanning across generations and not just a battle royal game where you play as enlarged jelly beans.
Murder By Numbers, not to be confused with the crime drama, is an interesting title for combining a casual puzzle game, up there with Crosswords and Sudokus, an engaging story, and a colorful cast. The game begins with Honor Mizrahi, not to be confused with the Mizrahi family from Xenosaga, an actor who plays a detective on the hit TV show "Murder Miss Terri." While she's not the star, her popularity is enough to cause tension with the main star. Unfortunately, that's enough to have Mizrahi fired from her role.
While musing over her sudden termination, she finds a robot named SCOUT. SCOUT was tossed in the scrap heap with no explanation and the two cross paths in a rather humorous manner. After the tutorial, it's revealed that mere minutes after she was fired, the director was murdered. Now being placed under lockdown in the studio with the rest of her crewmates, it's now up to Honor and SCOUT (Scout's Honor...Hah...) to solve the case and prove their innocence.
There are visual novel elements, including dialogue choices that range from serious by-the-book detective responses to unhinged "hard cop" style answers. The core of the gameplay is through SCOUT as he identifies items and takes them as evidence. Since SCOUT's identifying object powers are limited due to being a discarded robot, the player has to help him out by playing Picross! If you are like me and have never played a single "Picross" or "Nonogram" game in their life, then this game is the perfect starting point to get introduced to it.
So, what is Picross? Why are we alternating between two different names? It's because the official name of the game is a "Nonogram," but games like Mario's Picross helped coin the term as the "designated" one when it comes to fans of the Game Boy classic. The rules are simple. Players are presented with a grid featuring numbers on both the X and Y axis. The numbers on the left determine how many spaces in a specific row need to be filled. Using the image above as an example, this is a 10x10 grid. One of the numbers, seven, means that of the ten spaces, seven must be filled in.
The best way to figure out which seven spaces need to be filled is by looking at the other rows and columns for context. One of the columns has a "zero," meaning none of the spaces occupy the space, eliminating an entire column marked with a cross. Rows and columns with more than one number mean that there is at least a space between each number. Another example is the 1, 1, and 6 columns in the same image above.
There's always going to be at least a space between the "1," "1," and "6". If you count the spaces, this means that this column will occupy exactly ten spaces. What do you know? We're on a 10x10 grid, which means this is another free row to fill up. This also causes overlap with every single row as spaces are filled and crossed out, meaning there's only one logical answer for each placement. It's not entirely simple as again there's at least a space in between numbers.
A row with "5, 1" could mean there are at least five holes filled, but there may be a single, double or triple space separating the "5" and the "1." It becomes a process of elimination at this point as the player knows that at least one space won't be occupied. The puzzles range from very simple 3x3 grids to gigantic grids and even oddly shaped ones like rectangles. Murder by Numbers is lenient in that it offers hints. The game can even autofill spaces and highlight errors at the cost of your score. None of these really affect achievements as simply playing the game will earn you them. It's all a matter of challenging yourself and doing the best you can.
In that regard, Murder By Numbers is essentially "Picross with a plot." The characters are all caricatures of various types of personalities, much like one would see in a Phoenix Wright title. Coincidentally, the composer for the Phoenix Wright titles, Masakazu Sugimori, had also worked on the music for this game. The cutscenes help break the often stressful puzzles by giving the player something to laugh at. These are all larger-than-life characters and they each have their own secrets, again, much like a Phoenix Wright title.
While I completed the first case, there are hours of content as there are a total of four cases altogether. Progression is determined by how comfortable the player is with Picross but the game itself is easy to pick up. There is an exceptionally high skill ceiling that can be a rather addicting experience combined with its "pick-up-and-play" content.
While I'm playing the Steam version, I can imagine this being a perfect Nintendo Switch title as it's akin to filling in actual squares with a pencil in hand on the train. Fortunately, both versions of Murder By Numbers are still discounted from the Winter Sale at the time of this writing, so for less than $5, you're getting a bang (no pun intended) for your buck.