Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day, perhaps for all time… On paper, Murder By Numbers is pretty much my dream game. It’s a murder mystery visual novel (check) featuring lots of Picross-style nonogram puzzles (double check) with a soundtrack composed by Phoenix Wright’s toe-tapping musical legend, Masakazu Sugimori (check check check). I enjoyed it a lot when it first came out last year, even if its actual puzzle images left me scratching my head more times than not once I’d completed them. There’s just something immensely soothing about working out where to put your noughts and crosses in these types of puzzles, especially when it’s surrounded by a fun cast of characters and an intensely catchy soundtrack.
In Murder By Numbers, you play Honor Mizrahi, a former TV actress who ends up finding a new line of work as an amateur detective after her show’s writer winds up dead at his desk in a gruesome murder case. As the last person to see him alive, she gets accused of doing him in, and must fight to prove her innocence by… solving lots of Picross puzzles. Strictly speaking, it’s Honor’s flying, talking robot pal Scout who’s doing all the puzzle-solving, as you’re technically using his 1990s scanner tech to analyse clues and evidence in the world around you, bringing them into focus by deciphering what’s part of the image and what’s not. It’s a neat hook when your entire game is based around big, chunky pixel puzzles, and one that fits well with the game’s story.
The entire game isn’t just about proving your own innocence, though. Much like Capcom’s Phoenix Wright games, Murder By Numbers is split into multiple cases that each have their own storyline and cast of accompanying characters. There’s an overarching plot that ties them altogether, but you’re mostly moving from scene to scene gathering evidence / doing some puzzlin’ for that particular episode. Alas, there’s no grand finale court case at the end of it, as Honor is still very much an amateur detective after jacking in her acting career rather than a full-blown lawyer like finger-pointing Phoenix. As such, the pacing of each episode falls into a very similar rhythm a lot of the time, and the ratio of puzzles to chat can sometimes get a little grating and monotonous.
Still, one whiff of Sugimori’s upbeat ditties is enough to shake anyone out of the doldrums, because man alive, I don’t think I’ve ever heard such peppy or energetic music in my entire life. Phoenix Wright’s various soundtracks still pip Murder By Numbers to the musical post overall, in my opinion (after all, what could possibly best Ace Attorney’s Pursuit ~ Cornered theme?), but Sugimori’s cheery tunes are certainly a great tonic for tired puzzlers.
And if you do ever grow weary of the main story and just want to puzzle to your heart’s content, there are dozens of individual abstract ones to sink your teeth into as well. If all that sounds like your kind of bag, then you can nab it on Steam for a mere £12 / $15.