One trend that I personally love when it comes to indie games is that of putting a new spin on the mechanics of a fan favorite title. Perhaps that series isn’t around any more, or maybe the core of the series changed enough that folks are thirsty for what it used to be. Whether it’s Stardew Valley hitting the sweet spot of farming sims, Wargroove scratching that Advance Wars itch, or Bug Fables giving us the Paper Mario experience fans have been begging for, indies are an amazing opportunity for devs to write a love letter to the games that inspired them to create in the first place. And for fans, it is a great way to experience something we miss – or at the very least a beloved genre that we can’t get enough of.
A few years ago I discovered the exciting combination of quirky characters and mysterious murders that is the Phoenix Wright series. I picked it up primarily out of interest in the music, but it didn’t take long for the game to sink its claws in deep. I blasted through seven games in roughly two years, and by the time I had finished Spirit of Justice I was still ready for more crimes, more trials, and more of my favorite goofballs on screen. Spirit of Justice ended in such a way that it could spell the end for the Phoenix Wright series if Capcom wanted to stop, and while it isn’t clear at this point whether or not they’ll be continuing, it’s now been almost four years since a new entry into the franchise. For those of us who didn’t pick up the trilogy on the Switch in order to relive the glory days, there hasn’t been anything to satisfy that Phoenix fix.
Enter Murder by Numbers, a newly-released indie title that promises Phoenix-style murder mysteries alongside 90’s pop-culture references. I first saw the game announced in an indie Direct and knew immediately that I wanted to check it out when it released. I was fortunate that while looking at sales a couple of weeks ago on the Switch, I noticed that Murder by Numbers had a 10% discount on predownloads. I picked up the game early and when it released on Thursday March 5th, I dove in immediately to get my first taste of the game. This article will share my first impressions of Murder by Numbers, based on playing through the beginning portions of the game’s first case.
Murder by Numbers features four cases, the first of which introduces the basic premise of the game. You play as Honor Mizrahi, a divorced actress who finds herself fired at the beginning of the game. While Honor is leaving the studio, she encounters an unusual robot called SCOUT who wants to find a detective to help him locate his creator in an effort to restore his memory. Honor and SCOUT team up to help each other achieve their goals when Honor’s former boss (you know, the guy who fired her) is found dead at the studio. Honor needs to clear her name and SCOUT needs a detective – together, the two work together to solve the murder and restore the little robot’s memory.
The game’s style is one of its most striking features. As a 90’s kid I was immediately struck by the appropriateness of the campy theme song that plays when you begin the game, as well as the clothing and technology on display during the various scenes of the game. Whether its a reference to recording someone’s favorite show on a VHS tape or SCOUT’s “massive” 200 MB memory storage, the setting works side by side with the music to create an atmosphere that feels like it was yanked straight out of the nostalgia center of my brain. Of course, there are plenty of elements that feel like Phoenix Wright as well. I smirked when the first bits of text began to appear on the screen and I recognized the familiar sound of the text crawl, just like the dialogue that plays over text in Ace Attorney. The art style – while certainly doing its own thing – is also reminiscent of the visual novel series, especially the goofy reactions from the various characters.
The characters in Murder by Numbers – at least the ones I have met so far – are archetypal but endearing. Honor has a sharp wit and her dialogue options allow you to manage to a degree just how much you want that wit to come out. She’s cool-headed and comes across as someone who enjoys her job but doesn’t get too invested into the Hollywood lifestyle. This contrasts nicely with her co-star on the show from which she is fired, Becky Call, whose valley girl accent you can practically hear as she raves on about popularity and parties. Of course, perhaps the most important character of all is SCOUT. SCOUT is a robot who can float around, take pictures, and compare those images to image data stored in his robo-brain. Unfortunately, he’s also an amnesiac after waking up in a scrap heap, and it is for this reason he needs a detective. SCOUT’s wholesome naivety and enthusiastic sincerity make him immediately lovable – you’d better believe that this little robot will be at the top of my protect list for the foreseeable future.
SCOUT is also key to the gameplay of Murder by Numbers – in fact, he’s the whole justification for the “by numbers” bit. Whenever SCOUT is trying to visualize an object, his damaged systems interfere with his ability to quickly identify the object. The process of discovering a useful clue plays out in the form of nonograms, a type of puzzle which you may better recognize as picross. It’s a puzzle where you fill in squares in a grid based on the numbers displayed along the top and left faces of the grid. The combination of filled and blank squares creates an image, which SCOUT can then process in order to make a discovery and move the story forward. Of course, making a picture in a nonogram isn’t just a matter of filling in any ole squares you want to; there’s only one correct combination based on the arrangement of numbers along the faces of the puzzle.
It may seem like a simple mechanic at first glance, but there are plenty of considerations which make the nonogram puzzle interesting. A key skill in identifying which squares need to be filled is knowing which ones have to be empty. If you can eliminate a square as an option, that makes it easier to narrow down which squares in a particular row or column have to be filled in. It’s also helpful to understand when some of the squares in a row can be filled in even when you don’t know the whole row yet. For example, if you picture a line of five squares where three of them need to be filled in, which square will always be filled no matter which three you fill in? The one in the middle! Marking that one middle square in the row may clarify what to fill in for the column that crosses that square, and completing that column may suddenly make the solution for another row clear; you work your way through it one step at a time just like that until the whole puzzle is done.
What really changes up the difficulty of a given puzzle is when there is more than one number for a single row in a column. For example, if there are three 1’s above a column of five squares, that means that three squares need to be filled in but every filled-in square must have a space between them. Conversely, if there were two 2’s above the column, then there would need to be two sets of two squares filled in with a blank in between them. In rows with multiple numbers, figuring out the appropriate placement for each separate set of squares means identifying which squares have to be blank in order to leave space between different segments, and seeing if the shape of the row or column demands that the squares be arranged in a specific pattern.
If all of that sounds intimidating, you don’t have to worry. Murder by Numbers has two different difficulty settings and each comes with a hint feature that you can access to varying degrees based on the difficulty you chose. Hints help you to see where to fill in squares if you get stuck, or can help you to identify and correct a mistake if you made a wrong move somewhere. The game rewards you for playing on a higher difficulty and not using hints in the form of a Detective Rank. You have a unique rank for each case and as you solve more puzzles and continue to accrue a higher rank, you’ll unlock additional puzzles which are directly related to restoring SCOUT’s memories. (Note that the rank builds steadily as you progress the case and that there is not an individual rank for each puzzle – before I realized, I thought I did really bad at the first couple of puzzles because my rank was displaying as an F!) This does incentivize you to play on the higher difficulty without using any hints, but if you struggle with that approach in the beginning then you can still complete the game by switching to easier settings and using hints. The game promises that you’ll be able to revisit a given scenario in order to increase your score by avoiding hints or upping the difficulty.
While the puzzles are the core mechanic driving Murder by Numbers, the game still has some features that will be a bit more familiar to Ace Attorney fans. When in a room, you can choose the investigate option to scan that room for useful objects. When you find a place where an object is located, you complete a nonogram in order to identify and pick up that object. You can then present it to other characters during questioning to activate new events and progress the story. You can also simply ask the characters questions, selecting your questions from a list as well as selecting Honor’s responses in order to influence the dialogue. Characters will share information that helps to support your case or guide your decision making regarding what objects to present or what nooks and crannies to investigate.
This makes the core loop of the game pretty simple. You look around a room and scoop up some objects by playing a few rounds of picross. Once you’ve got an armful of objects you can begin to test them by showing them off to characters available to talk. Discovering the correct path for that character will progress the story and give you more opportunities to investigate, ask questions, and solve puzzles. There’s plenty of picross to keep you busy and if you’re ever wanting more, you can choose to solve some of SCOUT’s memories if your detective rank allows for it.
Murder by Numbers takes the fun characters and punny scenarios that helped to make Ace Attorney shine and places them at the forefront along with a compelling puzzle game mechanic. If you’re a fan of visual novels (particularly in the murder mystery genre) and also enjoy simple puzzles with no time pressure, Murder by Numbers is likely to be a satisfying game for you. My first impressions are overwhelmingly positive and I can’t wait to continue my adventure with SCOUT, Honor, and the rest of their quirky crew.