Murder by Numbers Review

A crossover between nonograms and a murder-mystery narrative sounds absurd at first, but they actually share a lot in common. Nonograms is a puzzle game where I apply deductive reasoning to number clues to determine where pixels are placed on a grid; if I correctly place all the pixels then a picture is revealed and the puzzle is solved. A murder-mystery is a puzzle story where I apply deductive reasoning to clues in a crime scene to determine how and why someone was killed; if I correctly interpret all the clues then a crime is revealed and the murder is solved. Murder by Numbers embraces the deductive reasoning underpinning both concepts, pulling double-duty as an entry point for nonogram novices and a charming narrative-driven detective videogame.

Honor gets some bad news.
Honor gets some bad news.

Murder by Numbers is the story of Honor Mizrahi, an actress living in mid-1990s Hollywood. She recently divorced Ryan, her abusive husband, which strained her relationship with Sharon, her overbearing mother. She finds some stability in her supporting role on the popular television show Murder: Miss Terri and a friendship with her hairdresser KC, but she also must endure the temper tantrums of Becky, the show’s prima donna star. To make matters worse, after wrapping the season finale Honor is informed by the showrunner, Blake, that her contract will not be renewed for the new season. She barely has time to be stunned before Blake is murdered. At first a suspect, through stubborn initiative Honor solves the murder herself and is drawn to an unexpected new career as a private detective.

Murder by Numbers is also the story of SCOUT, a robot who wakes up in a junkyard with most of their memory files deleted. Wandering away in search of help, SCOUT meets Honor in the studio parking lot after her firing. At first a curious liability, SCOUT proves themself an able companion to Honor’s impulsive personality and a valued partner in her subsequent new career. Together, Honor and SCOUT investigate new crimes, uncovering a greater conspiracy that reveals the real reason Honor was fired from Murder: Miss Terri and how SCOUT ended up abandoned in a junkyard.

Honor, Becky, and KC encounter a 90s fanboy.
Honor, Becky, and KC encounter a 90s fanboy.

At first I was concerned by the crew of stereotypes surrounding Honor. KC is a sassy hairdresser and Honor’s Gay Best Friend. Becky is a spoiled brat from an indescribably wealthy background. Sharon is an able senior who exploits her age and weaponizes guilt to get what she wants. Given the 1990s-era Hollywood setting, these regressive and discredited sitcom archetypes almost feel like parodies.

But as I spend time with these characters I get to know them better and see the real people underneath. KC struggled to support himself before finding acceptance in Hollywood’s drag community where he learned to be a talented makeup artist and fiercely loyal friend. Becky craves validation as she believes she has earned nothing in her charmed life. Sharon is genuinely terrified of the dangerous situations that result from her daughter’s newfound talents. It would be better if Murder by Numbers didn’t give such first-impression caricatures oxygen at all, but it does remember that stereotypes are surface-level representations and explores the layers underneath, developing them into full and sympathetic characters I don’t mind spending time with.

Selecting evidence to show to a witness.
Selecting evidence to show to a witness.

I’ve come to expect certain conventions in detective videogames: Assemble clues and interrogate witnesses to deduce what happened, then expose suspects’ lies by presenting the clues which contradict their testimony. Murder by Numbers is not this kind of videogame. Honor and SCOUT still investigate crime scenes and interrogate witnesses, but the design is driven by narrative more than key-to-lock puzzle solutions. Exhausting every witness’ list of questions and showing them everything in Honor’s inventory is enough to progress the story to its next big revelation.

When Honor confronts a suspect, Murder by Numbers sidesteps the often-spurious logic required to prove a detective player character’s accusations. Rather than forcing me to work out the bizarre reasoning for how a wedge of cheese “proves” that Clarence the Monkey is the real culprit, I am presented with three possible explanations and asked to choose the best of them. Since SCOUT acts as the Watson to Honor’s Holmes during investigations, the answer has typically already been stated in dialog and I only need to pay attention to see it. If I do choose the wrong answer, Honor is chided and I am allowed to choose again. The emphasis is always on continuing the plot rather than confounding me with proving the player character’s nonsensical accusations.

Please do not examine this partially completed nonogram puzzle for errors.
Please do not examine this partially completed nonogram puzzle for errors.

Before evidence is added to Honor’s inventory, SCOUT must first scan and identify it. Scanning is represented by a nonogram puzzle. A nonogram, sometimes called Picross, is a logic puzzle solved on a grid with numbers listed along the X and Y axes. I use these number hints to deduce which squares should be marked with a pixel or a blank space—an X—to create a picture. Each number indicates how many squares in a row should be filled in. If a grid is ten spaces wide and the number clue for a row is ten, then all ten spaces on that row should be filled in. If the number clue is five and four, then the first five squares should be filled in, then a X, then another four squares, for ten squares total. Most puzzles aren’t that generous, rarely utilizing all the squares in a row. A row with a one or two as its hint will have to be solved later when rows perpendicular to it have been solved, creating partial solutions that allow me to deduce where to fill in other rows.

Please don’t be intimidated by this explanation. Nonograms are difficult to describe in theory and much easier to learn in practice and Murder by Numbers will slip you right into a groove.

A completed nonogram puzzle reveals a new piece of evidence.
A completed nonogram puzzle reveals a new piece of evidence.

And Murder by Numbers does the best job of teaching the player the rules and underlying logic to nonograms of any videogame I’ve played. Its tutorial is short, but it does teach the overlap technique, the single-most important technique in high-level play and the wall that divides a rookie from an experienced player. Puzzle grids begin large and grow larger but have a gentle rising difficulty. Some quality of life features are always on which also ease my puzzle-solving experience: Numbers grey out when I have solved that hint, and I may choose to have solvable rows highlighted at no penalty. There is no autocorrect if I make an error, so I really learn how to be a better nonograms puzzle solver and not rely on a crutch.

If I get stuck on a puzzle I may ask for help, but this lowers the score I earn at its end. If I earn an S rank by finishing every puzzle in a case with no hints, I unlock all of that case’s bonus SCOUT’s Memories puzzles. If I complete each batch of Memories associated with each case, I unlock a bonus scene filling in SCOUT’s backstory that led to him being abandoned in a junkyard. These scenes are non-essential and don’t add anything I couldn’t already deduce from the main story, but having more and harder puzzles to solve is hard to complain about.

Speed-solving a small nonogram puzzle to hack a computer.
Speed-solving a small nonogram puzzle to hack a computer.

The weakest part of Murder by Numbers is the hacking minigame. To allow SCOUT to hack into computers I must solve multiple small nonogram puzzles under a strict time limit with many features disabled. I consider myself a knowledgeable and experienced player so I am dismayed to learn that when I can’t mark Xs my ability plummets. I never got stuck on a hacking minigame for more than two or three attempts but I am concerned how a sudden difficulty spike resulting from tight time limits and arbitrary rule changes might affect newer players, especially since Murder by Numbers is otherwise so welcoming to beginners.

Murder by Numbers is an appealing package. It doesn’t have the length and rigor of other detective videogames or the breadth of nonogram collections, but it tells a fun story and provides a good entry point for puzzle novices, hacking minigame excepted. It functions best as a piece of light evening stimulation. I enjoyed my time with Honor Mizrahi and SCOUT, and I hope this is not the last time I get to join them on bubbly nonogram murder-mystery adventures.

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