Shades of Picross and Phoenix Wright blend together in this unlikely but utterly lovable genre mash-up.
Honor's having a bad day and now there's a giant stiletto embedded in the side of a drag bar.
I'll concede that the guy squished beneath the back wheels of the Pride float is probably having a worse day. But given Honor's lost her job, her showrunner pal, an award ceremony and been at the scene for not one but two recent murders - all under the shadow of a not-so-amicable divorce and a very, very irritating mother, may I add - I think she might be running a close second.
We've been called to the location by a friend of ours, K.C. Before we were fired, K.C. tended our hair and makeup on the set of our hit show Murder Miss Terri where we played second-fiddle to bolshy Becky in the titular role. But rather than calling the police on spotting what's left of the dude squished beneath the wheels of the festival float, K.C. decided to drag us into it; you know, because poor Honor hasn't been through enough.
The reason he's called us? Well, it seems Honor has absorbed some of the detecting talents she aped on her TV show. Following bungled investigations bookended with the sneers of the grousing detective assigned to investigate these mysterious deaths, it turns out we're better equipped than most to survey the scene and gather evidence, chiefly thanks to our new robot pal SCOUT, a damaged but super-friendly robot who sought us out to solve the mystery of his missing memory. He too mistook our TV persona for a real-life investigator, the silly thing.
I didn't even notice the corpse the first time Honor arrived at the scene at the drag bar. I didn't properly notice them at the preceding ones, either. Murder by Numbers' backdrops are unapologetically bright and busy, stuffed with colour and detail so your gaze is forever dancing across them, eyes bouncing from corner to corner as you take in the bold, colourful environments and the expressive motions of the cast. There's no gore per se, but this means the few macabre touches - the handprints squeezed into a neck; the scarlet drops peppering a temple - stand out all the more, much to my delight.
The cast itself is equally diverse and colourful. I'm still not sure what to make of K.C. and Fran, the latter being drag queen bar owner, for while there are plenty of welcomed, positive messages about acceptance and LGBT issues here, a lot of it is tied up in teeth-clenching cliches and "thank STREISAND you weren't there"s, which tempers the positivity a little. There's also a not-so-subtle thread about power and emotional abuse woven throughout Honor's tale, too, so be warned; it's not just murder and mayhem you have to brace yourself for.
You'll progress through Honor's story in a number of ways; point-and-clicking for clues, flicking through the scenes of a visual novel, and by solving nonograms. The former's simple enough, as is the central theme - characters chatter, you choose what to say in response; nothing you haven't seen before - but I'll level with you here: the latter is... well, it's weird, right?
You see, SCOUT does exactly what he says on the tin; he scouts around for clues, using a scanner that might once have been cutting edge but is decidedly dated now. On discovering clues, you need to help him decipher the 8-bit-esque images of them by solving a series of puzzles - nonograms - that require you to fill in, or leave blank, cells on a grid.
I'll be honest; this prospect did not excite me. Sure, I've dabbled with a bit of Brain Training like the rest of us, but mathematical puzzles are not something I typically look for in gameplay at the end of the day, particularly as the conceit itself feels hammered into an otherwise unornamented visual novel.
I will be from here on in, though.
Though the name Murder by Numbers intimates a dusty experience that'll kill you via relentless maths revision, these puzzles are exquisitely balanced and arrive right on time to break up the visual novel monotony. While a little overwhelming at first, there's a great tutorial that'll get you up and running sooner than you might expect, plus an easy mode for those who want the story with a less intellectually-taxing experience. The further you progress the more complex the puzzles will be, but you'll likely learn - like I did - that even with eleventy-gazillion 1-1-1-1-1-1 combinations and not much else to go on, the silhouette of the image will help guide you when all else fails.
This isn't necessarily best enjoyed on the handheld console, mind. The bigger the puzzles get the more there is to squeeze into the minimal real estate of the Switch's screen on which I was playing, which means I often ended up giving up my (otherwise thoroughly enjoyable) portable sessions as my poor, bleary-eyes couldn't clearly make out the numbers peppering the sides any more.
Navigating the nonograms isn't without incident, either; the reticle is a wild, unwieldy thing, often flicking over the wrong cell. Even though it happens with both the controller and joy-cons, I'll admit in normal play this isn't too much of a problem, but it's an absolute stinker in the timed sequences. Losing the round because you're not fast/clever enough is one thing; losing it because the reticle slips around the screen like a greased fish is quite another.
But I'm being picky. I came into Murder by Numbers not really knowing what the hell to expect, and I leave it as an ardent admirer. Hato Moa's - the creator of Hatoful Boyfriend - cast is masterfully brought to life with their (mostly!) relatable personas and credible dialogue, and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney composer Masakazu Sugimori always seems to know precisely when to slow things down with a well-placed jazzy tune or pep us up with a liberal dusting of 90s J-Pop.
Despite its dark themes, Murder by Numbers is a wholly original treat and a complete bargain at that - I hope it surprises you for all the same wonderful reasons, too.