Murder By Numbers' fabulous drag queens and adorable robot have single-handedly converted me to the picross puzzle genre. Part visual novel, part collection of blocky logic puzzles, its quirky charm is enough to pull you through even the most dastardly of puzzles. Think Saturday morning cartoons mixed with Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and one of those bumper puzzle books your mum buys for long train journeys. Only with more tampon jokes.
Medal of Honor
You can find cheap picross games for pennies on various platforms, but what makes Murder By Numbers so special is its story, a glittery mix of robots facing identity crises, abusive ex-husbands, crotchety police detectives, weird movie directors and drag queens with fabulous hair. It's like no game narrative I've ever come across, and has made me think I've spent too much time with heteronormative space marines and dowdy wizards. You play as Honor, an actress on a detective TV series whose boss is murdered, starting you on a path of amateur police work. By your side is Scout, a disarming little robot who has little memory of where he came from, but is a real help when it comes to hunting down evidence and hacking systems.
Release Date: March 5/6, 2020
Platform: Nintendo Switch, PC
Developer/Publisher: Mediatonic/The Irregular Corporation Limited
To solve the murders you need to search crime scenes, solve the picross puzzles you find, and present that evidence to various witnesses, catching them out in lies and finding out more about the other suspects. Occasionally you'll need to complete a series of timed, smaller picross puzzles to hack a lock or computer, and this is the only place you can really fail. Accuse the wrong person or come to the wrong conclusion about a crime, and the game will just gently rebuff your idiocy and let you try again. If anything picross pedants might find the puzzles too easy; they never get bigger than a 15x20 grid, but that was meaty enough for a noob like me.
The case for the prosecution
By its very nature the gameplay is repetitive - search an area, solve some puzzles, talk to everyone you can - and the investigations are just a case of finding everything and ticking every box, rather than using any real deductive brainpower. The UI could have been kinder too; more than once I replayed a whole chapter because I impatiently hit play on the one I'd just finished. I suppose that should teach me a lesson about racing through dialogue, but once I was back in that chapter there was no way to skip to the right one. What's crucial is that, rather than give up, I just did the whole merry dance again, so Murder By Numbers must be doing something right.
There are some bonus puzzles to unlock in Scout's memory, and the game left me wanting more and to stick around and see how Honor's story continued. There are HBO series that fail at that, so Mediatonic really has managed to create something a bit special with this strange, glorious mix of the old and the new.