What I'm Playing - No. 169
Welcome back to another weekly wrap-up of the games I’ve been playing over the past week!
Click a title to skip to that section. Games contained within this post:
Murder By Numbers (PC)
Let’s play picross. It’s easy! The numbers tell you how many squares should be filled in for the column or row. If there’s more than one number, that means there’s multiple groupings of filled in squares in the row with empty spaces between them. When you complete the puzzle, it turns into a picture. That’s how you solve picross puzzles! For the next step, get divorced and grab your crime solving robot buddy, because it’s time to use your picross skills to solve a murder!
I recently discovered picross (also known as nonogram) puzzles and got hooked, starting with Picross DS on my 3DS. Then realized that I actually had a picross game in my Steam library - Murder by Numbers! It’s a hybrid puzzle/visual novel game developed by MediaTonic that released in 2020 for Switch and PC. There’s a pretty good tutorial in the game if you’re new to picross. It teaches you the basics and also has more advanced tips available in the menu to help you work through the tougher puzzles.
The puzzles are the star of the show here. I’ve found the incremental puzzle solving nature of them very satisfying. Using logic to determine which squares definitely need to be filled in gradually gives you more and more information for surrounding rows and columns. Crossing out squares and filling out the grid bit by bit is very relaxing, and I think the music of Murder by Numbers does a good job reinforcing that feeling most of the time.
There’s also a very nice Hints option for when you want extra help with a puzzle. You can toggle Hints on or off at any time during a puzzle. Using Hints doesn’t subtract from your score, and having them on will highlight which rows and columns you have potential moves in based on what you’ve filled in and crossed out so far. They’re very helpful at keeping things moving. Probably because I’m relatively new to Picross puzzles, I would sit and stare at some puzzles for minutes trying to figure out the next move when I didn’t have hints on. I didn’t use them for the first two chapters, but after I started using them in chapter 3, there was no going back. I ended up having Hints on all the time after that, which feels a little like cheating, but it really kept the pace moving and I liked never feeling stuck. I feel like it helped me become better at picross in general too, as I would sometimes look at a highlighted column and not even realize what the possible move there was until I thought about it a bit more, which in turn taught me strategies I could take into future puzzles or even other picross games.
One thing to remember about the puzzles, you won’t be told when you make a mistake. You only know you have the right answer when you complete the final row or column and the puzzle turns into a colored, pixelated image. You might think you almost have a puzzle solved, only to realize that one of the rows or columns doesn’t work out. In that case, you can either try to find your mistake manually, or use more of the built-in helpers. I used the Check for Errors option several times when I found myself in this situation, which marks squares you’ve incorrectly filled in or crossed out with an exclamation point for a few seconds. This does lower your score for the puzzle though, so if you want to get a perfect score for each case, you’ll need to solve all the puzzles without using these helpers.
The writing in the visual novel sections is full of jokes and references. It’s set in the 90s, and I love all the 90s references to things like Usenet, VHS tapes, and so on. You play as Honor and her new robotic companion, SCOUT as they work as aspiring detectives to solve several murders in 90s Hollywood. I have to say, I love all the puns in these character names. SCOUT and Honor, for instance (“scout’s honor”), there’s another character named Becky Call (“beck and call”). There’s more pun names as well, probably even some that went right over my head, but those are the ones that stuck out to me most.
The story is split into four Cases, each following a different murder case. They’re a bit formulaic, but they tell an enjoyable story and the fun characters and humor make up for it. The whole experience is quite light-hearted, but there are a few moments here and there that tug on your heartstrings. It’s really not about solving murder mysteries though. If you’re looking for a deep mystery-solving fix, you’ll have to find it elsewhere. The cast of characters in each case is small, so it’s not surprising finding out who the killer is each time since the suspect list is tiny. But it’s still fun, they’re not going for mind-bending twists or in-depth investigative logic. Instead, it’s all about solving some nonogram puzzles, and following along with Honor and SCOUT’s light-hearted story. The gameplay outside of the puzzle sections is very straightforward too. You’ll question some characters and have a few dialogue options with them, and you’re able to show them items from your inventory, but that’s about the extent of player freedom. It’s never too hard to figure out what you need to do to advance the story, but that’s kind of nice for a relaxed puzzle game like this.
The hardest part of the game for me was the hacking mini-game, where you have to quickly solve several simple 5x5 puzzles within the time limit. One of these segments in one of the last two cases gave me so much trouble. If you make a mistake, you lose a big chunk of time, and you really don’t have much time to spare on these. If you run out of time, you have to start over from the beginning, and the puzzles aren’t the same every time. This part was fun when it was going well, but as soon as I made a mistake I started to panic a bit, which meant I was inevitably going to fail and have to start over. This part feels a little at-odds with the rest of the game’s relaxing tone. The time limit forces you to hurry, but if you’re like me, hurrying just makes you more prone to mistakes and failure. It is pretty thrilling when you finish the last puzzle with just a few seconds to spare though!
Murder by Numbers is a great indie puzzle game. The characters and writing were fun and provide a nice interlude between puzzles. If the premise of the game sounds interesting to you, or if you’ve played some nonogram puzzle games before and want to dig into another one, check this one out! My final time was 27 hours 43 minutes. That’s mostly just from completing the four main story Cases, but there’s also bonus puzzles available from the main menu, called SCOUT’s Memories, and you unlock a few more of these by completing the cases with high rankings. So even after you finish the story, Murder by Numbers still has more puzzle-solving goodness for you if you want it!