Murder By Numbers Is Ace Attorney, Picross and Thirsty Anime All in One

I got a little bit obsessed with Picross games (a.k.a. Nonograms or Pixel Puzzles) over the course of the last year. Wedged somewhere between Sudoku, jigsaw puzzles and colouring books, they quickly supplanted Holedown and ‘trying to look at what texts strangers are sending but pretending not to’ as my timewasting commute activity of choice. From there, I progressed onto trying to squeeze a quick grid in between rounds of other games of an evening. At a low point, I found myself telling my girlfriend that I’d be through for dinner after I finished ‘my puzzles’. Picross has turned me into a 300 year-old person.Thank goodness, then, for Murder By Numbers, which takes the Picross formula and repurposes it as the cogs that power an anime-infused murder mystery game by London’s Mediatonic. Finally, I can play Picross and pretend I’m young again.You might not even realise immediately that this is Murder By Numbers’ core mechanical concern, however, because on first glance it looks most like an entirely different gaming touchstone – Ace Attorney. Capcom’s detective series has been a huge influence here, with a good half of your time spent in familiar visual novel format, with static illustrations of characters to talk to on subjects both on and wildly off-topic, while you travel from location to location, collecting evidence to present to cops and suspects alike.

It doesn’t just look like Ace Attorney, it sounds the part too. That’s down in major part to the involvement of Masakazu Sugimori, who composed the most famous themes for the Capcom games. He’s working with a slightly wider instrumental palette than a soundchip these days, but his ear for a mood-shifting hook hasn’t dimmed, and I can happily tell you that this preview has been soundtracked by the Murder By Numbers theme tune (below) playing on a loop inside my skull. That music’s backed up by a series of sound effects – including the gentle monotone beep of text being typed – that will bring any Phoenix Wright fan into paroxysms of nostalgia.

Where Murder By Numbers makes its biggest departure from the established formula is in the tone of all this. Set in a ‘90s LA (and saturated by references to the movies and TV of the time), it tells the tale of Honor Mizrahi, an actress in a detective show, who’s drawn into a murder-speckled conspiracy after the mysterious appearance of floating robot sidekick, SCOUT, who’s suffering from a case of digital amnesia. It keeps up the joyful tone of Phoenix Wright and his friends – murders seem to be on the distinctly non-bloody side in this universe – but Murder By Numbers feels a tad more self-aware, revelling in its own ludicrous nature.It’s the element of Murder By Numbers I’m most wary of after spending several hours with it. Ace Attorney had its sillier elements, of course (Wendy Oldbag is still a personal favourite character) but writer Shu Takumi always had one eye on the more serious side of things, and a knack for truly clever detective fiction twists, reveals, and solutions. In my time with it, Murder By Numbers hasn’t had quite the same level-headed feeling, with characters often more interested in talking about who they would and wouldn’t like to romance than the slaying that just happened to their friend a single room away. Perhaps I need to just spend more time with this cast to grow to love them – or maybe that thirsty anime sensibility just isn’t for me.

Either way, it’s by no means enough to keep me from my own thirst for grid-based pixel illustration challenges. Murder By Numbers inserts Picross into Ace Attorney’s loop of investigation and conversation, making it your main means of progeression. Anytime you stumble on a piece of evidence, need to hack a computer, or interact with the game beyond just clicking background images, you’re faced with a paint-by-numbers puzzle to solve. These can come in the form of the traditional square grids, irregular shapes, or even time trials that penalise the player for using assists. The majority of the solutions will end up adding evidence into your inventory, which can be presented to characters to help crack your current case.

It’s an ingenious trick, and one that already has me utterly suckered. Knowing there’s a grid behind every clue has me scouring environments for more to solve – even when I seemingly don’t need to – looking for another excuse to feed my burgeoning addiction to quite a sedate puzzle format. There’s a good chance I will be Murder By Numbers’ final victim. I’m into it.

Joe Skrebels is IGN’s Executive Editor of News, and is more obsessed with Picross than your average human. You can follow him on Twitter.

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