What’s a thing that both Picross and gay rights have in common, I mean, apart from being central to this Murder by Numbers review? Well, the answer is probably nothing, but I was lacking a clever way to introduce this game so you’ve just got to live with it.
Murder by Numbers is what happens when you cross a murder-mystery game with Picross, and the result? Isn’t all that bad. The game is broken up into 4 cases, with the very first introducing you to the two protagonists. The first is Honor Mizrahi, an actress who plays as a detective on a show called Murder Miss Terri alongside my favourite character of the game, Becky. The second protagonist is Scout, an adorable little robot who needs Honor’s help in finding their original creator. Though everything gets blown to hell when they find out that Honor’s boss, Blake, has been killed in cold blood.
In the first case alone we’re introduced to some of the main characters, including Honor’s gay, best friend K.C. While it has been acknowledged already that K.C is a stereotype to some extent, I found that he is certainly a character that can stand on his own. Considering the game is set in the 80’s, a time where I was very much not alive, I was intrigued at how K.C was so very unafraid of expressing himself especially considering he works in showbiz. As expected, Honor and his co-workers are all incredibly accepting of him and his sexuality, and it’s never really played for laughs at his expense. On the contrary, it’s often those who perceive him as heterosexual that are poked at.
It isn’t just K.C that makes this game feel pretty damn queer, either. There are drag queens, gay bars, and an underlying tension between the two female leads, Honor and Becky, that made me sit back and wonder if the game wanted me to root for them or not. Seriously Mediatonic, what the hell is up with that unresolved, sexual tension?
Anyway. Outside of my blatant shipping, the focus on LGBT+ lifestyles and the dangers that the community gets faced with in real life is one of the best things about Murder by Numbers treatment of its LGBT+ characters. Homophobia is rarely blatant and in your face, and so don’t be afraid if you’re worried you might be smacked around the face with it. It is discussed, however, and I appreciate that the problems we face are acknowledged without being swept under the carpet. Even in its smaller moments, such as when Scout asks a character about gender and the use of pronouns, Murder by Numbers makes identity feel important. My only criticism is that I wish that race, and how non-white members of the LGBT+ community are treated, were also given the same amount of admission.
Murder by Numbers has a huge cast of characters and all of them feel well-developed and cared for — it’s one of the game’s strongest assets — by the story’s narrative. Even if you unveil someone as a murderer, you’ll often find yourself feeling sympathetic to what drove them to it in the first place. One of the first things you learn while playing is that it’s rarely as black and white as the situation may seem.
For example, one of my favourite interactions was with Honor’s quick-to-anger colleague, Becky. Becky is the star on their show Murder Miss Teri and comes across as very shallow most of the time. While it may be easy to just consider her as the ‘bitchy woman’ archetype, you’d be wrong to do so. Becky is very sweet once you get to know what makes her the way she is, and her relationship with Honor, Scout and K.C is some of the best parts in the game. You can’t help but root for her, because even if her attitude may be off-putting at first, she’s a messy woman who the game treats with respect.
Truthfully, the same can be said for all the women within the game. Honor’s relationship with her ex-husband Ryan, and how abuse and manipulation are conveyed throughout Murder by Numbers are so succint and feel so very real. And really, that’s what makes Murder by Numbers so addictive and intriguing to me. As a queer woman, I feel accepted by this universe in how I think and feel. It’s a nice change of pace, and so different to a lot of other games out there.
But let’s rewind. The characters and narrative are fabulous and yes, it should be an animated show if you ask me, but what about the gameplay? After all, this is a game where Picross is how you progress. Well, If you’re like me, aka someone who couldn’t give a single damn about Picross, you may end up feeling more frustrated with how many times a puzzle comes up when you’re just trying your best to enjoy the story. It’s a shame really, because the narrative of Murder by Numbers is equally engaging as it is fun. Sadly, it sometimes feels like I have to claw my way to get to the parts I really enjoy.
The game’s reliance on Picross may be stifling at times, but it isn’t all that bad. There are two different difficulties, the first being easy and the next being normal. In easy, you can pretty much just guess a lot of your way through the puzzles without having to put too much brain energy into it. I admit, I played a little like that at the start, but ultimately decided to just try and be a smart person. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes I had no choice but to complete a Picross puzzle with a timer going on in the background and sometimes, no, actually, most times I hated that.
However, if you’re not like me, and actually enjoy earning that sweet story content, you’ll be ensnared by Murder by Numbers in a heartbeat. There’s just so much on offer, and even for a mathematically challenged person like me — I’m gay and maths aren’t my forte, leave me alone — I found some of them really fun. There are some incidents where I feel that it offered too many puzzles, but it most certainly isn’t a dealbreaker and does give you some time to wind down from some hard-hitting discoveries that you make throughout the game.
To narrow it down: Murder by Numbers is a fascinating, thrilling murder-mystery game that isn’t afraid to show off its pride. It’s inherently queer in every single way, and if you’re a gaymer? Purchasing this game is the best thing you can do. Drag queens, an appealing story, a relatable female protagonist and a cute little robot? Just… get the game already, okay?
The Verdict: 4.5/5
Murder by Numbers is one of the best games to come out this year. It’s innovative, funny and feels much like a warm hug. It’s only let down by the number of puzzles, rather than the quality of them. Especially in places where their appearance doesn’t make much sense. That said, if you want to feel seen and, ultimately, accepted, by a video game…
Murder by Numbers is for you.