You’re just an average college student. One day, you wake up in a cruise liner cabin with the number 5 spray-painted across its locked door and the same number on a bracelet locked onto your wrist. Water bursts through the window. At that point, you’ve got to figure out how to open that door —or drown.

That’s just the beginning of Kotaro Uchikoshi’s first Zero Escape game, Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (999). Its story continues into the sequel, Virtue’s Last Reward (VLR). Zero Escape: The Nonary Games bundles these two thrilling visual novels into one package, which leaves Xbox Game Pass on March 15.

If you haven’t played these iconic murder mystery games, you should for the sake of its suspenseful story and charming characters. They’ll be right up your alley if you already like Ace Attorney or Danganronpa.

Both games in the Nonary Games package feature a cast of nine characters trapped in life-threatening games. In 999, you play as a college student named Junpei. He meets the eight other participants of the Nonary Games once he escapes his cabin room. A mysterious mastermind called Zero brings them together to play a “Nonary Game” and gives them an ultimatum. Find the door marked “9” in 9 hours or the ship will sink, drowning everyone on board.

999 focuses more on working together to solve the overall puzzle rather than pitting characters against each other, even if there is interpersonal drama involved in the plot. Meanwhile, VLR strongly encourages the game’s participants to manipulate each other because of its Ambidex Game.

In VLR, Zero returns with another Nonary Game based in an abandoned warehouse. This time, participants can’t leave unless they earn nine points in the Ambidex Game, which rewards points based on whether participants choose to ally or betray each other. You don’t need to play both games to enjoy them. However, playing both elevates the experience because they are related.

Zero Escape games feature two modes: Novel and Escape. Novel segments focus on text and dialogues that require little to no action from the player besides choosing possible branch-changing decisions. Escape segments trigger when players need to escape a room in a point-and-click investigation. They are similar to real-life escape rooms, where players need to find a way to escape using clues and items confined with them in the room. Each Zero Escape game also has multiple endings that you need to play through before reaching a “true ending.”

The story, characters, and twists are the main draws here. Sure, the puzzles pick at your brain and pull you deeper into the game’s mystery. However, it’s the writing that really stands out. You grow more attached to the characters as you solve puzzles with them, especially with the determination to survive and lift each other up in a seemingly hopeless scenario. It also grounds the story in reality with concepts of science and philosophy, a hallmark of Uchikoshi’s work.

Junpei and Sigma, the player character from VLR, act as the perfect lenses to witness the games because of their upright, sincere personalities and willingness to connect with others. It helps that they have brains and humor to boot, like Uchikoshi’s protagonist from the AI: The Somnium Files – nirvanA Initiative.

It’s best to experience the Zero Escape games blind because part of the fun is solving the mystery and letting the twists catch you off guard — if you can solve them before they leave Game Pass.

Zero Escape: The Nonary Games is available on PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and PlayStation Vita.

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