Of all the big Switch exclusives due this year, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 might just be the biggest; Splatoon 2 may be racking up big sales, and Super Mario Odyssey may hold more space in the collective imagination, but there’s no arguing with the vastness of Monolith Soft’s Xenoblade Chronicles series. The Wii original and its Wii U sequel Xenoblade Chronicles X were both excellent JRPGs with enormous worlds and engaging combat, so we were understandably excited when we were able to go hands-on with Xenoblade Chronicles 2 at this year’s PAX West, and our demo didn’t disappoint. While we’d definitely need more time to get the most out of its intricate battle system, we loved what we played and can’t wait to see more of this massive adventure.

Our time with Xenoblade Chronicles 2 kicked off in a beautifully terraced area of shallow, subterranean pools. Our Nintendo representative handed us a Pro Controller and we took control of Rex, the game’s spunky protagonist. Two friends — Tora and Mia — rounded out our three-person party, but we were steering a total of six characters thanks to the fact that each party member has an associated ‘Blade’ — a mysterious, Persona-like being that grants its owner (or ’Driver’) combat powers and abilities. 

As we roamed around the pools in third-person, two things jumped out at us right away. First, the beloved British voice acting is back, retaining the series’ distinctive, regional-dialect-convention feel; second, that the game looked decidedly low-resolution on the massive TV screen we were playing on. This was far from a final build, however, and the effect looked more to be the result of an unfortunate resolution mismatch than anything else; while the fuzziness is worth noting, we also feel quite confident that it won’t be an issue in the full release. It also failed to distract us from the main dish of our demo: Xenoblade’s unique brand of real-time combat.

Instead of random battles on a separate field, as in many JRPGs, Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s foes roam the land freely and in plain sight; walk close enough to one and you’ll start an encounter right then and there. Enemy levels are displayed above them before you get within range, so you’ll know — or, in our case, have a helpful Nintendo employee tell you — if you’re ready take them on or not before you get in too deep. Once you do decide to challenge an enemy the music shifts, you’ll ready your blade (and Blade), and it’s off to the races.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s combat revolves around a real-time system of build-ups and cool-downs, which rewards timing, positioning, and combos. As soon as you walk up to an enemy with your weapon drawn, you’ll start attacking; in Rex’s case, that means a three-part combo of slow slashes that deal plenty of physical damage. Getting in these ‘normal’ attacks starts to build up meters on each of three ‘Arts’ (special moves) assigned to the face buttons. These Arts are unique to the Blade currently equipped, and each have their own strengths and special uses.

With fire-wielding Pyra as our Blade, for instance, we had access to an Art that would ‘topple’ (i.e. knock down) an enemy, a Sword Bash that dealt extra damage from behind, and a Double Spinning Edge attack that worked best from the side. Once we used a Sword Bash, we’d have to wait for it to recharge before using it again; casting each of these three Arts in turn charged up the meter for our fourth, ‘Special Art’, complete with multiple power levels, quick-timing event triggers, and a show-stopping animation.

That’s quite a move set already, but once we got somewhat comfortable with the basic rhythm of Pyra’s Arts, our Nintendo rep pointed out that we could cycle between Pyra and two other Blades using the D-Pad. Switching Blades is instantaneous, and things started to get pretty crazy once we realized we could chain combos between Blades — using Pyra’s topple Art to knock an enemy down and then switching to another Blade to throw the newly-downed foe into the air, for instance.

Taken all together, these battles reminded us a bit of playing a fighting game in slow-motion. It features friendlier inputs, to be sure — floating diagrams on the HUD clearly show which moves and Blades are mapped to each button at all times — but the rhythm, combos, move buffering and situational decision making were all satisfying in a similar way. It’s also similarly unfriendly for button-mashers; when we started to zone out while listening to an explanation of the game’s lore mid-battle, we Game Over’d spectacularly and had to restart from a save point.

If we’re honest (and we always are!), as exciting and intricate as the combat system in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 was, it was also seriously overwhelming. Even by the end of our roughly half-hour hands-on, our grip on the systems and subsystems intertwining to make up the on-screen melees felt tenuous — a feeling driven home when our Nintendo rep asked if we wanted to see him demonstrate a combo we’d failed to pull off several times, and then made it look so easy; there was an entire mechanic (elemental combo trees) that still hadn’t clicked for us. We were told that the demo portion we were playing took place 15 hours into the game, however, and that each individual feature would have been eased into the player’s repertoire one at a time; in other words, it shouldn’t be an issue when playing from the start. And it’s worth reiterating that even without a full grasp of exactly what we were doing, combat never ceased to be fun; we kept wanting to battle more to get better, and that’s a very good sign.

And while the combat left us wanting training wheels, we knew just what to do with the game’s other main focus: exploration. Like its predecessors, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 features a massive world full of multiple Titans — ancient, planet-sized beings with entire ecosystems and civilizations on, around, and inside them — to discover, and the area we were able to experience was jaw-dropping. From crystalline gorges and abalone overhangs to waterfalls feeding bioluminescent pools, we had a wonderful time just walking around, soaking it all in. 

Taking in the scenery also triggered a few ‘Landmark’ discoveries — which help fill in the map and add to your knowledge of local geography — as well as one particularly memorable moment, when our friends from Nintendo revealed that the ‘skylights’ we’d been admiring in the distance were actually clear membranes on the skin of the Titan we were currently inside. That revelation led to a bit of a perspective shift, as we began to see just how ‘organic’ the caves and formations around us looked, and to really appreciate the uniqueness of Xenoblade’s once-sentient settings.

There’s a lot to look forward to in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, then, and we’re excited to learn more about this grand adventure ahead of its Holiday 2017 release. In the meantime, even from our brief hands-on, this sequel looks set to continue the series’ staple mix of complex, engaging combat and awe-inspiring exploration. JRPG fans should absolutely keep an eye on this one.