Set aside at least 200 hours of your life for this game.

Monolith Soft’s highly anticipated Wii U role-playing game has remained tightly under wraps since it was first teased in early 2013 in a Nintendo Direct video presentation. The spiritual sequel to one of the best role-playing offerings on the Nintendo 3DS, Xenoblade Chronicles, and the next in a long line of Xeno-series releases (the first game appeared for the PlayStation in 1998), has only been shown in brief video clips since then, which has all of its secrets sealed up tightly. But now, just a few weeks after Nintendo finally confirmed a North American release time frame of 2015, and just days before the game’s Japanese release, I’ve uncovered one of the game’s biggest secrets — it’s freakin’ massive.

Here’s my impressions from an extended hands-on session from last week.

It’s not an MMO, but it’s as big as one

Xenoblade Chronicles X certainly looks like a sci-fi-tinged massively multiplayer online game in that first footage. It shows a party wandering a seemingly endless expanse hunting down monsters in the wild, a scene similar to World of Warcraft or Guild Wars.

But it’s not an MMO. It does have some online elements, such as cooperative play, though Nintendo didn’t show or discuss them in this session. But Xenoblade Chronicles X does borrow from such games with its incredibly massive world — Nintendo called it an “open-planet RPG.” To give some idea of how big it is, I spent a couple of hours wandering around just the corner of a map, exploring, fighting monsters, and sightseeing. Just what I saw during that time alone seemed gigantic compared to other recent role-playing releases.

While playing, I noticed that Wii U controller’s screen showed a 7 percent value listed just below a world map. When I asked if that number represented the amount of the game’s world I’ve seen, a Nintendo representative grinned and said that I had only walked about 7 percent of one of the world’s five continents.

My jaw dropped.

Xenoblade Chronicles X does a great job of making you and your accompanying party seem small and helpless. A freely adjustable camera system pans in as closely or out as far as you would like, but no setting can get around how huge the world is. Lakes sparkle in the distance at the foot of strange, mountain-sized rock formations while towering dinosaur-like beasts lumber toward the horizon. And then there’s you and your party — three tiny humanoids lost in this lush, beautiful alien world.

This image is just one small section of one of five continents in Xenoblade Chronicles X

Above: This image is just one small section of one of five continents in Xenoblade Chronicles X

Crash expedition

Xenoblade Chronicle X’s world isn’t just some pretty backdrop. It’s instantly engaging with its attractions and land features. See an ocean? Go swim in it. Scale any mountain. Hike any path. Anything you see, you can approach and interact with. The world is so inviting that it’s surprisingly easy to lose focus and find yourself on a sightseeing detour. It’s like being on vacation on an alien planet.

That landscape is just as hostile as it is beautiful. Xenoblade Chronicles X follows a crew that crash-lands the remnants of their city (which is based on Los Angeles, of all places — why not save San Francisco instead?) on an alien planet. For every lovely plant or interesting rock formation, this world serves up alien wildlife that could kill your party instantly. Like most MMOs, these situations do not scale with character level, meaning that the roaming high-level monsters pose a constant threat. Xenoblade X’s system marks these beasts with icon warnings, letting you know which ones will attack on sight. So while you’re free to explore to your heart’s content, you will often find yourself running from potential attacks.

Much like its spiritual successor, the Wii’s and 3DS’s Xenoblade Chronicles, exploration is encouraged and rewarded. As your team sets out to find survivors from the crash, you’ll also work to map out the planet by setting probes. Successfully planting these uncovers new information about the world as well as sets alert points for dangers and notable enemies. It really does feel like you’re the first people on this alien planet as you gradually fill in quadrants on a map. This builds nicely on the rewarding feeling of uncovering new areas.

I came into the game at what would be about 4 hours into the story, putting my team at about level 10. So, in exploring, I was advised to not take on anything over level 13 or so. I soon found that to be great advice, as I barely made it out of some encounters alive. It saw a few monsters of 20 levels or more higher wandering around, making for some tense situations and some pretty close calls. I cut one exploration session short when a towering, building-sized level 58 creature made itself visible — I think it was charging straight for me.

But not all of the beasts are out for blood. I enjoyed traveling to a lakeside where huge, Brontosaurus-like creatures sipped water from the lake. I followed as it set off toward a mountain range, running under its massive legs, hiding in the shadow of its underside. I noticed that its toenails were bigger than my character as the ground rumbled around me. I followed these and many other non-hostile characters in something of a digital safari, and this was every bit as enjoyable as the core gameplay.

Xenoblade Chronicles X features an innovative battle system that mixes action with tactics.

Above: Xenoblade Chronicles X features an innovative battle system that mixes action with tactics.

Familiar fight

Fans of Xenoblade Chronicles will feel comfortable with the battle system of X — it features a similar interface and controls. It builds on the Wii game’s free-movement combat system with a new team-based dynamic. As before, you’re able to freely walk around monsters while an automatic attack wears down at it. Positioning is key: Finding weak points on a monster will have it going down easier. At the same time, a sub-menu of Arts add to your battle abilities, letting you boost attacks or defenses as needed.

As someone who has played Xenoblade Chronicles, I was able to immediately jump into this new system quite easily and take out my first few enemies. But new reflex-based prompts will give even experienced players something new to master — it took me a few tries to get the hang of it. Allies will call out during battle with specific requests, such as fire support or healing. Doing so at just the right time increases the effectiveness of the assist. And a new timed event has you mashing a button at just the right moment to add even more advantages in battle.

In action, these new moves let me help out with armor for my allies or chime in with fire grenades at just the right time. When I got the timing down, my team and I were successfully knocking off specific pieces of monsters’ bodies, taking them as special rewards. It was incredibly gratifying to pick monsters apart with this technique once I got it down.

This all happens on top of the tried and true Xenoblade Chronicles system, which was already one of the most interesting and inventive role-playing game battle systems we’ve seen in years. It lets you freely interact with enemies with free movement to satisfy that action itch while layering on strategy with the Arts system.

Endless quests

Of course, Xenoblade Chronicles X has plenty of quests to take on. One had me helping out with a rescue, finding a lost scout in the wilderness. Finding him wasn’t hard, but helping him find a lost item that he dropped near a lake was. He just happened to drop it near two level 36 beasts that lay sleeping on a hillside. I snuck up to that hill in the dark of night with a careful approach, nervously checking every few steps to see if the sleeping monsters had noticed me. Every time I made a break for the lost item, a small red gem, they would wake and run me down. Each time I narrowly escaped, my heart pounding. I tried everything from scaling the nearby mountainside to hugging the cliffside, tip-toeing all the way. After about three attempts — the last one had one of the monsters killing my teammates in one blow — nerves got the best of me, and I gave up. But even my complete failures were a blast.

I tried a story mission as well, setting out to find a group of scouts from the city that had gone missing. I hiked up a hillside past some killer flowers and ended up in a camp where we were jumped by hostile aliens that spoke our language. I chose to negotiate when given a choice between that and fighting. But diplomacy failed, and this led to a battle that I barely survived. The cutscenes that played out during this mission gave me a better look at the character designs, which look right in line with those of the Xenosaga (PlayStation 2) series games. Xeno-series fans will appreciate this.

Don't worry: these dinosaur-like creatures are peaceful.

Above: Don’t worry: these dinosaur-like creatures are peaceful.

It’s the little things

To be honest, I blew off these and other quests to do what I liked best: explore. It only took a few minutes to see how rewarding exploration could be during this session. I spent a long time running around looking for new scenery or more beasts. I climbed up a mountain to get to a ledge that led out over a valley, where moons (I counted three) faintly illuminated skinny, fragile-looking rock archways, and shooting stars flew by overhead. This felt like a weekend hiking expedition, or like a vacation. This is such a beautiful game that I found myself wishing it featured some kind of in-game camera so that I might share some of the scenery with others.

Before my time was up, I set out on another safari of sorts, following monsters over day and night cycles and through rain patterns, watching to see what they’d do. One beachside stop had me admiring cute little fox-like creatures sunbathing. Nintendo’s own staff awed and giggled as a particularly cute one sat up to beg and then rolled over, as if it was requesting attention. We watched as it took a dip in the water, dog-paddling off into the distance.

Xenoblade Chronicles X is huge — chances are that it’s the biggest console role-playing game yet. I saw just a little costal sliver in a couple of hours, amounting to just 7.12 percent of one of five continents. But I found that it is the little things that make this game shine. I wonder how many more there are to find.

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