Sand Land preview - Akira Toriyama's beloved manga comes to life with mixed results

Sand Land preview - Akira Toriyama's beloved manga comes to life with mixed results
Images via Bandai Namco

Written by 

Daniel Megarry


27th Mar 2024 15:00

Akira Toriyama’s lesser-known creation Sand Land is experiencing a bit of a renaissance at the moment. As well as a new animated series that’s just launched on Disney+ and Hulu, the desert-based post-war story is now being adapted into its very first video game.

Developed by ILCA - best known for One Piece Odyssey and their divisive Pokemon Diamond & Pearl remakes - this open-world action RPG puts players in the shoes of Beelzebub, the spiky-haired Fiend Prince. With both humans and demons suffering from a severe water shortage - and the King hoarding supplies and selling them for extortionate prices - Beelzebub forms an unlikely alliance with the human Sherrif Rao to search for a mythical water source known as the Legendary Spring.

Remembering Akira Toriyama

A tank in Sand Land
Click to enlarge

Attending this preview was certainly bittersweet, with Toriyama passing away just days before. Like many from my generation, I grew up enamoured by Dragon Ball. I’d import box sets from the US and play them on my region-free DVD player, my bookshelves full of manga and various figures I’d managed to score on eBay.

So when I was offered the opportunity to try out the upcoming Sand Land video game, I jumped at the chance. After being given a screening of the animated movie that was released in Japan last year, I was able to play through four different sections of the game during a three-hour preview window, showing off exploration, tank battles, and the new Forest Land territory.

The first section, which took place very early on in the game, followed the original story’s setup almost to the letter, with the demon Beelzebub, his sidekick Thief, and the human Sherrif Rao setting off on their adventure across the desert. Here I was introduced to hand-to-hand combat, which follows a typical punch-and-dodge format with some nice combo potential, and - most importantly - the driving mechanics.

Get in

Vehicles play a huge part in Sand Land. Whether you’re using a Tank to destroy fleets of enemies, a Hovercraft to get across the water, or a Jump-Bot to reach high areas, they’re essential resources. Although I started out with just a Motorcycle, I was later able to add multiple vehicles to my inventory that could be summoned with the press of a button. My favourite vehicle was the Battle Armor, a mech-like shell that lets you deal massive damage in close combat.

Battle Armour in Sand Land
Click to enlarge

These vehicles can be fully customised with various parts like weapons, engines, and suspension, to adjust them to your preferred playstyle. Even better, you can choose almost any colour scheme you want for the vehicles. It's a surprisingly in-depth system - and the vehicles capture Akira Toriyama’s unique style perfectly.

Although I played as Beelzebub for the most part, my teammates were able to assist me in battle with various abilities that they could learn via skill trees. One mission even required me to step into their shoes - after being stranded in the desert, I took control of Thief in a Santa Claus outfit and had to sneak around a military base camp stealing supplies. This was a nice change of pace, and I hope there’s more like it in the final game.

Unfortunately, as I played through the game’s later sections, my excitement started to dwindle a little bit. The main issue I had was how sparse the open-world setting felt in comparison to the bustling towns. It was always going to be hard to make a large desert location interesting, but even in the lush Forest Land areas, I found little to interact with and little variety in the environment. From what I could tell, the game’s map seemed fairly big, but I can’t say I felt very inspired to search the distant horizons.

Darkest Dungeon

A dungeon in Sand Land
Click to enlarge

I also struggled with how repetitive the game was in certain sections. As I made my way through a large dungeon, I had to search for levers to raise or lower the water level and then pop open my hovercraft to travel across it. This was repeated across several rooms, with Beelzebub himself even quipping at one point that he hoped it was the last lever he'd have to pull - thoughts that were echoed in my own head.

All of this culminated in a Kraken boss fight that amounted to little more than mashing the shoot button while avoiding its tentacle swipes. It seemed to drag on for a very long time, much like the dungeon itself, and I found myself getting a little bored - which is a shame given how vibrant and fun Toriyama's source material is.

A Kraken boss fight in Sand Land
Click to enlarge

I'm happy to say that the game's big tank battles were far more engaging. Being able to switch between vehicles on the fly and customise them however you like adds some welcome variety, and the fights can actually be quite challenging! These tank encounters were a huge part of the original Sand Land story, so it's great to see that ILCA has got this part right. I imagine this will be the big draw for most people who pick up the game.

Final Thoughts

I left my three-hour preview with mixed feelings. This is a game that I so wanted to love, but it didn't quite win me over. It’s a shame that the gameplay I experienced didn’t always live up to the presentation, because Sand Land has that nailed down.

Whether it’s the vehicle designs, the gorgeous visuals - which feel like watching the pages of the manga come to life - or Akira Toriyama’s signature humour, it’s a lovely depiction of Beelzebub’s world, and one I'd be happy to get lost in if the final package is a little more enjoyable.

Previewed on PC.

Daniel is GGRecon’s Deputy Guides Editor. He graduated from university with a degree in Journalism & English Language before covering video games and LGBTQ+ culture at publications including Gay Times and Dexerto. His favourite games include Pokemon, Kingdom Hearts, Resident Evil, and anything Nintendo. You can reach him on [email protected].

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