Sand Land review - Coarse and rough

Sand Land review - Coarse and rough
Images via Bandai Namco

Written by 

Joseph Kime


24th Apr 2024 16:00

Sand Land, Akira Toriyama’s manga series, was once called “the ultimate disposable comic.” It doesn’t sound like a compliment, but it is.

After all, Toriyama’s work is synonymous with the ongoing trudge, what with Dragon Ball and its sequels amounting to single battles stretching across innumerable episodes of anime, that still had the heart to inspire goodness in its fans alongside the sheer badassery of superpowered aliens smacking each other’s teeth out. Toriyama’s body of work is long, and until recently, his more contained works have remained all too obscure, Sand Land included.

Sadly, Toriyama passed away this year, leaving a sad absence in the world of anime that has been felt worldwide - and also, burdening ILCA and Bandai Namco with an awful lot of expectation. Sand Land, the short manga series that debuted in 2000 has been receiving an anime series adaptation that began last month, and now as its video game adaptation comes to life, every extension of the manga has become a posthumous hurrah that celebrated Toriyama’s excitable approach to creation, entirely by accident. The story of the manga is simple and self-contained, but all of a sudden, it’s sidled with pressure to show fans what Toriyama was all about.

The manga’s anime has pleased fans so far, and the pressure has turned to its video game - but it’s hard to imagine that the game is going to live up to the expectations of even its most dedicated fans.

GGRecon Verdict

The sweet heart of Toriyama beats here, but it alone can’t help to make Sand Land compelling for most.

To the dunes

Beelzebub, Thief and their band of merry demons in Sand Land.
Click to enlarge

Sand Land puts you in the big purple boots of Beelzebub, the son of Lucifer himself and the Demon Prince in an adventure across Sand Land, a world desolated by human greed and warmongering that has led to a desperate water shortage.

When rumours of a lush spring in the quiet control of the ruthless ruling military spread across Sand Land, he forges an unlikely alliance with some resourceful humans to rescue every man and monster under the thumb of the existing rulers. The story is pleasingly simple, but it gives way to some incredibly charming character moments, especially with Rao, a local town sheriff with a shady past.

The lives of these characters leap to life in the gorgeous art style, borrowing from anime-adjacent contemporaries to bring Sand Land to life brightly and colourfully, and until a few hours into the game, this stays pretty exciting. It’s here, though, that the cracks in the dry earth begin to show.

Sand Land’s main draw, aside from standing as an adaptation of a Toriyama story that never got its flowers, is the excitement which lies in wait across its huge world, with a roster of vehicles to play with including buggies, tanks, motorcycles and more.

Variation is here, but the gameplay of Sand Land doesn’t offer any real incentive to mix things up, leaving players to opt for the motorcycle for speed, the tank for firepower, and the handful of other vehicles for their hyper-specific purposes, like using the jump-bot to - you know - jump. It’s frustrating, too, that collecting resources comes into play in developing these vehicles when the game offers you no guidance on how to find or develop the parts you need to build to progress the story.

The diversification feels like a desperate cling to the game’s source material without much reason for players to engage otherwise, which isn’t helped by the repetitive structure of the entire game.

Like sand in the shoes

Beelzebub, Thief and Rao ride along in a tank in Sand Land.
Click to enlarge

The first few hours of the game are exciting, thanks in part to the world opening up before you supported by a soundtrack that is sincerely wonderful, inspiring a real sense of adventure if the player is wise enough to turn it up high enough in the game’s settings.

But once you’ve experienced the gameplay loop, you’ve experienced it all. Once you’ve arrived in the small town of Shiro, you’re going to be forced to get to know it - after every journey or quest, you’re dragged kicking and screaming back to the town to talk to your contemporaries, when ultimately, you probably could have just hung over the backseat or tried a walkie-talkie to speak to them.

Even when moving onto an entirely new area and finding a new town to gravitate to, the problem is the same and ends up as a frustrating detour rather than a triumphant return to the town you’re rescuing.

The gameplay does feature more enjoyable moments, with some early boss fights standing as charming, but they soon end up dragging massively when the game comes to a close, and serve as something in your way rather than something to experience wholeheartedly.

It seems that Sand Land stretches itself thin, putting middling attention to half-baked minigames like basic stealth sections and goofy chases, and failing to even land on a combat system that feels in any way satisfying. It feels, sadly, as though Sand Land doesn’t have the confidence to dedicate to its greatest assets - small character moments that are blown out by a campaign that stretches for too long, a beautiful score that deserves at least to be audible in the game’s mix by default, and exciting motorcycle rides across the desolate Sand Land that are interrupted by repetitive dialogue and an insistence on doing them every single time you need to find a new area.

At least the very fast 'fast travel' system can take the sting out in a flash at the expense of the feeling that you’re not soaking up the game “properly” when you’re on your way to your next repetitively designed desolated war machine. There are flashes of greatness in Sand Land, but they feel distressingly dampened by the repetition of it's core parts.

Collapsed in the heat

Beelzebub, Thief and Rao look at each other in shock and horror in Sand Land.
Click to enlarge

Sand Land is, sadly, a missed opportunity. It wasn’t fair to consign Sand Land with the impression that it would be among the last of the living Toriyama’s works in the first place (especially as a manga that was introduced two decades ago), but if players are going into this game with the expectation that it’ll be a culmination of the brilliant artist’s work, they will be disappointed.

Sand Land fans are going to get something out of this game naturally, and until around five hours into the game’s story, the freshness of it all will offer some serious excitement even for those who are unfamiliar with the manga itself. But as it draws on, it becomes clear that it simply can’t hold itself up in the war against monotony, and no matter how hard it tries to fill in the gaps with mini-game segments to keep things exciting, it can’t distract from the fact that its mission structure will be near-identical with every mission-to-Shiro rotation.

The Verdict

The sweet heart of Toriyama beats here, but it alone can’t help to make Sand Land compelling for most. Flashes of brilliance don’t assuage the twenty-odd hours of monotony that comes with them, and even though you’ll love Beelzebub and his friends, you’ll resent them for telling you from the backseat that you can run away from combat if you need to, with the repetitiveness of a child’s cry of “are we there yet?”.

Sand Land is charming, but loses itself to the quicksand of dullness - and perhaps we should have seen that coming for a game set almost entirely across never-ending sand dunes.


Played on PS5. Review copy provided by publisher.

Joseph Kime
About the author
Joseph Kime
Joseph Kime is the Senior Trending News Journalist for GGRecon from Devon, UK. Before graduating from MarJon University with a degree in Journalism, he started writing music reviews for his own website before writing for the likes of FANDOM, Zavvi and The Digital Fix. He is host of the Big Screen Book Club podcast, and author of Building A Universe, a book that chronicles the history of superhero movies. His favourite games include DOOM (2016), Celeste and Pokemon Emerald.