Sand Land Review - Tanks A Lot

  • First Released Apr 26, 2024
  • PC

Sand Land's fantastic vehicular combat and adherence to the source material are let down by bland and repetitive stealth, melee combat, and mission design.

The main character in this open-world action-RPG adaptation of the late Akira Toriyama's Sand Land is arguably its egg-shaped tank. Developer ILCA has crafted a game with a heavy emphasis on vehicular combat and traversal, which is a fitting design choice considering Toriyama's love and passion for anything with a motor. You only have to glance at the number of vehicles featured in the Dragon Ball series to appreciate the legendary artist's vehicular love affair. As iconic and instantly recognizable as Toriyama's character designs are, his unique vehicle designs are just as evocative and essential to his signature world-building. Whether it's a car, scooter, hovercraft, or airship, Toriyama's anomalous designs are a delight, and Sand Land's bulbous tank is one of his best, mixing his characteristics with historical influences to create a memorable piece of machinery. ILCA's Sand Land might lack substance beneath its oozing style, but sitting behind the cockpit of some of Toriyama's intricately designed vehicles is a near-constant treat, even if it falters elsewhere.

The first half of the game's story is a faithful retelling of the original 14-chapter one-shot manga released in 2000. Set in the titular wasteland, Sand Land centers on a desert world suffering from an extreme water shortage, where sci-fi, fantasy, action, and comedy intertwine. You play as the rambunctious pink-skinned demon prince, Beelzebub, a video game-obsessed fiend who's as good as gold despite his protestations otherwise. Alongside the stern-faced Sheriff Rao and your wise old pal, Thief, you embark on a quest to uncover a rumored water source that will hopefully restore Sand Land to life. The second half of the game's narrative covers the brand-new events featured in the recently released anime adaptation. While the first six episodes of the show rehash the familiar ground of the manga, the last seven episodes function as a sequel to the original story, with Toriyama conceptualizing a fresh tale that sees Beelzebub, Rao, and Thief embroiled in a lopsided war after venturing into the neighboring Forest Land.

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Now Playing: SAND LAND - Official Story Trailer

Sand Land might not be as popular as Toriyama's other works, such as Dragon Ball and Dr. Slump, but despite its niche nature, its recent resurgence isn't without merit. The characters and world-building found in Sand Land are its greatest strength, and these elements are seamlessly translated into the game. The relationship between Beelzebub, Rao, and Thief is just as charming as it was on the page, while the game's open world gives their conversations and banter space to breathe as you travel between locations. These moments excel when pulling lines straight from the manga, but pockets of incidental dialogue have a habit of repeating over and over again, which quickly becomes grating to the point where I wish I could've muted it completely.

Fortunately, the story itself is well told, meshing a whimsical child-like wonder with more profound explorations of prejudice, trauma, corporate greed, and the ecologism that exists in a world ravaged by humans. One of Sand Land's main themes is a self-reflective notion not to judge a book by its cover, and Rao's backstory focuses on the horrors of war and genocide and how they can still impact people decades after the fact. The entire core cast of characters is also well-layered, informed by their past lives while learning and growing as they unearth more information about the world and each other. The plethora of optional side quests tend to be verbose, even when their contents aren't particularly interesting or original. Some of these tales do at least expand on Toriyama's world-building, though, showing how regular people live and survive in the harshness of Sand Land's vast desert landscape.

Aside from its narrative, another area where the game captures one of the manga's core aspects is its focus on imaginative vehicles. You have access to various two- and four-wheeled machines that can be swapped on the fly as you traverse Sand Land's open world. The iconic tank is the star of the show, sputtering fumes from its exhaust pipes as its undulating treadwheels glide over the sand; it's surprisingly nimble despite its bulky frame, lending combat a sense of fluidity as you dodge incoming fire and pepper enemy tanks with your own booming cannon. You also have access to a secondary weapon--typically something automatic like a Gatling gun--that can be used to dispatch foot soldiers and some of the smaller beasts you'll encounter. This creates a satisfying flow to combat as you swap between weapons while one is reloading and outmaneuver your enemies using the tank's speed boost and inherent agility.

Customization is a significant part of the experience, allowing you to swap out either of the tank's weapons with new and upgraded parts. There isn't much variety in how these weapons handle, however--one cannon might fire slightly faster than another or inflict burning damage, but they still feel very much the same. Crafting new parts is also overly cumbersome, as the game doesn't let you compare what you're building with what you currently have equipped. Enemies scale to your level, too, so there isn't a tangible sense of progression, even as you install new parts with higher damage output. This is disappointing and takes away from the customization's potential. Even so, Sand Land's tank-based action is still fun, with rewarding shooting, despite a lack of evolution. Additional cooldown-based abilities--of which you can equip one--add another element to combat. These can be focused on defense, granting you extra armor or an interception system that shoots down incoming missiles, or they can be more offensive abilities like an explosive laser or an outrigger that locks the tank in place, allowing you to rapidly fire the main cannon while stationary.

Additional vehicles include a motorbike, hovercar, dirt buggy, and jump-bot, among others. Each has its own set of weapons for use in a pinch, but these vehicles are primarily focused on traversal. The motorbike, for instance, is the fastest way to get around Sand Land's open world, to the point where it can cross quicksand without sinking. The jump-bot, meanwhile, is a lumbering two-legged machine that lets you leap great heights to navigate the game's various platforming sections. You might try the motorbike's shotgun or the car's guided-missile system in combat, but considering you can just swap to the tank at any time, the other vehicles feel superfluous once bullets start flying. The Battle Armor you unlock towards the end of the game is the only exception, mainly because it lets you uppercut enemy tanks into the air.

When you're not piloting one of these vehicles, Sand Land takes a notable dip in quality. Being a demon prince, Beelzebub is no slouch when fighting hand-to-hand. There's a typical mix of light and heavy attacks, plus a dodge, and you can unlock both passive and active abilities for Rao and Thief, including a personal tank Rao will pilot to help you out. Not that you'll need much assistance. Sand Land's melee combat is simplistic, with a string of light attacks all that's required to defeat most enemies. Sometimes you'll need to dodge incoming attacks--telegraphed by your opponent glowing red--and Beelzebub has a few unlockable abilities for dealing extra damage to more formidable enemies. Fighting multiple threats at once is its greatest challenge, only because there's no way to swap between targets when locked on, resulting in an awkward back and forth. It doesn't take long for this ponderous dance to grow stale, with the only saving grace being that melee combat isn't too frequent.

The same can be said for Sand Land's rudimentary stealth sections. Trial and error is the name of the game here, with an instant fail state present whenever you're spotted. Fortunately, these clandestine moments are straightforward enough to navigate without attracting prying eyes. The main issue is that your crouched movement is slow and monotonous, offering a change of pace that wasn't desired. Stealth also tends to occur in samey military bases, which is also an issue elsewhere. You're forced to traverse the innards of near-identical crashed ships multiple times throughout the game, which only adds to the inane repetition of its stealth and melee combat.

The abundance of side quests are similarly bland, often tasking you with killing a certain number of enemies to either save someone or acquire crafting materials. Sometimes, you might have to search ancient ruins for a specific item or win one of the desert races, but you're mostly just repeating the same tasks for different reasons. Most of these quests revolve around the town of Spino and your efforts to make it somewhere people would want to live. You'll complete quests for the likes of traders and farmers that lead to them joining the town and gradually growing it throughout the game. The quests themselves might be dull, but watching the town's progress is rewarding, especially when it comes with the convenience of putting everything you need in a single hub. It's just a shame the process behind the town's resurgence isn't more engaging.

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The story behind Sand Land's creation is funny but also sad in a way. Toriyama initially made Sand Land for his own personal enjoyment, devising a short story about an old man and his tank. However, the tank proved more challenging to draw than expected, and since Toriyama stubbornly insisted on drawing everything himself, he came to regret the idea. He persevered anyway, eventually releasing the manga for public consumption, and his pain was certainly our gain. Toriyama's love of vehicles shines through in Sand Land and is where its most enjoyable moments reside. It's disappointing that it flounders in other areas, particularly when it comes to stealth and melee combat, but ILCA has still managed to capture the heart and spirit of the original manga through its story, characters, and vehicular combat and traversal. Sand Land is bittersweet in many ways, but it'ss a testament to Toriyama's talents as both an artist and storyteller that, despite its numerous flaws, it's still worth playing.

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The Good

  • Vehicular combat is punchy and satisfying
  • Captures the charm of the original manga with well-layered characters and storytelling
  • Each vehicle is fun to drive and makes traversal enjoyable

The Bad

  • Vehicle customization is stunted by familiar weapons and enemy scaling
  • Stealth and melee combat are both generic, monotonous, and stale
  • Side quests lack imagination

About the Author

Richard finished Sand Land in 25 hours, completing a large swath of its side quests along the way. Review code was provided by the publisher.