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Sand Land review – Style over substance, and that’s just fine

Sand Land is a pleasant, breezy adaptation of Akira Toriyama's manga of the same name.
sand land gameplay adventure review

Sand Land previously had the unfortunate honour of being one of the “forgotten” works of legendary manga artist, Akira Toriyama. Since launch in the early 2000s, it has been consistently overshadowed by Dragon Ball and its many spin-offs, which have a cultural capital that only few slices of media have. Thankfully, some of that injustice has been corrected in recent times, with Sand Land‘s profile raised by its anime adaptation, and now, with the Sand Land open world adventure game.

While this iteration of Sand Land doesn’t quite live up to the grandeur and storytelling prowess of its source material, it provides a pleasant and charming world to explore, with plenty of sparkling ideas littering its harsh landscapes.

As with the manga, the action is led by Prince Beelzebub, the tiny and intrepid price of demons, who shares a similar personality to Dragon Ball (OG) protagonist, Goku. He’s loud and obnoxious, but cares deeply about his companions, and has a firm sense of justice that plays into his actions. Despite being prickly, Beelzebub is immensely likeable, and Sand Land does a great job introducing him.

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Likewise, the game is quick to set up the main plot of the action, and paint a picture of the politics of Sand Land‘s world. As in the manga, the titular Sand Land is a desert scape where demons and humans fight for the most precious resource: water. But of course, the ruling class has ample access to water, leaving a class divide where the poorest fight for scraps to survive.

Beelzebub, young and naive but clued into the ways of the world, quickly mets Rao, a sheriff looking to discover the long-lost Legendary Spring, a bountiful pool of water which may solve the world’s resource crisis. Along with Thief, an older demon with stealth skills, and a mysterious vagabond known as Ann, Beelzebub and his companions set off on an open world quest to right the wrongs of the world.

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Screenshot: GamesHub / ILCA / Bandai Namco

As this world opens up, the inspirations behind Sand Land become clear. Whether directly or not, it evokes a multitude of past gaming hits: Borderlands, Arkham Knight, and Metal Gear Solid most prominently – at least, based on my own experiences.

It’s Borderlands in its approach to worldbuilding, and shares a similar post-apocalypse: you’ll spend much of your time wandering sandy deserts in a tank (and later, other vehicles), avoiding beasts flying at you from the skies, and scorpions roaming the ground. It’s Arkham Knight in its approach to tank combat, with the plot leading you to a range of smooth, moreish skirmishes against other tanks and armies.

And it’s Metal Gear Solid-lite in its stealth missions, with many requiring you to infiltrate enemy bases, and take out soldiers one-at-a-time using “scare” attacks that knock them out of contention, and allow you to maintain your cover.

Beyond these equivalent experiences, Sand Land also offers fetch-based bounty contracts in the wilds, as well as rescue missions (defeat all enemies), and some hand-to-hand combat segments, which frankly don’t require much talent.

It’s an eclectic mix, with each facet of the game providing new ways to explore slices of Toriyama’s world. While the novelty of its best missions fade over time, and Sand Land quickly devolves to repetition and frustratingly slow movement across its many empty deserts, there’s plenty of neat ideas to explore in the opening hours of the game.

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Screenshot: GamesHub / Bandai Namco / ILCA

The novelty wears off fast, and Sand Land‘s easy, breezy gameplay means there’s a significant lack of engagement and challenge in your journey, but the game does have something else going for it: an eye-catching sense of style that remains enthralling, even in the beige, sand-filled wastes.

Sand Land might feature one of the best translations of Akira Toriyama’s style in video games. Each character model is perfectly realised in 3D form, with expressive details around faces and character costumes lending a real sense of personality.

The game’s wastes may be bland, but each rock, tower and city is fascinating to look at, and there’s a gorgeous, artistic sense to the game’s main locations. From tiny little movement lines to flecks of dirt and little creases in clothing, ILCA has done a wonderful job paying homage to Akira Toriyama’s iconic art style.

Even without knowledge of Sand Land, you’d feel Toriyama’s influence on the game. His monster designs are brought to life in loving fashion. The detail on his vehicle designs are stunning. And in Beelzebub, ILCA has brilliantly translated an expressive, joyous character. You always know what he’s feeling in any given scene, with his posture and facial expressions telling the tale of a young prince growing to accept responsibility, and striving for a better world.

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Image: ILCA / Bandai Namco

Even when completing fetch quests, or taking on a new army of tanks risen from the wilds of the wasteland, I found joy in the little details of Sand Land, and getting to explore a new Toriyama-created world, one step or wheel-tread at a time.

While the game feels like a filler episode, particularly as you trample through the same patches of deserts and other terrains, completing similar quests with similar goals, it remains a pleasant experience, thanks to its stylistic touches. It might not be a perfect adaptation of Sand Land, but for those who wish to inhabit its world and expand the tale of the iconic manga, it’s a fine road trip that brims with enough style and personality to paper over its biggest flaws.

Three stars: ★★★

Sand Land
Platform(s): PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PC
Developer: ILCA
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Release Date: 25 April 2024

05/18/2024 08:16 am GMT

A PlayStation 5 copy of Sand Land was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review. GamesHub reviews are rated on a five-point scale. GamesHub has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content. GamesHub may earn a small percentage of commission for products purchased via affiliate links.

Leah J. Williams is a gaming and entertainment journalist who's spent years writing about the games industry, her love for The Sims 2 on Nintendo DS and every piece of weird history she knows. You can find her tweeting @legenette most days.