sand land

SAND LAND Hands-On Preview – More Refreshing Than A Desert Spring

This is one anime/manga tie-in to keep an eye on.

Admittedly, my experience with SAND LAND prior to picking up the controller for a near-four-hour hands-on session with its upcoming video game installment this week was next to nil. And to be fair, I’m sure that’s a lot of folks given the one and only issue of the manga came out over 20 years ago, and the recent anime adaptation just debuted on Disney+ this month. I’m glad this new push for the late Akira Toriyama’s dusty little world is happening though, because after immersing myself in it these past days I’m a little obsessed.

I don’t think many anime/manga fans would disagree with me in saying that historically, video game takes on established properties are pretty hit or miss. So when I first spied SAND LAND I was intrigued by the idea, but not overly optimistic. As it turns out, I should’ve placed more faith in both ILCA (developers of Pokémon Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl and One Piece Odyssey) and Bandai Namco in throwing some actual weight behind this endeavour. SAND LAND is shaping up to not just be a capable video game adaptation of the manga and anime but a genuinely great game in its own right.

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Story-wise, SAND LAND follows the same overall set of events that fans will know from the manga and anime, though it’s got more than a few original storylines and characters that are woven into the existing framework and make it feel quite different. The core things that make the story great are here though, like the unlikely trio of the young and hot-headed Fiend Prince, Beelzebub, fellow and much older demon, Thief, and the human sheriff Rao.

The way these three play off of each other and learn to make sense of their differences as humans and demons in a world where there’s still a significant divide is consistently charming and the gags come thick and fast in spite of quite dire circumstances. It feels bittersweet that this game is coming out while the wound left by Toriyama’s passing is still fresh, but it’s a great reminder of how incredible and memorable the worlds and personalities are that he’s left behind.

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For my preview of the SAND LAND game, I was able to sample a few different and distinct parts of the full experience, starting with an early section and jumping forward to some saves a bit further into the game. The initial segment I played takes place roughly across the first three chapters of the manga, though the game takes some pretty significant creative liberties versus both the manga and the expanded story in the anime by introducing some new characters and ideas much earlier. In this first part, players are introduced to the various core gameplay concepts including on-foot exploration, vehicles, combat and a surprising dedication to stealth sections.

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The most immediately-noticeable thing about SAND LAND is how good it feels to play across all of these different gameplay types. Protagonist, demon and all-around fiend Beelzebub is a nimble little guy and can hold his own in the simple-but-satisfying scenarios where he’s squaring off against baddies in melee combat, and similarly when he’s directed into sneaking around Royal Army encampments in very easy-going and honestly enjoyable stealth bits. The stealth tutorial actually stars Thief, Beelz’ geriatric sidekick, amusingly dressed as Santa while he pilfers food and water from a small town, but our protagonist’s ability to sneak up on army dudes and jump-scare them into completely disappearing wins the day.

It’s the vehicular play that shines though, with an increasing collection of different desert-beating machines all offering a fun new way to get around, whether it’s by tank, motorcycle, robot walker or even a handy hovercraft. Vehicles are absolutely the main draw here, and almost everything feels designed to encourage players to summon their rides at every given opportunity whether it’s to get around quickly or to easily mow down enemies big and small with a huge assortment of weapons.

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Zipping around the wastes in an assortment of vehicles feels quite reminiscent of the mainline Borderland games, as a point of reference, right down to how they control. It’s a good setup, and feels just right for the experience with forgiving handling and simple shooting. It took me a minute to get used to vehicle weapons needing quite regular reloads but being able to switch to another gun while one reloads makes for a good rhythm once you’re around it.

The next section of SAND LAND I was able to play was a bit further into the game, and sees Beelzebub and crew heading to Forest Land – a brand-new location exclusive to the game and the upcoming episodes of the anime, and conceived by Toriyama before his passing – on a rescue mission. Getting there required passing through a set of subterranean ruins that act as a kind of dungeon, complete with requisite winding passageways, water level puzzles and a big boss at the end, though the twist here is that Belz is still able to summon his vehicles inside the dungeon. The hovercraft winds up being essential here for puzzle solving as well as the boss fight, but I could even drive it through narrow corridors and over short walls if I wanted to, which felt incorrect in only the best ways.

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The boss fight, a watery stand-off against a giant kraken, was an absolute thrill. Using the hovercraft to narrowly dodge its tentacle attacks while firing off rockets and machine gun assaults. It really drives home how well SAND LAND skirts the line between vehicular combat sim and action game while remaining incredibly intuitive to pick up and play. There’s just a whole lot of polish here that goes above and beyond what I was expecting.

Once in Forest Land, I was happy for the huge change in scenery from the vast expanses of desert and into lush, verdant forests. New flora and fauna awaited, and I found I could even ride a dino-like animal found at checkpoints around the place. This area certainly lent itself more to being on-foot as Beelzebub, or at least riding on a creature that was on-foot, and it served as a reminder to explore more of the Fiend Prince’s own abilities. Belz has a very basic but still fun-looking skill tree with which to unlock new special moves and buffs, as do his companions who don’t directly join in scraps with you but will assist from the sidelines. Vehicles are undoubtedly the main attraction, but taking a break for some more hand-to-hand action and another breezy stealth segment made for a good cutaway.

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Fast forward again to another later section of the game, and I’m tasked with heading to Sand Land’s royal capital where I’m introduced to more familiar faces from the manga, the sympathetic and mightily-quiffed General Are as well as the King. Things have clearly gone well past the original source material at this point, so it’s neat to see how these characters might develop further. At any rate, I’m tasked to cross cannons with an enemy armada in the biggest vehicle battle I’d seen or experienced thus far. With what seemed like full access to the game’s maps of both Sand Land and Forest Land, and fast travel available with shockingly-quick load times, I also had a chance to prepare myself and my vehicles to be ready for the fight.

On top of everything it already has going for it, SAND LAND’s robust vehicle customisation looks to be another great aspect. As you roam the game world, search for treasures, destroy enemies and everything in-between you’ll amass a hefty coffer of crafting materials which can all be used to create new vehicle parts – or even whole new vehicles – to buff your odds of survival. Different kinds of guns and moving parts can be attached, things can be upgraded and even re-coloured to match your vibe, meaning your rides can look and feel just how you want them.

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After doing a quick spot of tinkering, I set out to meet my opponents on the field of battle in my trusty tank, only to be greeted by an exponentially bigger tank. Another “boss” fight then, and one perhaps less pattern-based than my duel with the giant kraken but still just as tense and exciting. I get the sense that this preview was set up to give me the best fighting chance with my gear as the enemy went down quite easy, so I’m keen to see how things go when I have more responsibility over my builds and my battle-readiness.

I think the thing that continued to surprise me in my preview is how much SAND LAND still feels like the kinds of open-world action RPGs I’d normally play, despite the fact I spent most of my time in these vehicles. There’s a demo out right now if you want to get a feel for how some of them control, though it’s unfortunately super basic and far from representative of the actual moment-to-moment experience. Fanging it around the desert is cool and all, but SAND LAND seemingly also has much more to offer than I was expecting. It’s quickly gone from a passing curiosity to a day-one play for me.

SAND LAND launches on April 26th for PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S and PC. Amazon has pre-orders available for $79 with free release day delivery.