Sand Land review – a delightful tribute

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It would be impossible to talk about Sand Land without mentioning the late, great Akira Toriyama. While Sand Land has always lived in relative obscurity compared to the likes of Dragon Ball, it garnered a strong cult following, representing a throwback to the classic manga of the author’s early career. And with the release of this long-awaited adaptation made all the more poignant following Toriyama’s tragic passing last month, expectations are high for developer ILCA to do it justice – and that’s exactly what they’ve done.

Sand Land is a 14-chapter manga released by Akira Toriyama back in 2000. Set in a vast desert where all water has long since dried up, this adaptation sees you take on the mantle of the demon prince Beelzebub, a bratty young fiend more concerned with playing pranks than anything else. When visited by a human, Rao, the two form an unlikely alliance to attempt to find the Legendary Spring and bring water back to the people of Sand Land.

Sand Land review: Beelzebub standing with his arms crossed in front of a group of other demons.
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As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the water drying up wasn’t just an unfortunate incident, and that some more sinister forces are at play in the world. It’s a quaint and low-stakes plot, though that is anything but a criticism. Sand Land is vintage Toriyama, embodying the kind of fun, adventure-focused stories like Dr. Slump and the original Dragon Ball, and it’s a delight to see it brought to life on-screen.

Despite being set in a desert, I never found myself tiring of looking at the landscape. Despite the rather samey colour palette you would expect of a desert, it’s bright and has plenty of genuinely beautiful areas, whether that’s a rocky outcrop, an immense waterfall of sand (sandfall, perhaps?) or simply the setting sun shining over the dunes, I was pleasantly surprised over and over by how good this game looks. Even so, I did find that some of the indoor areas you visit across the game can feel a little copy-pasted.

Sand Land review: Riding a motorbike through a valley with the sun setting in the distance.
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Everything in Sand Land revolves around vehicles. Whether it’s quickly traversing the world in a car or bike, fighting off the Royal Army in your tank, or jumping to high-up platforms in a jump-bot, the vehicles you have and how you use them are core to Sand Land’s gameplay. Despite his manga pedigree, Toriyama’s designs have of course long been gaming mainstays thanks to Dragon Quest and Chrono Trigger, among others. But for me, one vastly underrated aspect of Toriyama’s work is his vehicle designs, something that truly has its chance to shine in Sand Land. The team at ILCA have done an excellent job of capturing the spirit of his work, crafting a collection of wacky, almost alien-looking vehicles, and it’s been a joy to finally experience piloting these vehicles that I’ve previously only seen on paper or TV.

Near the start of the game, your only vehicle is destroyed, leaving you stranded. This starting section did feel a little slow, but once you start to get new vehicles the pacing very quickly gets up to speed. Your ragtag gang hijack a tank from a Royal Army base, and this becomes your go-to vehicle for the majority of the game. 

Sand Land review: A tank preparing to fire on a jump bot in the middle of a desert.
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Tank combat is a blast (pun intended), letting you swap between a cannon and a machine gun depending on who you’re fighting. Throughout all my hours in the game, I haven’t once tired of cruising around in my tank and blowing up enemy vehicles. The game starts off a little on the easy side, so it might be worth cranking the difficulty up. Thankfully, later on, things do ramp up, making it all the more satisfying to blow your enemies to pieces.You can use your other vehicles in combat too, but the controls for these are a lot less intuitive. Most of them are built for speed over combat, and aiming while driving is often a struggle, especially when you’re up against pacier enemies. They’re great fun to traverse the world in, but I typically found myself sticking to my trusty tank for all combat.

At times during the story, you’ll also have to do some melee combat, too. It’s not bad per se, but I often found it to be little more than a couple of minutes of button mashing and usually had me wishing I was back in my tank. Luckily, these instances aren’t too common, and vehicular manslaughter is always  back on the cards soon enough.

Sand Land review: The vehicle customisation menu showing the different Tank Guns available.
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No fast travel needed

As you progress through the story, you’ll need to build new vehicles to solve certain problems such as climbing a rocky mountain or crossing quicksand. Luckily, you’ve got Ann, a brand-new character added to be the player’s mechanic, building new machines and fitting new parts to keep your arsenal ticking on. I don’t typically go in for customisation in games, but it’s clear to see that for those who do, Sand Land has plenty on offer. You can customise each vehicle, swapping out and upgrading your weapons, armour, and engines to make them stronger. Later on, you can also customise your vehicles’ appearances to make sure wherever you’re heading, you’re going there in style. The UI is a little clunky, but if you can get past that there’s a huge amount for you to get stuck into.

It’s a testament to the vehicles in this game that I almost never found myself using fast travel. Despite the desert being fairly empty, driving your convoy of machines around doesn’t get old, and being able to swap between them in less than a second means you always have something new to play around with. Couple that with always needing the materials you get from defeating enemies to upgrade your vehicles, and there’s almost never a reason not to head everywhere yourself.

Sand Land review: Riding a motorbike at night with a vast desert and crashed ship in the background.
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Around eight hours into the game, I finished the main story, or at least I thought I had. Once you complete the adaptation of the 14 chapters of Sand Land, the game doesn’t stop there, introducing a whole new original storyline to keep the game going, with conflict arising with the neighbouring armies of Forest Land. Again, ILCA does an excellent job of capturing the vibes of a classic Toriyama manga throughout, and I certainly wouldn’t blame those who didn’t realise that it was an original story.

This is a good time to really dig into some of the side content the game has to offer. There are plenty of side quests to take on, as well as a bounty system that has you tracking down a series of outlaws and monsters across the world. There are even a few minigames like motorbike races to take on, that let you show off the non-combat aspects of your vehicles. There are also a fair few caves and hidden areas to explore, rewarding you with materials and sometimes even unique parts for your vehicles. There’s no need to engage with any of this to progress the main story, but it’s a nice bonus for players who want to see all that the world has to offer.

Sand Land review: A giant blue sphere floating above a tank with rocky outcrops in the background.
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In all aspects this is by no means a particularly deep game, nor does it need to be. There’s little mastery to be had in its fairly simple vehicular combat, nor is there any deep lore to uncover, and yet it stands out. It has its faults, but among the recent trend of anime games largely being relegated to the realm of half-baked arena fighters, Sand Land leaning so heavily into its unique setting and zany armada of vehicles is a much-needed breath of fresh air. 

Sand Land is a game that patently wears its heart on its sleeve, and it’s evident that the developer shares the same deep love of the stories, worlds, and designs of Akira Toriyama as myself and millions of others. But far from over-relying on the excellent source material, Sand Land manages to expand upon it massively, transforming the original manga’s short story and small world into a vast, vibrant, and charming experience that the great man himself would certainly have been proud of.

Reviewed on PC. Code provided by the publisher.

About the Author

Alex Raisbeck

Alex is a Guides Writer for VideoGamer. He is an indie gaming obsessive with a soft spot for Zelda, roguelikes, and Football Manager, as well as an unhealthy relationship with his backlog.

Sand Land review: Beelzebub, Thief and Rao sitting inside a tank.

verdict

Sand Land is a charming ARPG romp thanks to its madcap cast of vehicles that manages not only to faithfully adapt Akira Toriyama’s vision, but to expand on it in his trademark style to create something that will delight newcomers and old-school manga-heads alike.
8 Toriyama's story and designs faithfully brought to life Fun and intuitive tank combat Vehicles make exploration a breeze Plenty of side content for those who want it Melee combat is a little dull Vehicle combat can sometimes be a bit too easy