Akira Toriyama’s Sand Land needs more fun to be the Mad Max of games

Out of all of the demos I played at Gamescom 2023, Sand Land was easily the most perplexing. Based on the one-shot manga series by Dragon Ball and Chrono Trigger legend Akira Toriyama, Sand Land is a visually exciting game, but a hands-on preview left me wanting more substance beneath the style.

Sand Land is an action-RPG set in an ecocidal world plagued by water shortage, with a 2,500-year-old telepathic gamer demon named Beelzebub at the center. Alongside a pair of crusty old dudes called Thief and Rao, Beelzebub embarks on a desert odyssey to find a legendary spring that can remedy his world’s H2-wOes.

It’s a cool premise, and after watching the game’s announcement trailer, I was particularly intrigued by the clips of stealthy outpost infiltrations and open-world vehicular combat. An anime RPG in the vein of 2015’s Mad Max game is an interesting prospect; similar to how ILCA and Bandai Namco are tackling the legacy of Toriyama with Sand Land, Avalanche Studios siphoned the thirsty atmosphere of George Miller’s Mad Max movies while juggling deep skill trees full of meaningful, modular car and character upgrades. To triumph, a player had to scavenge for those upgrades, too, conquering enemy territory and unraveling crafty convoys to turn a rust bucket into a true killer hot rod.

Few games have riffed on Avalanche’s unique formula since, but based on that early footage, Sand Land looked primed to take the baton. But the on-rails nature of my 15-minute PS5 hands-on meant I didn’t get access to the systemic interplay that often tends to define a good open-world game.

Image: ILCA/Bandai Namco Entertainment

The preview started with a scripted driving sequence in which I had to avoid a (kind of adorable) burrowing dragon. Despite this opening section’s triviality, it functioned as a way to get to grips with Sand Land’s unique art style. The intentional lines and shading on the cars and characters contrast wonderfully with the comparative hyperrealism of Sand Land’s desert environments, which are full of shadows and layered crags. There are no muddy textures in sight, choices in service of a faithful translation of Toriyama’s beloved technique. Later on, I met a gang leader in BDSM gear whose wave-like mohawk cast a convincing shadow on his crosshatched chest.

Eventually, I made it out of the pain canyon and into a ruined village, and I took some time to talk to its quirky locals. A shopkeep dished some curious war lore, and I browsed his wares to find HP, strength, and defense serums. I also noticed I could collect and sell graded parts and mods, which I assume will play a part in the vehicular customization system teased for the full game. I was sad not to get to engage with this aspect of Sand Land in my demo, as it seems like it will be a big part of the experience and potentially the secret sauce.

Regardless, I soldiered on toward my next objective, boosting and drifting around the baked plains in a teal buggy. Strangely, acceleration is controlled with the left stick, and these tank controls make precise maneuvering a little awkward, though it starts to make more sense when you find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile. After running over a few sun-laxing, low-level dinosaurs, I ditched the nitro golf cart for a nearby battle tank and started blasting.

Beelzebub punches a soldier in a military compound with pink energy bursting from the punch in Sand Land

A tank shoots down mac trucks in the desert outside of a fortress wall in Sand Land

Images: ILCA/Bandai Namco Entertainment

Sand Land isn’t exactly Armored Core, but the game’s tank combat is good fun as you zoom and poke miniboss critters from a distance with your cannon, subduing their minions up close with your machine gun. Once again, the game’s Toriyama style spun into gear as dainty puffs of black smoke and whipped-up shrapnel sputtered out the back of my Metal Slug-esque war machine, DualSense haptics purring away in my palms.

But trundling tanks are no match for Sand Land’s optional loot caves, and Beelzebub has close-quarters combat moves for such unremarkable occasions, complemented by some deliberate magic attacks tied to the right shoulder button. It’s your typical punch-kick-evade combo fest, evocative of the bread-and-butter combat of Bandai’s Dragon Ball Xenoverse games.

Get the cadence right, and Beelzebub will pull off a prompted throw or juggle enemies with his tail, capitalizing on delayed inputs to dunk bandits into the ground. It’s not the most exciting combat system in the world (and it pales in comparison to the tank battles), but it gets the job done without being too tedious. In the demo I played, there wasn’t anything super challenging that allowed me to explore it in any real depth, and I got the impression this was Beelzebub in the pits of his powers.

A puncture from a gang of thieves eventually put a stop to my exploration and bookended the demo with a boss battle. The fiend prince’s crabby chaperones ran around the arena aimlessly as I fought, and… Look, I know they’re ancient, but it felt like a missed opportunity for them not to offer a helping hand and flesh out the combat a bit. Sand Land’s cool character designs couldn’t save this encounter from feeling like an instanced version of everything that came before, and the “Thank you for playing!” screen arrived all too soon.

Without access to its meatier mechanics, Sand Land left an unusual impression. I’m compelled by the variety of vehicles coming to the full game and the proposed ability to tune them up to my taste in order to torment the inhabitants of the open world. I’m also keen on the idea of pumping the brakes and stealthing through an outpost in the desert, Phantom Pain style. Beyond the disparate flashes of promise I encountered in my hands-on, I want to see all of these teased features unite toward something substantial that evokes the cohesive vision of Avalanche’s Mad Max.

But that’s not what I played, and it’s hard to square my disappointment with this early build against the clear potential come launch. Unfortunately, my hands-on time made a strong case for Sand Land’s aesthetic prowess and not much else.

Sand Land does not have a firm release date, but is expected to arrive on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC via Steam, and Xbox Series X in 2024.

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