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Sand Land preview

Sand Land

A Hands-On Tour And Exclusive Town-building Details
by Marcus Stewart on Mar 27, 2024 at 10:00 AM
Platform PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, PC
Publisher Bandai Namco
Developer Ilca
Rating Teen

For most manga fans, the name Akira Toriyama likely conjures one image: Goku. The legendary manga artist, who unexpectedly passed away this year, has become immortalized thanks to his greatest creation, Dragon Ball. But while the adventures of Goku and his friends will chiefly define Toriyama’s legacy, the artist is responsible for other works, such as Dr. Slump, Pink, and his 2000 manga (and accompanying film) Sand Land.

If you’ve never heard of Sand Land, imagine combining Mad Max with Dragon Ball, and you have a rough approximation of its vibe. Sand Land’s world sees humans and demons share a tense coexistence in a vast desert marred by years of war. The land’s greedy king has monopolized the water supply, making it a valuable commodity that has turned ordinary citizens into bandits and outlaws vying for every drop. 

An ex-soldier named Sheriff Rao becomes fed up with the king’s greed, so he turns to the demons for help. But he doesn’t manage to recruit just any old fiend; he gets Beelzebub, the young and attitudinal demon prince. Imagine Bart Simpson as a purple demon, and you've got a good idea of Beelzebub's vibe. Joining the young monarch is his wizened friend Thief, who is, you guessed it, very good at stealing. The three hop into a tank and embark on a grand quest that…well, you’ll have to read the manga to learn how it plays out.

If you decide to forgo reading the manga, watching the 2023 animated film, or checking out its 2024 animated series, Sand Land’s eponymous video game debut offers another good entry point. Developed by ILCA, makers of One Piece Odyssey and Pokémon Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl, Toriyama’s sandy universe has been transformed into an open-world action RPG with an original narrative set after the events of the manga (although Bandai assures that newcomers can hop right into this without prior familiarity). I traveled to Bandai Namco’s office in Irvine, California, to play a few hours of the game across multiple areas to see how Beezlebub fares in an interactive playground.

Fire Your Engines

Fire Your Engines 

Fans recently got to explore a slice of Sand Land’s open world thanks to a demo, but I got to experience meatier chunks of the adventure, set roughly 30 hours into its evidently lengthy runtime.

Sand Land’s big hook is a focus on vehicle combat, as Beelzebub, the game’s protagonist, can pilot a slew of different machines. In my demo, I had access to a motorbike, a tank, a hovercraft, and two types of mech suits. One suit can execute powerful vertical leaps that are good for reaching high places. Another is more combat-focused, sporting a machine gun, and you can pummel foes with its metallic fists. A d-pad selection wheel makes it easy to pick the desired vehicle on the fly, with Beelzebub tossing a small device that causes chosen vehicles to appear in a sparkly puff of smoke a la capsules in Dragon Ball. 

The motorbike works best for general exploration thanks to its speed, and mounted machine guns let players mow down threats on the go. Sand Land’s focus on vehicle combat is appealing to me as a long-time fan of the dormant car combat genre. The desert teems with roaming creatures such as various dinosaurs and giant lion-like beasts, plus plenty of armed bandits piloting death machines of their own. While the motorbike has enough firepower to deal with the average opposition, I switch to the more combat-focused tank to handle sturdier foes. Its powerful machine gun (with a sniper scope for precision targeting) and explosive shells can quickly reduce opposition to heaps of twisted metal. 

In a great touch, you can seamlessly switch from driving one vehicle to another without first going back to playing as Beelzebub on foot. This means you can drive the motorbike and instantly transform into the tank without hitting the brakes. I wish vehicles would stick around longer once you get off them. They often disappear as soon as they’re out of frame, and I grew tired of repeatedly re-summoning the motorbike whenever I stepped off to briefly inspect something. 

Beelzebub is no slouch on his own. He can execute basic melee combos and hold his own against most threats I encountered. Strength/defense-raising serums, purchased from wandering vendors, can temporarily boost the young ruler’s capabilities. The main party members each sport standard skill trees that widen their offensive capabilities, too. Even still, Sand Land clearly wants players to utilize vehicles as often as possible, as enemy machines and more powerful wildlife can wear down the demon prince quickly. Although Sheriff Rao and Thief offer constant companionship (not to mention a barrage of way-too-repetitious ambient dialogue), their contributions to combat don’t feel immediately apparent or impactful.

Defeating enemies and scouring the world uncovers resources used to upgrade or purchase vehicle enhancements. Vehicles can sport two weapons, and visiting workshops offer more powerful variants of each one with different stat properties and effects. The same applies to new engines, armor, and mobility parts. There’s enough number crunching involved that serious players can do a fair amount of min-maxing if they want, or you can just do what I did: choose the weapon sporting the highest number of green arrows pointing upwards. 

Regardless of what shape your vehicles take, driving around is fun if for no other reason than to immerse oneself in Toriyama’s art. Sand Land looks great. In addition to traditional sidequests, I stumbled upon radio towers that, once repaired using the necessary materials, reveal more landmarks. Distinctive tall rock columns require the jumping mech to ascend, which usually has goodies such as a treasure chest. I don’t spend too much time with these diversions; instead, I choose to book it for the main attraction: a dungeon.

I make for Cardamo ruins, a subterranean complex located behind a waterfall. The hovercraft becomes my best friend during this section as it’s suited for navigating the water – and Beelzebub can’t swim. Getting through this massive complex of a dilapidated temple requires raising/lowering the water level in flood areas to reach the next exit. Wide staircases and corridors allow me to pilot the hovercraft into zones meant for on-foot traversal. This process isn’t always the most straightforward form of navigation for such interiors, but I appreciate that Sand Land allows players to stay in their vehicles more often than not, especially since you can still open chests and collect loot while piloting machinery. 

This dungeon takes a while to get through, partly due to my thorough exploration of alternative hallways leading to extra treasures. Enemies such as giant alligators hide beneath the waves of several flooded rooms, waiting to strike hapless foes. Though they catch me a few times, doing so gives me the satisfying pleasure of blasting them with the hovercraft’s missile launcher. 

After a lengthy trek of flipping switches to raise water levels, hopping across spinning waterwheels, and dodging rocks on fast-moving waterways, I encounter my first boss battle: a Kraken. Taking down this massive squid requires unleashing hell on its ample-sized head while dodging streams of water balls spat from its beak. I also use the hovercraft's limited extended hover boost to hop over its swinging tentacles. At specific points, I land on scattered patches of earth. With solid ground beneath me, I switch to the tank to unleash a more powerful (though mobility-limited) offense. It’s an enjoyable battle, and I like the flexibility of either relying solely on my hovercraft to take it down or utilizing the small islands to attack using my land-based vehicles. 

After the Kraken absorbs its final bullet, its defeat signals a transition into a big and surprising element of Sand Land: Forest Land. 

 Welcome to Forest Land

Welcome To Forest Land

I eventually move on to another section of the game set in a brand-new biome for the franchise called Forest Land. This lush green environment is a stark contrast to the dunes players will spend dozens of hours exploring beforehand, so you’ll have played a big chunk of the game before even seeing this zone.

Dragon Ball fans will feel right at home in Forest Land thanks to similar topographic features such as massive, grass-topped cliffs and sweeping fields. I noticed some of the same environmental challenges found in Sand Land, such as the tall jumping pillars, but I don’t know how different Forest Land’s offerings are as I focus on the main objective.

The story takes me to a resistance camp, and after a sequence I won’t spoil, I’m tasked with infiltrating an enemy base to rescue a captive ally. Since the facility is heavily populated with goons, stealth becomes the name of the game. Infiltration involves sneaking up on patrolling targets by crouching and quietly dispatching them. 

Beelzebub won’t be snapping necks or choking folks out; instead, they will opt to perform a jump scare that frightens foes so badly that they stiffen like a board and fall unconscious. It’s cute and fits the character’s mischievous nature, but stealth is also very basic and, at least in this section, and not particularly challenging. It can become tedious since getting caught means re-doing the current room from the beginning. This lack of flexibility feels dated and will likely be especially frustrating for those who struggle with stealth segments in general

 To Build A Village

To Build A Village 

Once my demo concludes, Bandai Namco treats me to an exclusive breakdown of Sand Land’s town-building element. At a certain point in the story, players encounter a small, ruined settlement out in the desert that they are tasked with restoring. 

One important NPC players can recruit is Lassi, a cat-like traveler who deals in rare goods such as treasure maps and more exotic vehicle weaponry like lasers, grenade launchers, and particle cannons. As you progress the adventure, you meet other faces you can collect, so to speak, for your home base. Residents bring wants and desires in the form of sidequests, so the more populous your city becomes, the wider your quest log balloons. 

Your city can be upgraded up to five times, and each improvement unlocks new buildings and stores, invites new citizens, and the overall aesthetic gets a facelift. When I see it at Tier 1, the city is little more than a rocky pit of sand, weeds, and bombed-out buildings. Each improvement tier brings resources such as water into the city (including a gigantic water wheel), and you even unlock traversal mechanics such as a zipline network to help explore the city more easily. By Tier 5, the city is a bustling metropolis with buildings stacked on buildings, multiple elevation levels, more greenery, waterfalls, a marketplace, and more. 

Unlockable businesses include a vehicle customization shop, which allows you to cosmetically change your vehicles with different paint schemes, patterns, and finishes, such as gloss. You’ll also unlock an item shop, a garage for swapping out vehicle parts, and inns to rest at, among other establishments. A bounty board will also appear that tasks players with locating and defeating notorious targets, providing mini-boss fights for sharpening your skills while obtaining rare weapons and other rewards. Shops evolve alongside the city, as they’ll offer more extensive, more valuable inventories with each upgrade tier. 


Beezlebub needs his own space, too, and behind the garage sits his personal home that players can customize from scratch. What begins as a series of empty, plain rooms can be livened up on a broad level by applying cosmetic themes such as forest or sci-fi. You can also place individual decor items such as furniture and trophies, and you display your vehicles, too. New cosmetic items for your home can be found by completing missions; Bandai mentions defeating a sub-boss to unlock a rare chair as an example. 

Despite this feature's many perks, Bandai also tells me players can invest as much or as little time into improving their city as they choose. Maxxing out the city isn’t required to complete the story. Those who plan to partake can expect to spend dozens of hours shining up the town, depending on how much you focus on it.

 Putting The Pieces Together

Putting The Pieces Together

What I saw of Sand Land didn’t veer far from expectations or offer a lot of novelty, but I enjoyed my time playing. Outside of the vehicle combat, it feels like a totally competent action RPG carried by Toriyama’s signature charm and personality. Piloting bikes, tanks, and other bots is where the game stands out, and the arcade-like thrill of blowing up enemy tanks or simply ramming into hapless goons is good fun. The vehicle customization and town-building features also show signs of an unexpected depth. As someone who’s growing increasingly weary of open-world fluff, I’m mildly worried about the scope of Sand Land’s side activities, so here’s hoping it has plenty of real meat to chew on. 

As a decades-long fan of Toriyama, I was already curious to experience Sand Land’s world for the first time through this game. I wasn’t familiar with the manga prior to the game’s reveal, and admittedly, Toriyama’s passing has skyrocketed the game closer to “must-play” status. But after spending some quality time with Beelzebub and his gang of benevolent rogues, I’m more confident I’ll have solid fun with it beyond treating it as an interactive eulogy to one of my favorite artists.

Sand Land launches on April 26 for PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, and PC

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Sand Land

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