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Sand Land Is A Devilishly Good Time

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Beelzebub flies toward the camera to land a punch.

Sand Land caught my attention as soon as I saw the game’s booth at New York City Comic Con last year, with its enormous recreation of the Royal Army tank. The game’s setting, character designs, and of course the tank, stuck with me, even though I wouldn’t consider myself familiar with much, if any, of Akira Toriyama’s work outside of some early exposure to Dragon Ball in my youth. And, despite being an East coaster, there’s always been something about the desert that’s appealed to me. Now that I’ve been playing this action-RPG video game adaptation of Toriyama’s one-volume manga, I can’t get enough.

Read More: 17 Essential Sand Land Tips To Get You Started

With a narrative that handles complex topics, an excellent use of an open- world environment, really fun vehicle design and battle mechanics, and a fantastic soundtrack, Sand Land is lovely.

While I’ve yet to reach the credits, Sand Land is proving to be an excellent action-RPG that only gets better the more I’ve spent time with it. Just last night I had to pull myself away right around 2:30 a.m. to begrudgingly get some sleep.

A compelling coming of age story

Screenshot: Bandai Namco / Claire Jackson / Kotaku

In Sand Land, you play as Prince Beelzebub, a demonic prince. Young and obsessed with staying up late, playing video games, and not brushing his teeth, things take a surprising turn when the story starts to involve themes of war, genocide, self-harm, the privatization of natural resources, and the threat of nuclear weapons. This is a game of third-person melee brawls as well as explosive vehicular combat, an endeavor to rebuild a dilapidated town, and a search for a legendary spring to find water for the citizens of Sand Land. All the while the little punk threatens enemies with knuckle sandwiches and bemoans being given extra chores because he went over his allotted video game time by one minute. I love this little ruckus-starter.

Read More: Akira Toriyama’s Passing Is Motivating Me To Finally Play His Games

Only after he’s given permission from his father, Lucifer, Beelzebub sets out on a journey across Sand Land with a fellow demon named Thief and a human sheriff named Rao. Thief and Rao take on the roles of father figures for Beelzebub as he learns about the world and the perilous nature of a country deprived of water since its river dried up years ago. And in turn, Beelzebub helps Rao understand that demons aren’t to be feared and distrusted.

Thief, Beelzebub, Rao, and Anne stare down at a massive crater.

Screenshot: Bandai Namco / Claire Jackson / Kotaku

There’s a lot of suffering in Sand Land, but what I find inspiring is the dynamic between Thief, Rao, and Beelzebub as they lend helping hands to those in need, and provide shelter for many more in the town of Spino. Even though you do engage in violence via military equipment, it’s made clear that Beelzebub isn’t actually killing people (in fact, animations for enemies you’ve defeated show them running off instead of dying). There’s a reparative spirit in Sand Land’s direct and interconnected stories that I find really nourishing in a genre that’s sometimes a bit too miserable and quick to perpetuate suffering.

Explosions go off during a tank battle.

Screenshot: Bandai Namco / Claire Jackson / Kotaku

A thematically fitting and beautiful open world

That Sand Land is a video game being made in the 2020s almost guarantees it will be open-world. And yes, there are a handful of the open-world tropes many of us are all familiar with: towers, caves with loot, army bases to raid, etc. But after a solid 15 hours with this game, Sand Land manages to own its world with a degree of thematic confidence.

Beelzebub travels across Sand Land in a motorcycle.

Screenshot: Bandai Namco / Claire Jackson / Kotaku

Named after its fictional country, Sand Land is about more than just its characters. Its location is virtually a character itself. With the open-world structure, the literal Sand Land becomes a wide open place you can explore as Beelzebub. And while the main narrative certainly is compelling, going off and doing other things doesn’t feel ludonarratively dissonant or disconnected from what you’re doing. You’ll come across side-quests with some great story content, much of which adds to your reconstruction of a town that becomes your home base.

The landscape of Sand Land is also gorgeous. A good amount of aesthetic variation prevents what could otherwise have been a homogenous environment, and there’s a real sense of travel and exploration that I’m digging in the game thus far. And the skyboxes have wonderful use of clouds and color gradients to add to the spaciousness of the environment.

Vehicle customization feels deep, but not too overwhelming

A menu screen shows a motorcyle being painted different colors.

Screenshot: Bandai Namco / Claire Jackson / Kotaku

I’ve been using the game’s starting tank (but now it’s purple), jump bot, and motorcycle. You can build your own vehicles, with various parts like different weapons, engines, suspension systems, and more. It’s a fun system, though I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible. I’ll share more about my vehicle builds in an upcoming review.

Beelzebub stands next to a customized motorcycle.

Screenshot: Bandai Namco / Claire Jackson / Kotaku

A sometimes too-chatty cast of characters

Though I did say that I love the cast, I do wish they wouldn’t talk so much. Seriously, this game desperately needs a patch that cuts down on the amount of ambient dialogue you’ll hear while exploring.

Rao shouts at Beelzebub to drive faster.

Screenshot: Bandai Namco / Claire Jackson / Kotaku

As you’re traveling, you’ll frequently hear one of the characters pipe up about the world, or remind you of basic video game things like being sure to check what’s in your inventory. Some lines are actually quite interesting, providing some bite-sized worldbuilding to help you get immersed in the setting. Others are helpful reminders of the game’s systems, such as the ability to check out caves, or jump up to higher platforms via a jump bot to find loot. But there’s just far too much of it.

It feels like the characters start talking around every 30 seconds, and you’ll quickly hear the same lines over and over and over again, and in some cases it’s incoherent. Yes, Rao, you told me about the camp sites. Yes, Thief, I know you’re tired of looking at so much sand. And, oh my god, Beelzebub you literally asked Rao what he’d do if he found a tough enemy like 17 times already.

Thief, Rao, and Beelzebub sit at a campfire.

Screenshot: Bandai Namco / Claire Jackson / Kotaku

It can be exhausting. Sometimes Sand Land makes it look like last year’s Forspoken took a vow of silence. Fortunately, the rest of the game is wonderful enough that I’m willing to plug my ears and plough on.

Ya’ll, this soundtrack!

Sand Land’s soundtrack strikes the perfect balance of being great background video game music, while also having a variety of textures and tiny melodic fragments that’ll catch your ear and make you pay attention. It’s mixed surprisingly well (though sometimes feels a little too quiet) and is wonderfully varied. While in the town of Spino, you’ll hear pleasant guitar chords and ambient soundscapes, which will evolve to super-cool subtractive synth textures playing out into the ether as you explore outside.

And, I mean, just check out this awesome guitar and Fender Rhodes duet for the campfire music:

Bandai Namco / Acid Lemon

Also, that slap bass line during that boss fight I played last night? I don’t do chef’s kisses, but if I did, it’d earn it.

Do you need to read the Sand Land manga to play Sand Land?

Beelzebub flies through the air to strike someone with their back to the camera.

Screenshot: Bandai Namco / Claire Jackson / Kotaku

Sand Land, the video game, recreates the story found in the manga. A few things were changed here and there, but it’s largely a retelling of this story. So if you’re like me and haven’t read the manga at all (I’ve started now, after playing the game!), you can just dive right in. The same is true of the anime (which I have not seen).


Sand Land is out on April 24, 2024 for PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X/S, and Windows. I’m happy to say that it’s well worth your time if you’re a fan of Akira Toriyama’s work (RIP), are into anime, or just love open-world action-RPGs. Despite the overly chatty NPCs, it’s a fun game that I’m struggling to pull myself away from, and hope to share more about in a full-fledged review soon.

 

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