Sand Land review – Story above all else

Other than the first few seasons of Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Digimon, my experience with anime has been limited, to say the least. However, if there is a series that has defined entire generations all over Latin America and the world, that is Dragon Ball. And even if I haven’t seen the anime franchise itself, I grew up trying to make a Kamehameha, the Genki-Dama, and even fantasize about collecting the seven Dragon Balls. But if there is a name – other than Goku – that transcended the anime and its characters, well, that is, of course, Akira Toriyama. Sand Land was released in 2000 as a manga series, and 22 years later, Bandai Namco started the Sand Land Project which saw a film, an ONA (original net animation) series, and now, a video game adaptation. And while all the promotional material gave me a sense of familiarity given Toriyama’s style, I was fearful that I wouldn’t connect with all the lore and characters of the franchise due to my lack of previous manga and anime experience. And boy, was I wrong.

A perfectly crafted tale

Let’s get this out of the way first: the strongest aspect of this game is the story. It is so that I would consider this a story and character-driven game that makes you feel like you are watching one of Toriyama’s anime productions. There is an abundance of cutscenes that will present you with the story of Sand Land and, adding to that anime feeling, each chapter of the story feels like you are playing through seasons of the series.

What helps this idea is how the main characters are presented and how they evolve throughout the game’s events. Beelzebub is a Fiend Prince who, while trying to stay true to the idea that the demons – humanity’s natural enemies – are evil and perform evil deeds, continuously finds himself becoming more and more endearing and selfless.

Thief, one of the other demons, started as a grumpy grandpa, just to become as empathetic and wise as people can become. And, finally, Rao, my favorite character in the game. A troubled man struggling with memories of his past, now finds refuge and purpose through a noble cause, trying to amend his mistakes alongside Beelzebub and Thief, two beings he has been told to despise.

Side quests may be stealing the show

However, what surprised me in a good and unexpected way, were the side quests and secondary characters. The main quests are great, don’t get me wrong, but they are perfectly complemented by the number of tasks you can do to help many people around Sand Land. It is on these side missions where our trio are no longer mere characters, but enablers of inner healing and the strength other characters need to stand up against adversity.

For example, one of the most emotional moments in the game came from a side quest called Vow of Family. This involves Hect, a man who has suffered the death of his wife, and Reya, his adoptive daughter. Hect has gone missing and Reya is waiting for him, even saving her tears thinking that crying would bring forth bad luck.

Once we find him, Hect says he no longer wants to come back because he wants to join her wife in death, stricken by grief and loneliness. We can choose to do nothing and allow Hect to continue with his intentions or insist on him returning. If we do the latter, he will return to Reya, where she reveals that she saved his life during her mother’s accident by holding Hect’s hand in an attempt to make him feel that he will never be alone.

As a father, this struck very close to home, and I couldn’t help but shed some tears. This happens a decent number of times throughout the game’s story beats, so be prepared to experience a narrative that will be impactful and meaningful – with a chance of emptying your tear ducts.

The feeling of battling in the desert

Regarding how the game feels when you are in control of Beelzebub, this is perhaps the biggest flaw in the game. Traversing through the world on foot with Beelzebub is not as fluent as I would have liked. It felt choppy and clunky, making platforming a lot more chaotic. At times, it feels like you are controlling Beelzebub with a D-Pad, even though you are using an analog stick. Not only that but whenever you are forced to fight enemies in hand-to-hand combat, Beelzebub’s attacks will stop your movement in its tracks, leaving you defenseless against the enemy at times and not allowing you to move anywhere.

I don’t know if that was a conscious decision or not, but the hand-to-hand combat’s feeling will end up with you choosing to fight enemies in your vehicles instead. And, oh man, the vehicles feel incredible. I have never been quite the vehicle combat type of guy, but whether you have a Tank, a Jump-Bot, or even a Motorbike, you feel like you are totally in control.

Each vehicle feels unique and you can change them in an instant to better suit your needs. Need to pack a punch? Choose the Tank. Do you want to climb a very high cliff? The Jump-Bot is the vehicle for you. Do you have the need…the need for speed? Then either the Car or the Motorbike will help you speed through the desert like only Sonic could do. You can even customize them by upgrading each of their parts with the help of Ann or even use decals and paint to make them look unique.

It almost feels like hand-to-hand combat was an afterthought with all the attention being focused on delivering a great vehicle combat system. And what happens is that, while the vehicle design is great, it does a great disservice to the game. Why would I choose to fight enemies with my bare hands if I have a giant Tank that will not only deal far more damage but also feel much better to the player?

An easy game for the wrong reasons

No, there is no reason to pick your fists, even if they are demon fists. Moreover, the vehicles are, in my opinion, overpowered to a level that makes the game far easier than it should be. Each main character does have their Skill Tree which can favor your hand-to-hand combat and make things easier with the inclusion of special attacks, but even your side character’s most powerful skills will involve using vehicles, like Rao’s Vehic. Warfare skill which will have him drive his own personal Tank.

I get that the main focus of the game is telling a great story, but when you have an assortment of vehicles that have infinite bullets, can easily get repaired mid-battle, and can defeat enemies that are levels above you without you breaking a sweat, then maybe there is something going on with balance. And believe me, there is. Even between the vehicles, there is a imbalance, ending up with me using the Tank all the time for combat purposes.

You will find that balance is something that will stain the game experience a bit. The game takes you by the hand throughout all the quests – side or main – and will always point toward your objective’s direction. You can deviate from your objective during quests and maybe find a couple of chests and loot, but ultimately, you will find yourself always chasing an objective marker. The resources are plentiful, and you don’t have a limit on how many items you can carry. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but I only wished the game would give me a bit more challenge, both in combat and in its role-playing aspects.

The Art of Sand Land

The most obvious aspect of the game that helps you feel like you are watching an anime is its art style. This has Toriyama style imprinted all over the place, and its cell-shaded graphics in the style of Borderlands made me feel like a kid watching one of the few anime series I did watch during my childhood. I almost expected Beelzebub to go Super Saiyan at any given moment – which he eventually did, so I’m a very happy man. This in combination with the world aesthetic, leaning on a more realistic approach, really made the game enjoyable to the eye.

However, whenever there was a close-up of one of the characters, I couldn’t help but notice some texture issues. It’s almost as if there was an issue with upscaling or something similar, but it felt – at very specific moments – that I was playing a Wii game. This has nothing to do with the aesthetic choice they decided to go with because this does not happen during cutscenes, which are spotless compared to dialogue segments.

Character design is top-notch and the way they are drawn and animated compliments their personality perfectly. This happens to contrast Sand Land’s desert which looks great but feels disorienting and repetitive at times. Now, I know that it’s a desert and all, but there are passages and places across the Sand Land that make me feel like I’m Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. And what does not help me with this feeling at all is the constant repetition of our characters’ banter and small talk which takes place when traveling across the desert itself. I have listened through lines of dialogue – which can feel off-putting given some voice performances not fitting the bill – that have repeated themselves so many times that if I hear Rao tell me to be relaxed one more time, I will bury my head in the sand and pretend to be an ostrich for the rest of my life.

Sand Land: a legacy

All in all, Sand Land is a great story-driven game that, while having its flaws like any other game would, is extremely enjoyable, engaging, and a testament to what a great writer and artist Akira Toriyama was. If you are a fan of compelling stories and you wish to learn more about who was Toriyama and the love he had for the craft, then this game is a must, and I would strongly suggest reading the manga or even watching the anime series. Both will counter the game’s weak points and make the experience more enjoyable overall.

Exploring might not be its greatest strength given the limited rewards and how the game handles balance and the overworld’s design, so I suggest sticking to quest completion, where you will be able to find everything you need. And while fighting through the desert, always use any vehicle you find comfortable driving. However, don’t neglect your hand-to-hand combat and try to engage some enemies from time to time to learn the basics – and please, learn how to efficiently dodge, you will be doing that a lot!

To summarize, don’t dive into this game expecting flawlessness or perfection. This game you can play casually will have you craving for the next story beat or twist to happen, leaving you wanting more. It will constantly introduce you to new characters, quests, and events, making this a well-crafted world. Sand Land, at the end of the day, is adorned with a powerful story and loveable characters who will stay with you even after you finish the game, just like Akira Toriyama’s life and legacy will stay with us for generations to come.