Sand-land – Review of a JRPG filled with wand and war machines

Published: 6 March, 2024

Sand-land – Review of a JRPG filled with wand and war machines

You may have never heard of Sand Land, but know that this manga is very popular in its home country of Japan. If for no other reason, it’s because it was created by the late Akira Toriyama, the man behind one of the most popular anime ever – the Dragon Ball series. Now, we have a game adaptation of the story of the demonic prince Beelzebub and his companions on their journey to find a water source that could change the lives of people in the desert forever. And this is the perfect opportunity to get to know this crew. Because while this ride isn't perfect, it’s definitely worth it despite its flaws.

Is it Dune, is it Mad Max? No, this is Sand Land!

The basic premise of the game is simple. Demons and humans live together in a world destroyed by war. Everything is dried to a crisp, and a kingdom that controls the water sources holds everyone else at bay. The story begins with an attack on a caravan carrying water supplies.

You take on the role of the demonic prince Beelzebub. At first glance, he seems a bit like a mischievous teenager, but fortunately, the game does a great job of portraying him in a way that his behavior is not annoying. The same applies to most of the main and side characters. They gradually reveal their traits, motivations, and pasts, and it is this colorful cast of heroes, villains, and bystanders that is one of the biggest draws of the whole game.

The story of the game adaptation doesn’t differ much from the anime, except for minor details. I dare say that if you haven't seen or read the original Sand Land, you'll have an advantage because you won't expect the plot twists. At first glance, you might guess what will happen, but the script knows how to layer additional surprising events and revelations onto a seemingly straightforward twist, pushing the story and characters forward in new directions.

It’s actually quite surprising how the narrative manages to maintain the feel of an adventurous road trip while tackling serious themes like war crimes, societal condemnation of demons, and even genocide. The main culprits are the aforementioned well-written characters, as well as Akira Toriyama’s specific humor, which his fans will recognize immediately. It must be said that the tone never falls into awkwardness and doesn’t disrupt the more serious face of the story. It simply brings the right good feeling from the shared adventure.

Besides Beelzebub, you travel with the demon Thief, who looks like an old grandpa, and Sheriff Rao. Soon, mechanic Ann joins in, who takes care of your vehicles. Sand Land has one big peculiarity that sets it apart from most of its JRPG brethren: vehicles.

As Mad Max has shown, a world destroyed by war is immediately better when you have as many horses as possible under your rear and ideally even more weapons attached to the bodywork. Sand Land lets you indulge in this regard. You start in a tank but will encounter cars, motorcycles, buggies, and even a combat robot. Moreover, you can upgrade, repaint, and change everything from the engine to the armament. This brings us to the gameplay, which, unlike the story, isn’t without its hiccups.

Sand land – review

Desert, everywhere you look

As the name of the world suggests, you’ll spend most of your time among the sandy dunes. Unfortunately, the desert setting is a bit of a stumbling block for the local open world. Locations are easily interchangeable, and only a few of them really stick in your memory.

The open world is a bit redundant. Racing through the desert between missions from point A to point B can be fun, but the scattered activities represent rather poor padding. There are enemy groups, countless times you can save a merchant from being surrounded, explore various caves, hills, or optional dungeons. In the end, the exploration feels somewhat unnecessary. For completing most activities, you get a few materials, of which you have plenty without them, or a weapon that you could make yourself in similar quality.

Then there are side quests. Unfortunately, they too don’t escape the shadow of the primitive template kill/fetch/find, but their stories at least nicely complement the atmosphere of the world. You meet interesting characters, and the rewards are worth it. Most of the poor souls you help eventually move to the village of Spino, your main camp. Someone sets up a shop there, another just builds a house, and their story sometimes continues with additional tasks. It’s useful to have all the merchants in one place, but it’s mainly a joy to watch the village grow from a few dilapidated houses into the living heart of your desert expeditions.

The list of activities doesn’t end there - you can race with different vehicles or hunt for bounties to earn new upgrades for your cars or even new machines. The latter activity especially will drive you into unexplored corners of the map where dangerous creatures lurk. Well, dangerous... I might be exaggerating.

Sand land – review

30mm cannon, I choose you!

At the very beginning, the mechanics are somewhat misleading. In terms of gameplay, Sand Land feels like a fighting game where Beelzebub controls basic combinations of light and heavy attacks along with dodging, which you can upgrade in a simple skill tree. You can also sneak, and because enemies suffer from blindness, you can come up behind them and scare them to death with a quick, flashy jump.

But once you get to your first tank, moving on foot takes a back seat. You can still fight directly as Beelzebub, and you might even take down an enemy robot that way, but a tank cannon is simply a tank cannon. So you usually only engage enemies on foot when the game explicitly requires it, which is very rare. Most dungeons are navigated from the cockpit of your vehicles.

Sneaking almost disappears entirely. Although you can theoretically ambush enemies at any time, enemy groups usually stand in such a way that they spot you before stealth even occurs to you. And primarily, it’s much faster and more effective to drive into them with a buggy spraying bullets everywhere. So you’ll probably only sneak when a mission specifically calls for it. Fortunately, there are only a few such missions in the game.

Sand land – review

The alpha and omega of the gameplay are your vehicles, and they are thankfully very well-crafted. You can summon them almost anywhere. Beelzebub carries his fleet in something best described as a Pokéball. He can even change vehicles on the fly.

Each vehicle is fortunately quite different. The tank is relatively slow but essentially universal due to its ability to shoot in all directions and switch fire from the main gun to armored targets to a machine gun for infantry. The motorcycle is fast, but its shotgun is more decorative, and its machine guns can only fire in the direction of travel.

The two-legged jumping robot is agile, but its grenade launcher can't handle flying enemies and doesn't withstand much damage. The car with a cart, on which there is a pair of guided missile launchers, can’t keep up with fast targets. And so I could go on. Gradually, you can build a nice collection of mechanized equipment.

Vehicles, of course, serve not only for combat and decoration. You need them to overcome obstacles. The jumper can, surprisingly, jump, the motorcycle can outrun a sand vortex with its speed, and the humanoid robot can move large crates. However, the use of such vehicles is quite limited, and like Beelzebub's combat abilities, they only come in handy in very specific situations.

Sand land – review

Three in a Tank and a Demon

The fights are not extremely difficult, and I actually managed most of the game with the holy trinity of tank, jumper, and motorcycle. The first two excel in battles depending on whether you need more durability or more evasion. The motorcycle lets you cruise the dunes at speeds over 120 kilometers per hour. The game also features a cruise control function where you only need to steer. Nitro, which is standard equipment for every vehicle, is unlimited outside of combat, allowing you to cross the map at full speed.

In combat, the boost is useful when you need to turn the tank’s turret and evade enemy fire simultaneously. However, I was somewhat disappointed by the lesser utility of some vehicles. Each one looks interesting, but I found some "but" for each that made me prefer one of the usual suspects in quick selection. Still, nothing prevents you from choosing almost any of them; just be prepared that some are really situational.

Because Sand Land is not a hard game if you manage to keep your vehicles at a similar level to the enemies. The vehicles themselves don’t gain experience, but you can upgrade their weapons and stats in the garage. Changing parts like tracks, engines, or special equipment also reflects visually. The weapons look different too, but their types are predefined. On a tank, you'll always have a machine gun and a cannon, but it's up to you whether you prefer faster firing, a long-range slow weapon, or stick to a golden middle ground.

Sand land – review

The best part is that you can paint all parts of your vehicles, stick stickers on them, and name them. As we all know, appearance is paramount, and in this regard, Sand Land manages to fulfill almost every dream of anime war machine captains. You might find yourself driving a slower buggy just because you want to ride in your beautiful creation. Or you might choose to fight enemies in a robot, even if it would be faster to blow them away in a tank, just because you want to battle a little differently.

Moreover, the special abilities for vehicles, which you must first find, are worth it. For instance, a dual minigun turns your car into a stationary lead-spewing tower for a few moments. Or a barrier that absorbs all enemy damage. These abilities are mainly found by defeating optional bosses, and their use is a lot of fun.

The vehicles are controlled well. Although the motorcycle is the hardest, you'll learn to handle it quite quickly. The only exception is the gamepad, which the developers advise against, but in reality, it's up to your preference. Only some vehicles have problems turning on a mouse and keyboard. Otherwise, everything works fine.

The worthy legacy of a great man

The game saves automatically, and you can't do without manual saves. The auto-save is excellent, but it doesn’t create many checkpoints, and in case of failure, you might repeat long segments. Manually save when traveling far from the main locations or before facing tough opponents.

Sand Land is fun if you approach it as a road trip with a meaningful story. The game nicely navigates the fine line between being too difficult or too easy, though the game may not provide much of a challenge. Beelzebub's story is strong enough to keep you entertained.

The game has a typical anime aesthetic, but the desert setting makes it a bit repetitive. The story and the characters are interesting enough to keep you engaged, but the game's activities and combat might feel repetitive after a while. Overall, it's a game worth playing, especially for fans of Akira Toriyama and those who enjoy story-driven JRPGs with a unique twist.