SAND LAND Video Game Review

SAND LAND Video Game Review

SAND LAND is a curious game that combines an eclectic set of gameplay features into a well-realized package that, despite its flaws, is perfectly solid and more than the sum of its parts.

Going into this one, all I knew about SAND LAND was that it was based on a manga by Akira Toriyama. I haven’t read it, only seeing the occasional piece of art or random out-of-context panel. I had never seen anyone discuss it, so I wasn’t sure if it was a stealth tie-in similar to Jaco the Galactic Patrolman or a standalone title. Given my unfamiliarity, I was apprehensive at the start of the game. In my experience, anime games tend to leverage fans’ familiarity with the source material to either paper over weaknesses or fill in the gaps where they do not have the time to dedicate to fully explaining the plot or setting details.

Thankfully, this isn’t true with SAND LAND. Given that the original manga is only one tankobon/volume’s worth of material, this serves (from what I can tell) as a retelling of those events. This game also serves the opportunity to expand on the world by telling more side stories in the setting. I understand this was intended precisely for people like myself, as the game explicitly sets up and communicates all the characters, setting details, and more to get you up to speed.

This aspect is one of the game’s larger strengths. SAND LAND doesn’t throw a lot of curveballs at you – most characters are easy to figure out from their design alone, and the world is simple but evocative. The charming design work of the legendary Akira Toriyama is fully realized here in everything from the vehicles to the architecture to the character designs. Sure, it might not be the setting where you find yourself doing a deep dive researching every tidbit of lore into the wee hours of the morning, but it’s got a clear hook and relatable goals. “The apocalypse sucks, we have to get water and supplies,” and “Humans do not treat each other equally, and our cruelty and prejudice is worse than being a demon” are understandable themes that make it easy to jump in and get gaming.

SAND LAND‘s mechanics present a curious mix of unexpected systems. It is, at its most basic level, an open-world action RPG. You traverse the world map following the main quest, picking up side quests, gaining experience, and leveling up your party members. As you move the story forward, new areas and traversal methods open up to you, along with new abilities in your combat skill tree, materials to gather, and more. The combat system is a standard third-person action setup: light and heavy attacks, dodging telegraphed enemy moves, and meter-based special attacks. There are stealth sections, forced perspective platforming sections, and careful exploration yields more materials or rare finds. Nothing out of the ordinary thus far.

What spices things up is the vehicle combat. SAND LAND heavily emphasized vehicle utility in every aspect of gameplay. They are your primary means of travel across the overworld, your primary combat tool, and the lens through which the world and a progression are viewed. The vehicles range from small cars to battle tanks to robots and more; each possesses unique weapons, movement options, and handling. You will most often find yourself climbing rock faces in mecha or dueling with enemy encounters in your battle tank, making them stars of the show.

Where most RPG titles see you focusing on equipping the right gear or talents for your protagonist and party members, SAND LAND shifts this focus to vehicle customization. A big part of the customization element comes from acquiring materials to fashion custom parts, finding rare chips to install interesting passives, and fiddling with each vehicle’s loadout. Since you can switch vehicles on the fly (Toriyama’s capsule system appears to help facilitate this), you will often weigh individual performance and how the vehicular mix coalesces to cover different situations and enemy force compositions.

This seemingly small change to focus on vehicles drastically changes the moment-to-moment feel of SAND LAND compared to other action RPG titles. Even run-of-the-mill random encounters have a slightly different texture as you maneuver to line up shots, manage effective ranges and reloads, and the like. Equipping vehicles is a fun exercise because, like most vehicular combat games, there are a lot of considerations that go beyond the ho-hum “number go up” bias for equipment. A weapon may do more damage, but you must weigh ammunition capacity and reload speed, that sort of thing. Spread across the collection of vehicles you gather on your travels, this creates a very satisfying customization minigame across most of the game’s playtime. There are even long-form collectathons, such as finding people to bring back to your main hub village that opens up new shops throughout the game, bounties to hunt down for extra money and loot, or hidden platforming areas that can yield rare materials.

The presentation is another area of general strength for SAND LAND. The visuals do an excellent job of evoking an adventure manga world, with bright colors and a cel-shaded look for the 3D models. Most of the surfaces even have little touches like cross-hatching or shading lines that you would see on a drawn page, which might stand out on close-up shots but, in aggregate, help immerse the player in the sense that this is a manga come to life. The music is appropriate, and the game has full voice acting across all conversations, which adds to immersion. My particular favorite part of the voice acting is the little character discussions that naturally crop up while driving around, with characters leaning out of hatches to talk about the world, their preferences, or interesting sites.

All of this is wrapped in the wondrous creativity of Akira Toriyama. His recent passing brings into sharp focus just how effortlessly he made whims and creativity appear. His fingerprints are all over this work, and it brings me the same delight in titles like Chrono Trigger, Dragon Quest, or the various Dragon Ball fighting games. Exploring a world with Toriyama’s sensibilities will always bring me joy.

The biggest caveat on all the positive points is that SAND LAND never quite excels in any one area. Most of the game’s systems range from good to good enough, and the game doesn’t overstay its welcome in terms of playtime. That said, if you try to dig into any one subsystem, you will likely find it shallower than you’d like. On-foot combat is the worst offender in this regard, being pretty barebones even before comparing it to similar titles. However, the vehicle combat can also fall flat (particularly in the more rote boss battles), and the novel sensation of piloting a vehicle can’t completely mask the woes of repetitive encounter numbness that comes with the territory. The vehicle customization is far more robust than I expected, but it’s not exactly a gearhead’s dream. There’s no pressing need for the highest optimization levels to win most encounters.

Similarly, the presentation and world are fine but just fine. The characters and themes are neat and relatable but not ground-breaking. The setting is easy to grip but not all that complex or original. The music and visuals are enjoyable yet not so memorable.

And on and on it goes, where SAND LAND meets expectations without ever really exceeding them.

The most telling thing I can communicate about SAND LAND is how my play pattern evolved over the review period. I had a great time as long as I played for 30-60 minute sessions. But I felt disengaged and unimpressed if I tried to press past that and clock serious time in a single sitting. As the review period went on, I found myself settling into a comfortable rhythm of putting in about an hour of play each night and having a delightful time – fighting some monsters, catching a bounty, fiddling with my robots, watching some cutscenes, moving the story along, then do it all again the next night.

The game has enough meat on its bones to be filling, but it’s not going to be the sort of title you invest hundreds of hours into. But then, not every title has to become your entire life to be enjoyable – SAND LAND is a delightful time while it lasts, no more, no less. It tries new things without feeling like it takes big risks, all while bringing one of Akira Toriyama‘s works to vivid life. In that light, it’s a darn good time with a few unique quirks to help it stand out from the crowd.

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