Announced earlier this year, Bandai Namco’s Sand Land attempts to translate a cult Japanese comic into an open-world adventure. When I played it on the Tokyo Game Show floor, I was intrigued by the characters and story, but less excited about actually playing the full game.
“Sand Land” was released in 2000 as a short-lived story about a demon prince exploring a lonely wilderness – hence the title. Sand Land was created by Akira Toriyama, a manga artist known for his Dragon Ball series as well as his contributions to many games such as Dragon Quest. Until 2023, Sand Land remained a print-only phenomenon. This summer saw the debut of a feature-length film game that serves as the next multimedia tie-in.
Trailer for the Sand Land Summer Game Fest 2023
The demo starts off on a strong note, with graphics reminiscent of the manga origins. All of the characters look like they walked straight from the page to the screen, with the thick line art giving everyone sharp facial features. The characters all have personality, especially the protagonist Beezelbub. He may look like an anime version of Hot Stuff the Little Devil (kids, ask your grandparents), but from minute one he’s looking for adventure and action.
As Beezelbub and his two elderly companions travel through the desert, the first challenge the player faces is a set piece where our protagonists attract the attention of a giant dragon. Beezelbub drives towards the camera while the dragon gives chase. A distance indicator at the top of the screen counts down until they reach safety. I had a hard time predicting where the dragon would burrow and attack, but the vehicle is sturdy enough to survive multiple hits. I think the only strategy is to keep rewinding back and forth to prevent the kite from detecting your course.
After their escape, Beezelbub and his friends arrive in a “village” that is almost deserted. The team has a brief chat before deciding to head to a more populated area, and the game places a handy visual marker in the HUD. With that, I set off again through the desert, following a clear path of tire tracks to my destination. We drove past some wandering dinosaurs – a staple of Toriyama’s work – and a few bandits who showed a passing interest in our truck before giving up when I ignored their grenades.
As we approached the designated destination, one of Beezelbub’s companions pointed out a large marker on a mountainside identifying it as a pirate symbol. As befits a cocky hero, Beezelbub received the news with enthusiasm and announced that he would beat them all up. His friends were cautious, but it proved to be a moot point as Sand Land automatically pulled our heroes right into the pirate’s trap. A series of spikes popped all four truck tires, forcing Beezelbub to dismount and engage in hand-to-hand combat.
I would describe the action in Sand Land as standard: Beezelbub can hit enemies with light attacks or spin up to deliver a powerful blow. You can hold the button to perform the heavy attack, or tap it mid-combo to unleash a kick that launches enemies into the air, giving Beezelbub time to land more hits before they fall to the ground. There’s a short-range dodge move to avoid enemy attacks and a target lock command to focus the camera on one threat at a time. Over time a meter will fill up to unlock super attacks, but I can’t guarantee they’ll be useful. The one time I triggered it, even though I had an enemy in sight, they seemed unfazed.
Fighting the pirates turned out to be as easy as Beezelbub said; I think I only got one hit, even though the gang had me surrounded. Much like the protagonists, I thought the pirates seemed like fun characters that I would like to learn more about. They seem like barbarians from Fist of the North Star, and I like a goofy recurring enemy that poses no threat to the hero but steadfastly continues to attack him.
However, what happened next really surprised me: after less than 10 minutes of play, the demo ended abruptly. I knew Sand Land was only announced over the summer, but I was expecting a more comprehensive cross-section of the world. I took a look at other demo players and decided I might have made a mistake. Open world games live or die depending on what’s off the beaten path. I had followed the game’s instructions exactly and stormed straight to the finish line. Apparently I had to come back for a second trip to the desert.
I returned to the Bandai Namco booth for another chance. This time I somehow did worse in the chase, but still made it safely to the dry village. Instead of triggering the search and continuing, I ran around trying to talk to the few people I could find. They all reacted with extreme shock and assumed that Beezelbub wanted to eat their souls. Beezelbub scoffed every time; He must be used to people freaking out around him. I should add that all of these conversations were fully animated and voiced, which added to the comedy of the poor, panicked people believing their lives were in danger.
When I finally moved on, I ignored the quest marker and the main path in favor of driving freely through the desert. I found a cave with three storage chests in it, although I don’t know the meaning of the items inside – it didn’t appear to be money or treasure. I also found a gem deposit in a rock face that produced resources when smashed, although a similar looking boulder nearby produced no pickups despite clearly reacting to punches.
I tried fighting the dinosaurs, who put up a bigger fight than the pirates, but still couldn’t withstand Beezelbub’s punches. The bandits were even less fearsome, but offered a greater prize with their armored tank. This time I noticed that Beezelbub specifically said out loud, “We should beat up these guys and steal their tank,” so the game was trying to give me a hint that ignoring enemies wasn’t the best solution.
Once inside the tank, I gained access to a powerful cannon and a heavy machine gun. These weapons made short work of common enemies, as a single shell took out dinosaurs in one hit and literally sent bandits flying into the mountains. However, I soon discovered that while exploring the desert in an armored vehicle, I was encountering much stronger beasts, such as a larger version of the dinosaurs I had previously defeated so easily. These attackers deflected direct artillery fire and charged forward to smash the tank while I struggled to reload.
Again, the demo interrupted me long before the timer set by the Bandai Namco employees went off. Unfortunately, that is the nature of attending a large event like TGS. Still, my second playthrough justified my curiosity and proved that the demo actually offered more than a leisurely desert ride and a single fight. I left the booth wondering how many elements might change. If I had managed to get the tank into the pirate’s trap, would the spike strip still have disabled my ride? Or would another cutscene play allowing me to shoot the pirates without the need for melee combat?
The real question going forward is how well the developers will fill this open world with memorable locations, characters, and loot. I don’t know the story of Sand Land and therefore have no expectations as to how it might be adapted, but I have played many games that rely on exploration and discovery to provide a satisfying experience. We’re less than six months away from the release of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, a game that I played for nearly 200 hours before finally completing the main story. I could have played twice as long if I tried to complete all the side quests.
Of course, I can’t expect a TGS demo to be comparable to a game that Nintendo spent years perfecting with an exorbitant budget, but I can say that Sand Land still has a long way to go before I would consider it. to test it again. Bandai Namco hasn’t announced a release date yet, so the developers may have the resources they need to transform this literal sandbox into a figurative one. At the moment, the driving, combat, and exploration don’t entice me to dig deeper.