Sand Land has an endearing set up for an RPG that's let down by middling combat and limited exploration

Sand Land
(Image credit: Bandai Namco)

Without Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama, modern Japanese RPGs likely wouldn't exist. From his iconic sprites that injected Dragon Quest 3's rudimentary 8 bit graphics with a lease of life, to his timeless character designs that endlessly enrich Chrono Trigger, Toriyama's playful artwork played a huge role in popularizing video games in Japan. Thanks to his box art and in-game designs that endeared anime and manga fans to this strange new medium, Square Enix's early RPGs found huge success – and the late, great Toriyama continued to work on designs for Dragon Quest up until his untimely passing. In other words, Toriyama was just as pivotal to video games as he was to manga. 

Now, hot on the heels of the brilliant Disney + adaptation of Toriyama's 2000 manga, Sand Land, Bandai Namco is hoping to harness that beloved video game-esque source material into a quasi-open world RPG. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where water is scarce, Sand Land sees both demons and humans roaming their desert home in search of any last remaining traces of liquid. With the setting's greedy monarch and his Royal Army hoarding h20 and selling it for extortionate profits, plucky demon prince Beelzebub and aging human sheriff Rao reluctantly team up in order to track down the last remaining natural spring.

It's an endearing set up, and one that Toriyama's manga and anime leverages into a wonderfully whimsical, Dragon Ball-esque take on the post apocalypse. Yet where Avalanche Studio's Mad Max transformed the vast desert into an atmospheric open world character of its own, sitting down to experience Namco's arid landscape hands-on sadly proves it feels like a yellow-coloured backdrop for a world of limited exploration, middling combat and box ticking collectathons.

Dangerous dunes

Sand Land

(Image credit: Bandai Namco)

Taking the term sandbox incredibly literally here, One Piece: Odyssey studio ILCA harks back to a simpler age of licensed tie-ins, side lining modern AAA game design in favor of something more rudimentary. Armed with a beaten up buggy, players take control of the acrobatic Beelzebub as he and his trio of mismatched misfits embark on their desert-spanning journey. As you tear up the dangerous dunes, you'll discover various materials that can be used to upgrade your collection of dust-coated vehicles.


Elden Ring

(Image credit: Bandai Namco)

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Much like the manga itself, the setting is ripe for turning into a rollicking open world adventure - and on the vehicle front Sand Land partly delivers. In a nice touch, a handy scroll wheel lets you spawn your chosen vehicle in front of you no matter where Beezlebub is in the game world, allowing you to spawn an ill advised walker in an enemy base or maneuver across a crumbling temple staircase in a hovercraft simply by lobbing a tiny sphere in your path, Poke ball / capsule Corp style.

Whether it's chugging along ibn between those classic Toriyama tanks, zooming across dirt tracks on a motorbike, or destroying dinosaurs in a bipedal armed walker, the arcadey blend of driving and blasting offers up some nostalgic thrills - a throwback to PS2 era's pulpy past. There's an enjoyable level of part-led tinkering, too, as I swap out my walker's machine gun and upgrade my tank's main cannon in the garage in order to make those sweet, sweet damage stats rise.

The problem, however, comes whenever Sand Land forces you to step outside your vehicle. Armed with just a basic and special attack – and some unremarkable partner abilities – Sand Land's melee combat feels completely lacking in depth or nuance. Where in the anime and manga, beelzebub pummels bandits and Royal soldiers with Saiyan-worthy aplomb, here the mindless mashing lacks the heft you'd expect from a Namco game, with an tragically wonky camera ensuring that each dull overworld brawl feels like an afterthought. After the enjoyable focused fighting of 2020's DBZ Kakarot, it's a crying shame.

Sand Land

(Image credit: Bandai Namco)

Still, I found myself practically begging for some more flimsy fisticuffs after experiencing Sand Land's utterly dire attempts at stealth missions. As Beezlbub, Thief and Rao continue their perilous thirst-quenching quest, they regularly find themselves needing to ‘liberate' supplies from the authoritarian Royal Army. Hopping into their heavily-guarded bases, there's ample potential for sneaky shenanigans. Yet thanks to poor guard AI, empty environments and little attempt at either a narrative throughline or environmental storytelling,you're  instead forced to endure the kind of  insta-fail stealth missions that would make even the most hardened ps2 era developer blush. 

Thankfully, a late game tank mission is a clear highlight. With your upgraded war machine allowing you to take on a troupe of Royal army tanks you duck and weave your way out of cannon fire across the dust-coated dunes in an enjoyable slice of tank on tank warfare. While my three hours with Sand Land offered a handful of enjoyable moments like these, considering the sense of adventure oozing from the source material, it's hard not to feel like an open world RPG in this universe could have been genuinely exciting. Blending basic hand to hand combat with vehicular battles, Zelda-lite dungeons and base infiltration, on paper, Sand Land has the makings of a solid open world yarn. Yet in practice, Sand Land's middling collision of disparate gameplay mechanics makes it a jack of all trades, demon prince of none.

Through no fault of Bandai Namco's, it's difficult to separate Sand Land with the gut wrenching loss of the 68-year-old gaming and manga icon. Mere days after his death, with Toriyama's loss weighing heavy on my heart, I went into this demo session wanting to love this game, to lose myself in a playable slice of Toriyama magic. Yet thanks to Sand Land's alarmingly shallow disparate gameplay mechanics and cutscenes that completely fail to capture the anime's charm, this demo left me feeling colder than the desert night.

Where the full game may offer more in the way of gameplay surprises, what we've played thus far suggests a perfunctory ‘my first open world' adventure whose retro-inspired game design will appeal to younger players. Yet given Toriyama's legendary history with the medium, older gamers will rightly wonder whether one of Toriyama's last adaptations deserved better. 

Sand Land is set to come to PC, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, and PS5 on April 25, 2024. Look ahead to all of the exciting upcoming releases with our roundup of new games for 2024 and beyond. 

Tom Regan
Freelance Writer

Tom is a freelance journalist and former PR with over five years worth of experience across copy-writing, on-camera presenting, and journalism.

Named one of the UK games industry’s rising stars by, Tom has been published by world-leading outlets such as: Fandom, The Guardian, NME, Ars Technica, GamesRadar, Engadget, IGN, Techradar, Red Bull, and EDGE.