Sand Land Hands-on Preview – Devils in the dunes

Posted on March 28, 2024

Releasing just in time to ride the desert-based sandworm of hype that is Dune: Part Two, the upcoming manga adaptation Sand Land presents a very different kind of dry dystopia. Its world is caught in a struggle between humankind and demons vying for control of water sources – a study of greed, corruption, and desperation. Also, they have tank battles and cool demon powers. Think Mad Max meets Dragon Ball.

Developed by ILCA (best known for last year’s One Piece Odyssey, as well as Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl), Sand Land is an upcoming action-RPG adaptation of the 2000 manga series of the same name by the late Akira Toriyama. We were invited by Bandai Namco to attend a preview event for this title, where we played through a few sections that highlighted the game’s exploration, combat, stealth, and vehicle mechanics.

Sand Land sees you playing as Beelzebub, a plucky little demon prince who (along with his pal Thief) teams up with human Sheriff Rao in defiance of the greedy king, who has been monopolising the water supply and exploiting those most in need. The trio set out across the dunes in search of the fabled “Legendary Spring”, an alternate source of water that could end the king’s cruel reign and stop the desperate plight of the world’s residents.

Right away, the game’s graphic novel origins jump out at you – characters are stylistically distinct and flamboyantly designed, with thickly drawn outlines and Toriyama’s iconic body archetypes. Cutscenes tend to have characters whip out over-the-top combat manoeuvres that are absolutely delightful. The colourful cast stands out against the dusty wastelands and stark military bases that make up many of Sand Land’s environments, striking a balance between the title’s darker themes and its more whimsical tone.

The first session introduced the game’s basic mechanics through a sequence where Beelzebub and co scavenge water from a village, take out some bandits, and steal a tank from the wicked Royal Army. Players explore the world as Beelzebub, who can activate demonic powers in combat to smash through foes. Companions Thief and Rao can also provide passive buffs during battle, with further abilities unlocked via a skill tree. Enemy types range from roaming bandits to dinosaurs, providing decent variety and filling the vast desert with plenty of opportunities to smack down. Beelzebub has a decent number of moves to play with, and combat is fast and flashy.

There are also stealth segments throughout the game, which can see you playing as Thief or Beelzebub to infiltrate areas and steal items. It’s fairly simple as far as stealth mechanics go; you hold the sneak button to avoid being heard, keep out of NPCs’ lines of sight, and eventually get access to a stealth takedown move to dispatch any unsuspecting witnesses. The sequences featured in the preview were reasonably short and not overly complex, proving more of a light change of pace than a lengthy gameplay system to explore.

A defining feature of Sand Land is its variety of customisable vehicles, which come in different styles with unique use cases. The iconic round tanks are best used for desert combat, while you may prefer a speedy motorbike for travelling long distances or a hovercraft to cross bodies of water. I found the default vehicle controls took a long time to get used to – the left stick handles both steering and acceleration, which feels unusual when vehicle physics like drifting and momentum are taken into account. This style of driving makes sense during combat where you’ll need to deftly dodge enemy attacks and aim your mighty cannons, but for general overworld traversal, it can feel a little cumbersome.

Despite this friction, combat in an armoured tank is about as awesome as you’d expect. Materials gathered in the overworld and from defeated enemies can be used to craft new cannons, machine guns, armour, and augments for your vehicles, letting you kit out your arsenal before heading into battle.

As it turns out, Sand Land is more than just… a land of sand. The second part of the preview session involved traversing a flooded ruin using the hovercraft, pulling levers to raise and lower the water level in a very light-on puzzle-solving sequence. Taking place in Forest Land, this area provided a nice change in scenery from the game’s usual dusty deserts.

Here, giant crocodiles who were difficult to take down with Beelzebub’s powers alone became mere fodder for the hovercraft’s massive cannons. It culminated in a boss battle with a giant squid, where careful deployment of the hovercraft’s boost jump was essential to dodge the beast’s wily tentacles. I would have preferred a little more variety in the squid’s attack patterns, but it was admittedly satisfying to finally down the cephalopod after a death or two.

In the final section of the preview, I was treated to a full-scale tank battle in the desert. I had some time to kit out my tank at the base in Spino with new weapons and armour before trekking across the sands and taking on an army of mighty artillery. This was an absolute highlight of the preview session, coupling the epic drama of the title’s main story with the sheer cool factor of “anime tank battle in the desert”. Here, I was also able to take advantage of companion Ann’s mechanic abilities to quickly repair damage to my vehicle. Managing the tank’s weapons, health, and boost status while trying to blast away at each enemy vessel made this battle a heap of fun to play through.

In addition to the videogame adaptation, Sand Land has also been recently released as an anime series. The first seven episodes of the anime are currently streaming on Disney+, with the remaining episodes still to follow. Toriyama designed new characters for this series who also feature in the game, such as the aforementioned mysterious mechanic Ann.

We’re looking forward to taking the fight to the desert when Sand Land releases on April 26th for Xbox, PlayStation, and PC. You can find further details over at the game’s official website, or check back in with Checkpoint Gaming for more details as this dune-diving title nears release.

Bandai Namco flew the journalist to Sydney for this preview.