Sand Land


Review by · May 11, 2024

May the eight-year-old nephews of the world rest easy tonight knowing there is an imminent uncle-gift-worthy videogame perfect for their summer gaming needs. Come along as we dip our toes in the sands of a game that gives “fun in the sun,” even if parts of it might leave you feeling burned.

Sand Land is a bit like a nostalgic summer road trip. Following a 2000 manga of the same name by Akira Toriyama, Sand Land follows Beelzebub, the Demon Prince, who sets out on a road trip to find the Legendary Spring, a fabled water source that could potentially quench the parched Sand Land residents. Water has become prohibitively expensive since the riverbeds dried up following a disastrous thermonuclear explosion from an “aquanium” (a rare and potent, though volatile, mineral in the world of Sand Land) facility disaster, so Beelz, his royal accomplice Thief, and the brooding Sheriff Rao hit the sandy, sunny road in search of the solution. And like a classic road trip tale, shenanigans, pitstops (side quests), hitchhiking, and idle chitchat fill their journey to hydro-fortune.

The main cast of Sand Land sets out on their adventure in a golf cart with a rocket launcher attached to its trailer.
The gang sets off on a hot summer road trip.

Sand Land succeeds in instilling a sense of welcome and community in the player early on with its road-trippy vibe. The characters feel warm and genuine — Thief will banter with Beelzebub over who gets to drive the vehicle they’re in; Rao will opine on the way the world is, then gesture grandfatherly to the way the world used to be; Beelz will remark on his surroundings with youthful wonder (even though he’s 2,500 years old). I find myself steeped in nostalgia as I remember the fights, reflections, and wonders of my own childhood road trips — I remember yearly drives from Missouri to the beaches of Florida, fighting over the GameCube while the grandparents listened to Johnny Cash in the front. We’d play Bionicle, Lord of The Rings: the Third Age, and Spongebob Squarepants: Battle for Bikini Bottom, only stopping to pump our fists at truckers hoping they’d honk for us.

This makes Sand Land doubly nostalgic for me because it also resembles the “kid game” meta of this bygone age: the licensed videogame. Licensed games are a bit of a lost art today, with rare new games in the style of the aforementioned titles. Admittedly, Sand Land is a step or two above these in scale —it’s more like the NieR: Automata of Spongebob Squarepants: Battle for Bikini Bottom. To note, developer ILCA worked on the former game, and likely as a result, Automata’s DNA is all over Sand Land, including the Roadrunner-looking bent-over run animation, the genre mashup 2D/3D shooty/punchy level design, the game’s controls, and especially the music (the game’s battleship dungeons could almost be ripped right from the NieR Automata soundtrack). Of course, ILCA is not the only one to copy a game’s style for a licensed cash-in. And, actually, I might even be a little thrilled to see this return; just don’t tell any of my licensed game-bashing peers (especially Game Revolution, who likened PS2 gem G-Force to “linoleum and fingernails”).

Beelzebub stands on a platform in a battleship dungeon during one of the game's sidescrolling portions
An example of Sand Land‘s NieR: Automata inspirations: the 2D platforming zone.

I am very grateful that ILCA has carved out a lucrative space for making licensed games, with One Piece Odyssey, the Pokémon Diamond & Pearl remakes, and now Sand Land. Licensed media has plenty of perks: firstly, it offers fans of a piece of media a way to explore that media’s space — I remember the thrill of seeing inside Goku’s house for the first time in The Legacy of Goku, a thrill my nephew shared when I got him the Bluey game last year. It also gives creators a chance to expand storylines and add new context. It opens up familiar spaces for new stories, sometimes canon and sometimes absurdly not canon

On the other hand, the genre brings along some baggage. Licensed games are often inconsistent in presentation, have choppy dialogue and blocking, make concessions in important gameplay areas, and struggle in the innovation department. Unfortunately, Sand Land is not immune to these issues.

Let’s start with Sand Land’s most positive aspect: its vehicles. Along the road journey, players encounter several driveable vehicles, from tanks to mechs and hovercraft. Even vehicles the player cannot keep are drivable, such as buggies, shipping trucks, and even dinosaurs. Dragonball’s famous Hoi-Poi capsules serve as vehicle storage for your collection, and players can upgrade rides with found parts or parts made from scrap collected in the game world. These vehicles control smoothly and feel incredible to drive and shoot with. Well, some of them do anyway — the game has a few particularly grating vehicles that feel about as good as driving a Scooty Puff Jr in slime. The worst of the bunch comes near the end of the game, and because its inclusion is a major spoiler, players do not have any way to alter the way it controls beforehand. The in-game menu is entirely inaccessible during the scenes where players use the vehicle.

Not that this would change much because control options for any of the game’s vehicles are sparse at best. Some offer the option to control via the camera (think Halo) or control via movement (think Mario Kart), but most do not; furthermore, there is no option to change the way vehicles “go,” meaning that rides like the motorcycle become needlessly difficult to steer for console players because they must hold the left stick forward and try to steer left and right with the same stick. This is especially frustrating when it comes to the game’s racing minigame areas, where one must languish over this setup in roads full of hazards in a timed test of skill. Improving a vehicle’s parts helps, but not enough to excuse inconsistent and largely uncustomizable controls.

Beelzebub rides a small raptor through Sand Land.
You can drive damn near anything in this game.

Of course, this is only after players obtain some of these parts. The game’s world is full of stuff. Like, an irreconcilable hodgepodge of crap that you, as the player, must keep track of. Metals of varying quality, animal and foliage bits, miles of combinations of these, and tons of unnecessary consumables (the game is easy enough without them at any difficulty, and managing them is a chore) make for a deluge of “bing” sounds accompanying item acquisition messages onscreen at any time. Getting these parts isn’t exactly difficult, especially if players invest level points in Thief’s upgrade tree. Pro tip: get the “Item Picker” perk immediately and spam it everywhere. However, remembering what is needed to make parts, upgrade those parts, and upgrade vehicles is a headache. If there was a way to pin them onscreen, that would be immensely helpful, though the screen is already a little busy with map markers, quest information, and especially vehicle information. Note that you can turn this down in the settings, which I highly recommend. 

There is also a bit of perturbing dissonance with the way players acquire these things: the Sand Land manga and anime offers a tale of eco-resilience and communal sharing during ecological scarcity, but most of this game involves world-spanning treks where players are encouraged to kill all the local wildlife and mow down all the plants along the way, as well as hoard any other valuable goods. If Sand Land’s world was a little more barren, I think it might be a better game for it, Breath of the Wildish piece-of-candy-every-ten-steps design be damned.

Acquiring parts to upgrade vehicles is admittedly enjoyable sometimes, however. For instance, when you find rare vehicle parts in the wild that are a level or two above your vehicle’s level, it encourages you to scavenge a few more parts to squeeze up a level, and this feels like a solid balance of encouragement to explore and necessity to grind. However, not all leveling is equal here. In particular, character leveling feels like an afterthought. Beelzebub and his companions have leveling points, and these points go toward traits and certain executable moves. The problem is that they are often confusing and sometimes don’t work at all, like Thief’s “Plunder” skill, which (as far as I can tell) does nothing. Thief will only repeat an error message whenever you try to use it, meaning that the “steal” attribute he is known for is nothing more than parlance; he’s ostensibly about as good a burglar as Bilbo Baggins.

A scenic dungeonous cavern interior with archway pillars and god rays creeping in.
For all its blemishes, Sand Land is admittedly a handsome game.

I almost feel as if this game would be somehow less hollow if it weren’t so full: full of crap to collect and things to level and strange powerups that sometimes work and sometimes don’t, et cetera. I feel the emptiness of SaaS (software as a service; subscription-based and live service games such as Destiny and Fortnite employ its tenets to profitable effect, for example) written all over this game. Its items have the bloat of freemium junk to them; its characters have entirely aesthetic leveling bonuses masquerading as real leveling bonuses; its quests are dubiously fetch, Gretchen. The only thing it is missing is an overreliance on pop culture references to increase its word count — wait, no, I’m just projecting. In any case, the pinnacle of this SaaSy design is the game’s awful Deluxe Edition content, namely a few cosmetic assets for the in-game “room” that players can deck out. Surprisingly, the room decorating controls are pretty robust, especially considering that these spaces are just empty rectangular prisms hidden in an area players will never find, and they have zero meaningful bearing on anything within the game. They are as clear a monetization scam as I’ve ever seen Bandai Namco pull, and I guarantee they were added to ILCA’s to-do checklist mere months before the game launched. This content is hamfisted at best and scummy at worst.

None of these aspects hold a candle to how awful the dialogue is, however. Sand Land’s dialogue is as poorly-translated-anime as it comes, with prolific unnecessary stuttering, a plethora of “now then” and likewise oxymoronic drivel, and frequent self-indulgent obvious confirmation of what’s already happening (“so that’s what you are doing,” “so you are such-and-such,” etc.). Confusingly, this is perforated by a moderate amount of authorial brilliance, with some characters offering deep reflections on their lives, motivations, and the world around them. It’s too bad none of it ever lands because the dialogue is horribly directed, rarely fitting the tone of a scene. This is in spite of serviceable performances from the actors, who are all exceptional in the anime; perhaps their dialogue from the show got slapped onto the game ad hoc. The spoken dialogue also has the pause pregnancy of an early voiced PS2 game – sometimes there are up to seven or eight seconds between characters speaking, even when you skip through dialogue quickly, only to have them say something useless like “now then,” further inspiring you to continue skipping along. I eventually changed the spoken language of the game to Japanese so the game didn’t grate on me so much.

The mayor of a small settlement in Sand Land reflects: "This cruel world only ever seems to take more and more away from us. That's why the rare gifts it give, like new friendships, are something to be truly cherished."
Stuttering and pointless self-indulgence often mar Sand Land’s dialogue, but the latter image here shows it is also capable of brilliance.

Sand Land is at least a faithful retelling of the manga and anime. It incorporates much of the newer show content I’ve seen so far (there are a couple episodes yet to air as of writing this), but it divests in appropriate places, such as for boss fights like Rosetta’s tank.

There is also something undeniably pleasant about Sand Land. Traversing the sands of this game feels like sailing the seas of Wind Waker, except this time with more buddies to keep you company. Combat, especially with the tank, feels and sounds great. Also, even if the visuals are somewhat inconsistent (some of the later cutscenes are flat-out unfinished), the game looks gorgeous on the whole. Beelzebub is an exceptionally well-made model, with moments of brilliance that come through in animations, some of which are one-off and even a bit hidden. For instance, if you revisit Beelzebub’s father mid-game, he will shrug his shoulders and walk stiffly, with his arms and legs moving simultaneously. Little details like this add so much to the world, though it is clear where the focus for these elements went: to the main character.

Beelzebub walks stiffly away from his father's throne.
Beelzebub’s animations bring so much flavor to Sand Land.

Earlier, I said that Sand Land would make a great gift for a young one, and despite my gripes I still mean that wholeheartedly. As a content note, there are a few “damn” and “hell” drops, but it is a game about a demon after all. There is weapon-based action, but no talking creature or person in the game is ever explicitly “killed” by your weapons. Also, your character and allies never use ballistic weapons on foot. When enemies are downed, they either run away and disappear or faint with stars above their heads. In short, I feel that Sand Land is appropriate for children despite its T rating, and its charm will likely override its flaws for young folks. Simply exploring the desert with fun vehicles and getting to know its cast of characters is sure to be a blast for kids with proficient (second-grade-ish maybe) reading comprehension. I know I would have gone nuts for this game when I was young, with its sand buggies, tanks, motorcycles, and so on, all with Toriyama’s rad art as its glue. I wager others will feel the same.

I also wager that ten years from now, Sand Land will be a slam dunk video game in “hidden gems” lists and “underrated games” essays. Once its price crawls below $25 and its bafflingly pointless “Deluxe Edition” content is packed in (or, better yet, deleted altogether), the game will be value caviar for hungry backloggers. Partially in honor of you future value seekers (hello from 2024, if so), I don’t want to outright pan the game for being an inconsistent and unnecessarily SaaS-ified jumble as it is now. It has plenty going for it, especially in its visuals and its vehicles. Just don’t give Bandai Namco your hard-earned ten extra dollars for shit they probably forced ILCA to shovel (the Deluxe Edition content) right as they were wrapping up development. Better yet, wait until Sand Land is on sale. That is, unless the 8 to 16-year-old in your life asks for it, in which case I guarantee they’d get sixty bucks worth out of the game.

Demon King Lucifer says to his son Beelzebub "Be sure to only play in a brightly lit room, and don't sit too close to the screen."


Great overall visual presentation, Beelzebub character animations are lively, faithful to the manga & anime where it counts, vehicles are fun to drive.


Questionable monetization, some annoying combat bugs, inconsistent vehicle control customization options, wildly inconsistent polish throughout, grating dialogue.

Bottom Line

Children and Akira Toriyama fans will probably love Sand Land.

Overall Score 75
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Noah Leiter

Noah Leiter

Noah is a PhD student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) studying Critical Game Design. When he's not studying or writing features for RPGFan, he likes taking care of his house plants and playing SEGA Saturn games.