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Sand Land: A perfect epitaph to Akira Toryiama, I wish I had a game like this when I was growing up – final preview

Non-patronising, uncompromising in its vision, and – above all – fun. Sand Land feels like a perfect summary of everything Toriyama set out to achieve with his art and writing.

Sand Land's Beelzebub stands over a blurred image of a dragon and a buggy.
Image credit: VG247

What an honour it is to Akira Toriyama’s legacy that Sand Land is releasing just after his unfortunate passing. The man – creator of Dragon Ball, lead artist on Chrono Trigger, and so much more – always revelled in the joy of innocence, always pushed ideas of naivety and pure-heartedness in his works. Sand Land, a game adapted directly from one of his most under-represented original stories, is a fitting epitaph to the man and his view of the world. I wish I had a game like this when I was growing up.

The RPG follows a mischievous demon imp with a begrudgingly pure heart, a crotchety old man that masks his just nature with gruff sternness, and a comic relief codger that likes to dress as Santa Claus. The three of them are quickly embroiled in a conspiracy that involves much of the world’s natural water – hoarded as it is by an autocratic king, a picture of greed himself.

It’s somehow both predictable and fresh, but the detail and depth of the human heart beating at the middle of this intra-species story is something you’d expect to find in a Pixar film or Becky Chambers book.

Think Mad Max via Dragon Quest, Frank Herbert’s Dune via Dragon Ball. A story that can be boiled down to “I will defeat the evils of capitalism with the power of friendship and this gun I found”. But also, weirdly, Sand Land is also sort-of a treatise on non-violence – a reflection on how weird it is that demons won’t kill people but humans will. An unexpectedly sobering element of philosophy amongst an otherwise chirpy game that is, by and large, designed for the younger audience.

But that’s Toriyama’s influence, assumedly. This is his original story and world, after all. The whole thing smacks of anti-capitalist thinking and laments the greedy and war-like nature of man at every turn. There will be a Disney+ series to go alongside the game, but – this being a massive, 40+ hour RPG at the very least, you can expect to get more into the weeds of the content and context in the game.

Beelzebub and Rao in a buggy in Sand Land.
Beelzebub and Rao take to the sands. | Image credit: Bandi Namco

The game itself is easy to play; part-mascot platformer, part-Metal Gear Solid for Dummies, all Toriyama charm. You’ll quickly hop between simple action battles, vehicular manoeuvres in the desert, and lite-stealth sections that’ll see you dashing from rooftop to rooftop and avoiding the cones of sight of whatever hired goon is prowling at that point in the game.

The closest I had to this in my youth was either Jak 2 or Jak 3, but they feel quite primitive in relation to this – more focused on platforming and spin-kicking than offering the rich mix of vehicular combat, lite-RPG skill tree management, exploration, and mini-game sampling than Sand Land offers.

The difficulty feels similar, too. I remember admiring the Naughty Dog Jak games for how unpatronising and uncompromising they were – something you don’t often get in games designed for a younger audience. Sand Land is the same – yes, there are some watered-down elements in here, but the strategy and preparation you need to do before, say, heading into a sprawling tank-based battle in the middle of the sand dunes will leave even seasoned gamers umming and ahhing over their loadouts. More of this, please.

You can tell this is a game aimed at a younger audience because the ensemble cast has a suite of nice, waypoint-y vocal tics like: ‘Woah, a suspicious lever, let’s give it a pull!’ or ‘be careful not to get caught’ or ‘I wouldn’t try fighting those right now!’ But because this whole world has this ‘shonen TV’ vibe, it never comes off as patronising or unkind – just supportive. Like a little nudge in the right direction; there’s no Water Temple skill-checking here.

A small desert buggy is pursued by a big dragon.
Those pure Toriyama designs work well in 3D. | Image credit: Bandai Namco

It’s the little details that really make you realise a lot of care and effort has been put into this game. Details like faces on the guards when you sneak up and scare them, the little wiggle main character Beelzebub’s tail does to counterbalance him as he balances, the animation of a slide when you swap between sneaking and running. The game feels as good to play as it looks – and, once again, you can tell a lot of care has been put into bringing Toriyama’s signature style to life here.

The music is an understated bit of gaming joy, too. It lands somewhere between jazz and city-pop – percussive and insistent and low-key some of the funkiest I’ve heard in a game for some time. I’m probably going to pick the final game up just to hear more of that, to be honest.

But it’s also funny. Great comedy timing and some tight writing makes it part-goofy and part-acerbic; as deft with its slapstick as it is with its parody of tropes and convention (which, given it’s written by Toriyama, will appeal to fans of Dragon Ball et al). Though he comes off as a cocky kid at first, Beelzebub’s core character is so well defined and realised that I can imagine a younger version of me would have been really touched by him – by his drive, by his outlook, by dogged commitment to doing the right thing (even if it sometimes comes off in the wrong way).

A tank rests in a sandy alcove in the desert, in Sand Land.
Tanks, a lot. | Image credit: Bandai Namco

Sand Land is a socially-forward, fun-first romp for all ages. A love-letter and fitting memorial to Toriyama. A fun and well-produced game in its own right. Sand Land, somehow, does it all – and offers a teen-friendly game that isn’t patronising or boring or predictable. You likely won’t play a more charming game this year, no matter how old you are.


Sand Land launches on PS5, Xbox Series X/S and PC on April 26.

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