I know there are a lot of people out there that would have liked a proper Xbox Series X/S sequel to Blue Dragon announced at Summer Games Fest. I know there’s a lot of people that would have liked some sort of Chrono Trigger or Chrono Cross rerelease or remaster, too. There’s a dedicated group of fans waiting for a new Dragon Quest game (no, the new Yakuza doesn’t count). There are even some people out there that’d celebrate the announcement of a new Dragon Ball game, despite the on-going proliferation of them over the past few years.
But, for the moment at least, we’re not getting any of them. What we are getting instead is Sand Land – a new Bandai Namco anime-RPG in the vein of Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot or any of the many Naruto games on the market. Rather than pair this new title to one of the more mainstream anime shows, though, Bandai Namco has opted to revisit a relatively obscure Toriyama manga of the same name.
Sand Land forms part of the lesser-known works of Toriyama’s output, less-iconic than Dragon Ball and with less cult appeal than Dr. Slump. But the property is no less worthy, at least not in my eyes – Toriyama has become known for his exemplary work with lo-fi tech and grounded vehicles in his over-the-top fantasy worlds, and I think Sand Land is actually the best example of that in his entire catalogue.
It’s fitting, then, that this newly-announced game is very focused on vehicular combat and the idea of exploring the desert in clunky, authentic machines in desperate search of water. In my hands-on preview, I got to see how it all kicks off – and it’s pretty much what you’d expect from this sort-of light action RPG.
Playing as the little pink demon Beelzebub, you’re dumped into the desert and tasked with sniffing out the precious aqua by roaming around in various vehicles or travelling by foot, encountering the perils of the desert and helping NPCs survive in this unforgiving climate. Within about 10 minutes, I’d hopped from the starting kart to a tank, battered a group of bandits that tried to nick all my stuff, and used a couple of special attacks to repel a band of roving goons.
If you’ve ever picked up a Bandai Namco RPG like this, none of this will be surprising. It handles the same, it feels the same, it’s all kitbashed together with the same production values and not-quite-triple-A levels of pseudo-jank. It’s charming, but then I’ve got a tolerance for these mid-band RPGs that I suspect a lot of the readership here doesn’t.
But the game has something special that makes it stand out from the seemingly endless treadmill of One Piece, Dragon Ball and Naruto titles that help keep Bandai Namco’s coffers looking healthy: it’s got that Toriyama hook. I may be poisoned by a very specific kind of 90’s nostalgia where thick black shading lines, big white eyes, and mean-looking furrowed brows just do it for me, but this game is gorgeous. It captures the spirit of Toriyama’s illustrations better than even Dragon Ball FighterZ, I think, and that is probably my favourite Dragon Ball game out there.
It’s between Bandai Namco’s iterative upgrades to how it solves cel-shading and the styling it’s gone with that make Sand Land pop. The more action-orientated combat might help make it appeal more to those that took issue with the turn-based nature of Blue Dragon or who are turned off by the retro pixel goodness of the Chrono series. Those who remember sitting and watching Dragon Ball with their bowl of cereal and juice boxes as kids will be enticed by Sand Land’s more demonic and apocalyptic vision of Earth, and taken in by its dour (and short-lived) story.
The manga lasted less than a year in its initial run, so this game is a real chance for Bandai Namco to expand on one of Toriyama’s less-beloved properties. The combat and gameplay might be fairly middling, but if the development team can add depth and flavour to this dry, weird, wonderful world, then it’s certainly going to be a game I’ll keep my eye on as we trundle closer to launch.
Sand Land is being developed by ILCA Inc. and is aiming to launch for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC (via Steam) soon. No specific release date has been given.