Shown off at this year's Summer Game Fest showcase, Sand Land is an upcoming RPG from the folks over at Ilca Inc, the developers of One Piece Odyssey, and the creator of Dragon Ball, Akira Toriyama. It's an adaptation on one of Toriyama's lesser-known mangas, which features a band of misfits who aim to right the wrongs of a king who's hogged the desert's vital water supply. I got to play it for all of 20 minutes, in a demo that was as stripped back as a grated cactus. Still, I got to sample a bit of roaming about in a tank, one brief stop at a town, an opening of one (1) chest, and some fighting. It seemed okay, I guess? But my main worry is whether its desert is interesting enough to hold people's attention.
I hadn't even heard of Sand Land, let alone read any of the manga, but a quick Google told me it hit shelves in 2000 and stars three main characters: Beelzebub, Sheriff Rao, and Beezlebub's mate Thief. In the game, you play as Beelzebub, a little tike-looking demon recruited by old man Rao, who's tired of the greedy king hogging the land's water supply and leaving everyone in his kingdom to scrap it out for every last drop of agua mineral. And so, they all band together to put a stop to the king's reign.
One of Sand Land's big themes is vehicles and vehicular combat, which the demo demonstrated almost immediately as I steered a little cart away from a massive sand monster (it's at the start of the trailer above). What struck me first was, "Looks nice!", followed by, "I have no idea how to dodge the gigantic Sandslash", as the monster burrowed under the ground and would pop up at intervals with zero visual cues as to where it would appear. Some teething issues, probably.
Otherwise, I didn't do a great deal else. I drove a little jeep to a town, spoke to someone, then was immediately pushed to reach this large archway a few hundreds meters away. En route there were dinosaurs with level indicators above their heads, all wandering about in their little pockets of the arid desert. I entered a cave, which contained a chest. I stole a bandit's little spherical tank, which I then used to blast the dinosaurs and bandits, all of them succumbing to the numbers I hit them with, and all dropping parts which were hoovered into my inventory. Unfortunately I couldn't tweak my tank, or look at the nuts and bolts I'd gathered.
From my understanding, though, this vehicular customisation is going to be the main thrust of the game's progression, as is levelling up Beelzebub. I asked the devs whether they could tell me anything about either of these things, to which the answer was a "not really". They were very nice, though, and did put up with me strafing around a massive lizard for at least half of the demo.
Right at the end of the session, I partook in some beating up of bandits, in a realtime beat 'em up brawl where I could punch, kick, and jump, all of them combining for some cool combos. Holding down the punch button charged a swing, which would then stagger an enemy, leaving them vulnerable if I landed it right. Hold down a trigger (I played on controller) and you'll bring up a radial wheel of special abilities, one of which was a big area-of-effect slam that wiped out an entire group - very satisfying.
All good, all gravy, then. I just worry that I've come away from the demo without an itch to see what sort of sand is in said land. While the full game might introduce lots of interesting tidbits to discover, the little pockets of dinosaurs and the one shallow cave from the demo struck me as a worrying sign its slight RPG-leanings - Dragon Quest surely served as inspiration here - might be too much of a plod to transform what's canonically a barren wasteland into an explorer's paradise.
That's not to say deserts can't be done well! I mean, there's the wonder of Journey and Sable, the underrated wastes of Mad Max, even Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain deserves a mention for an interesting sandy space. They all provide takes on the sand that either make it a beautiful traversal tool filled with secrets, or the perfect playground for goofing off with your scrap metal and funny gadgets.
Sand Land's demo obviously isn't representative of the final thing, but surely its aim is to bring you on board, right? All I really did was chunk down some health bars and partake in some fairly typical RPG exploration, all in a slice of desert which seemed a little lacking in exciting things to discover or see, even if the devs insisted that there would be later on. I suppose Sand Land's other big hook lies in its vehicular customisation which I didn't get to try at all, but I'm worried that even if I could slot together a rotund nail-shooter with scissors for legs, it might only result in bigger numbers popping out of enemies. Can the traditional levelling loop of an RPG uplift a dusty expanse? I worry it might not.
NotE3 and Summer Game Fest 2023 is over for another year. You can find out all the latest news by visiting our E3 2023 hub, or you can catch up with our round-up posts of everything that was announced at Summer Game Fest, the Xbox Games Showcase, the PC Gaming Show, Day Of The Devs, and our top highlights from the Wholesome Direct.