I mean it as a sincere compliment when I say that Sand Land seems like a game I would've been obsessed with on the PlayStation 2. In another timeline, maybe I was—Sand Land is based on a manga from Dragon Ball legend Akira Toriyama, released back in 2000, and this action RPG would've fit right in during that era.
Waiting two decades has its advantages, though: Sand Land has harnessed the graphical might of modern PCs and consoles to render Toriyama's wonderful cartooning style in great detail, with striking toon shaded characters that really play up their manga origins. In a short 20-minute hands on at Summer Game Fest, I could already tell that the camera in Sand Land won't make me burst into a Super Saiyan rage the way most PS2-era games' did. And the little bit I got to play hinted at a far bigger adventure than I would've expected back in the day.
Sand Land exists because Akira Toriyama's true passion has never actually been drawing spiky-haired guys shouting while they fling fireballs at one another. The guy loves cars. And motorcycles. Trucks. Anything with a motor, seems like—he takes every opportunity he can to nerd out drawing vehicles in exquisite detail. The Sand Land manga's marquee ride is an adorably squat little tank, and when I saw one out in the desert within a few minutes of starting my demo, I knew I needed to ditch my puny buggy and hop in.
The pitch for Sand Land is very much cartoonier Mad Max: you control a little guy named Beelzebub in a post-apocalyptic desert world, and there's a big emphasis on customizing and upgrading vehicles to survive as you cross the wasteland. Unfortunately my brief hands-on was limited to the start of the game, so I didn't get to bling out my tank or see how much I could tweak its weaponry or stats. But I did find that Sand Land moves with a sprightliness I don't always expect from action RPGs.
On foot Beelzebub can dish out a string of combos and toss enemies around like Mario giving Bowser the old tail twirl, and apparently he has an entire skill tree for unlocking new moves. The vehicles bop along at a speedy pace with the kind of physics that make it particularly funny to try to splatter the monsters scattered around the desert.
You can hop in and out of them in a blink, another bit of Sand Land that feels pleasantly old school; I really don't want to spend five seconds watching detailed climbing animations every time I decide to exit a vehicle when I could already be delivering a punch in that same span of time. In addition to his combo attacks, Beelzebub has a set of unique meter-burning special moves. The one unlocked from the start unleashed a crackling burst of energy to knock out all the enemies around me—it felt blatantly Dragon Ball Z, but hey, if you're going to steal, why not steal from yourself?
It was unclear from my hands on whether Sand Land is a contiguous open world or carved up into zones, but I honestly kind of hope it's the latter. In just 20 minutes I found a couple caves with crafting resources in them and double-jumped my way up a cliff to discover a hidden monster den hiding more goodies; I'd even prefer more tightly designed spaces like this to an open world, where interesting landmarks are likely far between. The vehicles are speedy, but don't feel like they'll demand a massive world to enjoy driving around.
According to Bandai Namco, a big part of Sand Land will be welcoming characters to your run-down outpost and building it up into a thriving oasis. I'm a sucker for that sort of recruit-and-expand mechanic in Japanese RPGs, but I didn't get to see it in action here. There's a lot of personality in Sand Land's character designs, so I hope that translates to amusing dialogue and interactions with characters as you take on quests to build up your town.
Twenty minutes left me with way too many questions about Sand Land and how much depth lies in its vehicle customization, but it made a great first impression. A bit old fashioned, but in an endearing way, with more budget behind it than I'd expect for a little-known manga adaptation. I know it's silly, but I like imagining Toriyama downloading daily builds and writing detailed feedback on the tank while ignoring everything else.