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Sand Land review: a boring Mad Max lite that should have been very exciting

More like Bland Land, am I right?

Thief, Rao and Prince Beelzebub surveying a challenge in front of them in Sand Land
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Bandai Namco

Sand Land is like a sanitised manga-ish Mad Max Fury Road, where there are fewer explosions and nobody huffs paint and screams "Witness me!". So, arguably, a less cool Mad Max. In this incarnation it's an open world action game with light RPG elements; in previous incarnations it is a manga and anime by the creator of Dragon Ball. My takeaway from playing Sand Land the game is that it is a tremendous advert for the manga and anime, in the sense that everything good about Sand Land the game is from those, and I would rather be reading or watching them instead.

The plot of the game follows - as far as I can gather, because I'm not familiar with the source material - the plot of the anime, which expanded the original manga. You play as Prince Beelzebub, a small but very powerful little demonic scamp, who, along with his friend Thief (a thief), joins an old soldier from the human army to bring water back to the giant desert that is Sand Land. Ever since a war for the remaining water source decades before, the King has kept control of a secret water source - and thus control of the population of his kingdom. You (spoilers) do manage to liberate the water in short order, at which point a threat from the neighbouring Forest Land reveals itself.

You're aided in your quests by Ann, an ace mechanic with Daisy Dukes and a secret, who builds Prince & Co. a selection of vehicles and mechs (referred to as bots) to speed them on their way. First off you get a tank, then a jump mech and a motorbike, but you can get others like a hopper and a hover car. You can upgrade them, and customise them with new weapons and extra abilities - a flaming thruster, seeker missiles, or just better armour. When you're out and about in the world you can switch between them as the need dictates, or hop out of them to biff enemies directly.

Around this you can do some bounty contracts, save some locals, get in regularly scheduled boss fights, have a house, and speed around the environment collecting crafting materials by slamming into trees or shooting dinosaurs. You can upgrade yourself and your mates with new combat abilities (punch very hard, etc.). Sometimes there is a stealth section, but they're so rare I almost forget to mention them. Sometimes there is what I will, with the lavish generosity of Harvester's limitless salad bar, refer to as a puzzle dungeon.

I am explaning the basic functions of the game to you in a very dry way firstly because that is thematically very apt, and secondly because in practise it is all tremendously boring. This is kind of an achievement because the characters and premise are great; Prince's rare interactions with his father are very funny, Thief, just, as a concept is a favourite of mine, and the animation and direction on cutscenes are fabulous. I particularly loved a recurring family group called the Swimmers, a buff middle-aged man and his large adult sons who cut about in speedos, and General Krowa, a teddy boy with a motorbike and an army commission.

Exploring the desert by night in Sand Land
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Bandai Namco

But most of this can, presumably, be credited to the source material, which does seem terrific. Translated to a game, though, and you're just travelling through mostly empty spaces at medium speed. The vehicles you do this in do feel different to handle, but the weapons have little to separate them, so you only really change between bots when you have to get in a mech that can jump - a feature of the repetetive dungeons which quickly becomes infuriating, when you have to swap from the bike into your jump bot to leap over a slightly-too-tall crate, and then get out of it to walk through a small gap as Prince. This feels less like fun and more like a test of engagement, like when Netflix asks if you're still watching to make sure you haven't died in your chair in front of eight hours of Physical 100.

Building vehicles is somewhat fun, and finding a new gun or engine out in the wasteland does ignite a brief spark of excitement in your chest. But you have so many types of vehicle it ends up feeling more like admin, and is missing some stuff - like being able to pin the resources you need for a part to make it an active mission - that would make it easier and more engaging. You also lack the buy-in you get with, say, the actual Mad Max game, where you had just the one vehicle that you poured all your time and attention into, making it like a partner and not a means to an end. That doesn't happen in Sand Land.

In fact there's very little to attach you to anything. The side quests to grow your home base, Spiro, are almost all 'kill X monsters'. The dungeons are ditchwater dull. The world is larger, but impressively empty. There are hidden caves and traversal challenges, but you quickly realise that these all just house resource crates, rather than anything actually surprising or delightful - and the map doesn't mark them off once you've done them, which is very annoying. After the first stage of Sand Land, the expansion of Spiro kicks in and you can explore more of the map, so things get a tiny bit more interesting. But Forest Land just reskins the experience with some trees and grass, rather than adding actual substance. And it takes - I can't emphasise this enough - fucking ages to even get to that point: at least ten hours of pissing about back and forth over the same small bit of desert. There is a lot of going to a town to have a single conversation and then immediately leaving again, which doesn't treat a war with the kind of urgency I think it needs.

Shooting raptors in the Forest Land map in Sand Land
Building parts for a tank in Sand Land
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Bandai Namco

Combat, whether in or out of the cockpit, feels weightless, like you've disassociated from the controller. It becomes especially rote in boss fights, where the difficulty - which you will find trivial until the boss fights - rubberbands into being artificially hard by dint of it taking place in a weird arena with lasers. Combat barks are repeated with a punishing frequency (after one fight with Krowa I had "How 'bout a molotov!" pinballing around my skull for hours). By rights this should be a very exciting game.

Despite Sand Land being a game with an emphasis on traversal, I mostly used the fast travel, because there was never anything happening in the world that I was afraid to miss. It all made me feel listless and petulant - oh, but I don't wanna go there! - which is, I suppose, sort of in character for playing a young demon with limits on his gaming time. I'm going to watch the anime instead now.

This review was based on a review build of the game provided by the publishers.

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