As the supposed spiritual successor to Squaresoft's 1998 PS1 classic Xenogears, Sands of Destruction has the pedigree, but not necessarily the polish. However, ultimately, it manages to transcend its quirky shortcomings to deliver an entertaining RPG.
- Battles tend to be fast and entertaining
- Fantastic soundtrack
- Reasonably good visuals evoke PS1-era classics
- Mediocre voice acting
- Battle system is often too one-dimensional
- Imbalanced difficulty
Sands of Destruction, a Japanese role-playing game designed by a team that includes members who worked on Squaresoft’s 1998 PlayStation classic Xenogears, has plenty of pedigree, but not necessarily polish. Sands is reminiscent of a B-grade RPG from a bygone era, complete with iffy voice acting and budget graphics. Although hardcore JRPG enthusiasts might have hoped that Sands would be a true heir to Xenogears, it’s not. But in the end, Sands of Destruction manages to transcend its quirky shortcomings to deliver an ultimately entertaining RPG.
A Strange Echo
If you’re a JRPG fan who has hankered for a spiritual successor to Xenogears, you’ll be disappointed by the news that, although much of the original Xenogears team helped develop Sands of Destruction, the overall tone of the game could not be more different. Xenogears was one of the most ambitious RPGs of our time featuring a fairly serious story, spanning thousands of years and revolving around God, religion and psychology. By contrast, Sands of Destruction has serious moments, but it’s a much more lighthearted romp. Sands is a strange echo--but far from a clone-- of the classic Xenogears, with elements like an excellent soundtrack that occasionally inspire fond memories, but little else.
Where both games are most similar is in the battle system, but even that has been streamlined considerably, almost to the point that it can feel one-dimensional. Sands’s battle system uses an action point system similar to the one found in Xenogears, but maps three successive attacks to a ‘weak’ button and a ‘strong’ button. In the early going, these attacks are all but useless, but they come in handy when it becomes possible to chain three attacks into a single action point. At that point, offensive spells then become far less necessary.
Sands excels at tense, fast-paced boss battles. Even after leveling up quite a bit, a strong boss is more than capable of severely hurting a party with a string of super attacks. However, the fights aren’t always balanced. There are points where they are too simple or much too hard. For example, at one point it’s possible to hit the equivalent of a brick wall if you haven’t focused on leveling up cohort Morte. Unbalanced as it can be, the battle system ultimately works out though, if only because you’ll barely have time to catch your breath through most of the battles.
Annihilation is Always the Answer
The storyline in Sands of Destruction is mostly a subversion of the familiar ‘save the world’ trope, where the stereotypical magical girl is replaced by the psychopath Morte, known far and wide as the “Scarlet Plague.” As a crusader for the World Annihilation Front, she’s out to destroy the world, ostensibly because things have gone to hell with animal-like beastlords ruling over humans. The rest of the heroes follow her because pamphlets from the sky tell them to, or because they knew her back in the day.
Frankly, it’s a weird story. The main character Kyrie seems largely unfazed when he reduces his entire home village to sand and he follows Morte the Scarlet Plague around because he has a crush on her. Meanwhile, Morte’s solution to every problem is to kill everyone and take what she wants, or at least threaten them with death. It’s funny in a black comedy sort of way, but little of it actually seems to make sense. It’s best to just jump onto the rollercoaster and hold on tight.
A Friendly Throwback
Many elements of Sands of Destruction, from its presentation to its plot, makes it feel like a budget 32-bit RPG, and that’s part of the appeal. Once upon a time, it would have sat on the bottom shelf next to Tales of Destiny and Arc the Lad. In this day and age, it’s likely to get lost under the continued tidal wave of quality RPGs on the Nintendo DS, but that’s not a fate this game necessarily deserves. The quirky battle system, wacky tone and stilted voice acting lend it a certain amount of charm that’s absent in other throwbacks like the recent Nostalgia, and the often wild battles help it to stand on its own.
Sands of Destruction isn’t the hoped-for successor to Xenogears, but JRPG lovers will still appreciate it for its old-school sensibilities, outstanding soundtrack and overall quirkiness. Put aside any expectations you might have had and just enjoy the ride with the World Annihilation Front. It might not always make a lot of sense, but you’ll be glad you did.