I wasn’t really sure what I was getting myself into when I began Wanted: Dead. I didn’t see much of the marketing leading to its launch. The little I had seen captured my interest immediately, though: there were ex-Team Ninja devs making the game, and it was intentionally going for a sixth-generation (PS2, Gamecube, Xbox) feel.
What’s not to love about Team Ninja and the PlayStation 2? While both of those flavors are found in Wanted: Dead, “throwback action game by Ninja Gaiden devs” is far too small a thought to prepare you for where this game goes. Wanted: Dead is one of the wonkiest and wildest games I’ve played in recent memory. There’s undeniable jank, but at the same time, undeniable heart.
Meet The Zombie Unit
Players control the tall, tattooed, and talented Hannah Stone. She’s a violent criminal who’s been released from prison on the agreement that she uses her lethal skills as an enforcer for the Hong Kong police. At first, she seems like a pretty carefree killer, but glimpses into her past throughout the story expand her character. In this cyberpunk funhouse mirror of our world, banks and corporations openly rule territories rather than countries. The Hong Kong police are little more than security for a large tech company in the area. The unit she leads is comprised solely of other inmates who’ve also made the same deal.
While they all look like they could be generic henchmen in an Xbox 360 shovelware shooter, they all have quirks that give them a bit of personality. There’s Herzog, a scarred warrior who’s a big fan of ramen and women. Squad member Cortez communicates with the team using sign language and loves reading and gaming when he’s not on the job. And then there’s Doc, who doesn’t stand out much but endears himself to players by serving as an extra life by reviving them during Wanted: Dead‘s intense and difficult gameplay. And this is a big deal for Doc; the game’s janky AI means the rest of the team is hardly ever helpful in battle, making him the only ally you’ll appreciate when you’re in a firefight.
Take ‘Em Out
Wanted: Dead‘s primary gameplay mode is the gore-soaked third-person shooting and sword fighting action that comprises the game’s missions. It’s a very simple but mostly satisfying blend of modern action with the structure and heart of an old school beat ’em up. You run through uncomplicated maps littered with destructible decorations, dismembering every enemy in your path. These missions are bookended by boss fights and separated by segments where you can kick back with your squad at the Hong Kong police station.
Hannah is exceptional with swords and guns and Wanted: Dead expects the same from its players. If you’re out of cover – or even if you’re just popping your head out to take a shot – you’ll be getting chewed up by gunfire. Enemies who rush you with melee attacks can drain your entire life bar if they land a combo on you. Your foes are so hellbent on your demise that they’ll keep fighting even after you’ve lopped off one of their arms or legs. Many of them are armored or androids, which means they shrug off most of your bullets unless you’re aiming for the head.
To effectively take out your targets and escape the levels with your life, you’ll need to master Wanted: Dead‘s combat flow of long range shooting, dashing, rolling, short range pistol stuns, and sword fighting. When at range against a hoard, it’s best to take cover and pick off some enemies. With fewer sources of gunfire to run through, you can then sprint over to your foes, dashing and dodge rolling when appropriate before using triangle for an auto-targeted shot from your pistol (used in a fashion not unlike Bloodborne‘s firearms) to stagger enemies before laying into them with Hannah’s katana. If you’ve taken damage in the process, you’ll be regenerating a bit of your lost health by returning the favor to your targets (also similar to Bloodborne).
As far as defensive options go, on top of dodging, Hannah has a parry and can counter unblockable attacks (marked by a red glare) with her pistol. This opens them up for a barrage of slashes. While the pistol counter works even when you’d think it wouldn’t, the parry can be hard to use effectively unless you sit and wait for an enemy strike. Many of Hannah’s techniques have ending lag and can’t be canceled into her block, making parrying harder to effectively work into the natural flow of combat than in many other action games unfortunately. The parry ability instead gets time to shine during the game’s various boss fights against humanoid enemies.
Are You Experienced
Each opponent you off will give you experience. While there’s no leveling, this currency can be spent on Hannah’s skill tree. The nature of which is a bit of a double-edged sword. It’s nice to see a skill tree with abilities you really want: an extra life, a dodge roll, extended combos, and more, rather than things like a “2% increase to piercing damage”. But at the same time, it feels like many of the unlocks are so pivotal that they’re essential to enjoying the game and playing well. Luckily you unlock most of the important ones very early, but in that way, it feels like you may as well have started with them.
The steep difficulty of the game did have me using the skill tree in interesting, desperate ways. In Mission 4, after many retries, I tried spending points on different unlocks each run. With every new attempt, I’d test things like whether a new type of grenade or more efficient healing items would be more effective at aiding my survival.
If you’ve depleted an enemy’s invisible stagger gauge during your assault, they’ll have a faint white glow, meaning they’re ready for a finisher. These brutal and stylishly choreographed mini-fatalities see Hannah end enemies with John Wick-esque flair. Not only are they a guaranteed kill, but they immediately restore the portion of recoverable damage you’ve accrued. If multiple enemies are eligible, Hannah zooms from goon to goon, headshotting and impaling them all.
Many action games with animated “finishing moves” end up boring players with long, repeated animations that aren’t worth stopping the action for. Wanted: Dead‘s finishers restore a small bit of health, making you temporarily invincible, potentially killing multiple enemies, increasing the amount of experience per kill, not activating too often or overstaying their welcome, giving haptic feedback, and pulling from a pool of more than 50 unique animations that activate contextually, means that they’re a pure positive. There’s really no downside here. They nailed this mechanic.
Though the core combat is good stuff, technical issues, inflated enemy health, bland encounter design, and some cruelly spaced checkpoints did keep me from consistently enjoying my experience.
When Wanted: Dead is firing on all cylinders, with papers flying off desks, pieces of the environment being blasted apart by bullets, Hannah dashing through sprinklers activated by grenades to cut up opponents before finishing off a distant enemy with her assault rifle, the DualSense trigger pulsing under your finger as rounds explode from its barrel, I feel like I could spend forever in the game’s combat. But as your foes eat clips of ammo, tons of sword strikes, and even a few of your grenades and keep pushing, just for another beefy miniboss to spawn when you finally get one of them down, it can really feel like you’ve already spent forever in Wanted: Dead‘s combat. Get killed near the end of a section? That means you’ll be spending another eternity doing the same thing.
During a few of the extra difficult segments in Mission 4 and 5, I noted that I wasn’t frustrated about dying or losing twenty minutes of progress at a time in a seven hour long game. I was frustrated that I wasn’t having fun making my way back to where I’d died. Some trouble spots with comically rude checkpoint placement did encourage me to play the game in interesting ways.
I didn’t feel like I had much room to improve in dodging, accuracy, or parrying, so I elected to shape the battlefield in ways that benefitted me. I’d kite enemies around the game’s large playspaces into the best spots to fight them, put up walls of fire they wouldn’t cross with incendiary grenades, and unload my long range guns while they couldn’t approach me. It didn’t feel like a playstyle that was intended, but it was allowed, and I enjoyed this tactical approach I was nudged into to proceed.
Where Is My Mind
This strategy I used was allowed by the game’s baffling AI. Sometimes they behaved reasonably, taking cover and flanking when it made sense. In others, they would throw grenades every ten seconds, run haphazardly around the room, or get confused trying to navigate certain areas. Hannah’s team members in the Zombie Unit behave much the same way and aren’t very helpful outside of Doc’s once-per-checkpoint revival of the player and Cortez occasionally grabbing and holding an enemy (if you’ve unlocked that skill). Thankfully it doesn’t swing in the other direction either; they’re usually too busy running around the environment to get in your way and they never need help from Hannah.
Interestingly enough, the goofy artificial intelligence gives the game some tonal consistency in what’s otherwise an experience that’s (usually delightfully) all over the place. In cutscenes, no one seems that bright, and their dialogue is uncannily delivered. It would only make sense that they’re also strange on the battlefield.
When I say all over the place, I’m not kidding. It feels like Soliel took every idea their team had and worked it in. It doesn’t always feel like they had the time to flesh out or realize each concept, but they’re here, in traces, or in full. Mini-games you can partake in between combat missions include a claw machine (that you can kick), an original arcade space shooter, a ramen-eating rhythm game, karaoke, and target practice. There are even aspects of characters that are hinted at that are further explored in the game’s promotional material (including a music video and over a half-hour of cooking with Stefanie Joosten as her in-game character).
Wanted: Dead fluctuates from being solemn to laughing at itself. The voice acting ranges from good to so odd it makes the plot hard to understand. The localization quality is much the same. One of the best comparisons I can draw is to the cult classic Deadly Premonition. This game isn’t as detailed, coherent, or complete as DP, but its stilted presentation and charming back and forth from serious to silly are similar. Its regular references to other media recall Swery too; Suda as well.
Truly though, Wanted: Dead is bananas. I don’t mean that in a “baby’s first ‘wacky Japanese’ game” way. I mean that in this simple to play beat ’em up, your protagonist and her friends are war criminals turned cops who don’t even have the veneer of serving the public anymore, now providing security for a company that makes eight-legged tanks.
When your probably evil team isn’t out killing whoever they’re told to, they’re eating ramen via a rhythm mini-game, doing karaoke with their cat-loving, Olympic gold medalist cooking show celeb turned gunsmith (played by Stefanie Joosten of MGSV fame), gaming at the arcade, hanging out in their massive jank police station filled with cats while covers of old pop songs play, or conversing with their insurance agent and her assistant who are obvious references to Ada Wong and Mr. X from Resident Evil, who are rumored to have a sexual relationship. Yep, bananas. And it doesn’t even feel like the game is trying to be strange. It doesn’t seem like it’s trying to shock you. It simply is what it is.
Another part of Wanted: Dead‘s insane tone hopping: the game is intermittently interrupted by full-on anime cutscenes following after-mission shower breaks despite its ordinarily realistic AA graphics. These short scenes slowly reveal Hannah’s tragic backstory, which I’m still not sure I understand. What I am sure of is that I’m compelled. Wanted: Dead is full of mysteries, and these few cutscenes are just icing on the cake.
The game’s combat is fun but has a lack of variety and some unfortunate flaws. The graphics are pretty good, and the music throughout is great – I even like the pop song covers though they’re eventually grating. Of these things I’m certain. But what I can’t wrap my head around is Wanted: Dead‘s tone, themes, and story. This isn’t a negative, either. I’m stumped, but I’m definitely engaged.
Does the plot make sense? Does it even mean to? Am I not getting it, or is there nothing to get? The game’s ending and anime cutscenes are emotionally charged, but much of the rest of the game is shallow. Is that purposeful? Is it a way to link players to Hannah, who also seems to be having these feelings push through to the surface during her numb blood soaked day-to-day? Should we care about the problems of a war criminal who’s now a corpo assassin? And are these mysteries intentional? Or are they the result of unconventional performances, shallow writing, and localization issues? Ironically, Wanted: Dead shares a similar fate to Metal Gear Solid V, another game where Joosten plays a prominent role. The question of “does the game feel this way on purpose” applies to both.
The Right to Remain Violent
With its lore, various mini-games, side characters who get almost zero screentime, and promotional material outside the game further expanding on it, Wanted: Dead simultaneously feels like it’s a small story set in a universe rich with history, and also like maybe all bits of its worldbuilding consist of paper-thin props.
Either way, I think it’s a world worth visiting – or a play worth seeing. Its solid action is largely satisfying, and in the spots where I was gritting my teeth, creative use of the game’s combat options and a desire to see what bemusing content awaited me next kept me going until the end. I can see myself playing through a second time on the unlockable easy mode, getting another shot at absorbing the story, collecting all the lore memos, and fighting foes that are less spongey. There are plenty of great action games out there, but there aren’t many like this.
Disclaimer: 110 Industries and Soleil provided Final Weapon with a review copy of Wanted: Dead.