Wanted: Dead would have totally banged in the late 2000s. It's a no-nonsense hack-and-slash with some sickeningly wicked dismemberment, B-tier voice acting, and heaps of jank. It's exactly what developer Soleil was aiming for, backed by several ex-Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive workers. But in the year of our lord 2023, its unapologetic vision isn't going to sit right with everybody.
What is it? A hack-and-slash inspired by janky 2000s action games.
Expect to pay: £50/$60
Developer: Soleil Limited
Publisher: 110 Industries SA
Reviewed on: Nvidia GeForce RTX3070, AMD Ryzen 7 2700X, 16GB RAM
Link: https://wanteddeadgame.com/ (opens in new tab)
Unfortunately, I'm one of those people. I'm a huge Team Ninja lover and a regular Dead or Alive defender, so I was excited to dive into the Hong Kong Police Department's Zombie Squad: A group of former criminals on life sentences. You take on the role of Hannah Stone, alongside comrades Herzog, Doc and Cortez.
Wanted: Dead's flimsy narrative is played out across a number of missions. They're linear, but in a way I really dig. Waves of enemies are dotted between checkpoints, most of them fairly identical and repetitive. There are gun-wielding enemies who can be easily rushed, a number of melee enemies who provide different levels of challenge and miniboss-type monstrosities that deal big damage and require precise timing. Their pathing can be a little wonky sometimes, not always sure whether to beeline for me or one of my teammates. They all follow simple patterns that, in isolation, are mostly easy enough to deal with bar one or two particularly tough enemies faced in the final mission.
Wanted: Dead has a mixture of melee and gun combat, with Stone able to slash away and parry with her katana, stagger enemies with a handgun or go classic third-person shooter behind cover. She can also parry certain moves with a handgun, and evade gunfire with a dodge ability. When it flows, the combat feels great. Slicing off an arm or parrying a move at the right moment is super satisfying, and Wanted: Dead is full of gloriously gory finishing moves that never got old across my 12 hours with the game.
Gunplay feels significantly weaker in comparison to katana slashing, and the cover system is pretty rough. Sometimes Stone wouldn't come out of cover properly, unable to shoot at any enemies because she was too busy planting her cheek against the wall. You do have the ability to vault over low objects, but I found it too inconsistent to use reliably.
Most guns also felt pretty crap to use aside from Stone's own rifle and the shotgun, which seem to be two of the only guns capable of actually hitting enemies. Grenade launchers and Stone's supply of hand grenades inflicted little damage if at all, and I eventually gave up on using them as they were so useless.
On the plus side, you can make small tweaks to Stone's main gun and the handgun through weapon customisation, and Stone can also upgrade her abilities through skill trees. The skill trees are nice and simple, split into offensive, defensive and utility skills. There's minimal faff when choosing what skills you want to invest in, and the progression of gaining new abilities is straightforward, allowing you to gain enough points to pick up your final upgrades with enough time to enjoy them in the final mission.
Enemies usually wait patiently for Stone to finish annihilating whichever foe is in front of her, meaning I was rarely struggling with more than one or two foes at a time. I did encounter some frustratingly unfair situations where I'd get stuck between two of them, unable to evade or parry my way out while being pummeled from every which direction.
I'm not the most action-inclined gamer out there, and found the end-of-mission bosses particularly frustrating. The final mission gave me so much grief, unaided by some very sporadic checkpoint placement that turned the game into a gauntlet with some heavy health resource management. One particular checkpoint in the final mission killed me off over 10 times, leaving me frustrated in my lack of skill that was at odds with my desire to progress and finish the goddamn game.
You'll be well at home if you're an enjoyer of games like Devil's Third, Sekiro or, of course, the classic Ninja Gaidens. But as someone who doesn't dabble in these games a whole lot, the difficulty spike really dampened my time with Wanted: Dead.
On the bright side, there weren't any performance issues getting in the way or making the fights even harder.There are occasional frame drops when new enemies pop in and texture loading issues, but for the most part, my game was buttery smooth. I ran most graphic settings at the highest option with no problem. For those whose rigs may struggle, there are plenty of graphic options to tinker around with like texture quality, draw distance and ambient occlusion. No ray tracing or DLSS—I couldn't imagine a 2007-inspired game benefitting much from the former, and the fairly low system requirements mean DLSS shouldn't be much of a necessity.
I did, however, encounter some pesky bugs that added to the roughness of the game. Music would stop dead in the middle of encounters, and menus would fail to disappear while gameplay continued in the background. I also encountered a couple of crashes that would occur at random. I'm not sure if it was a bug or poor audio mixing, but one level had the enemies' singular voice screaming above the music and every other sound effect which was incredibly distracting.
Death by confusion
The gameplay loop is a well-paced cycle, whizzing me back to police headquarters at the end of each mission. It's the most open the game ever gets, with four floors to explore for a handful of collectables, and some very out-of-place minigames that flip Wanted: Dead into a weird Yakuza-like. At one point, I finish up watching a cutscene and immediately get thrown into Stone and Gunsmith (voiced by Metal Gear Solid 5's Quiet) singing 99 Luftballons while I frantically mash my keyboard to the rhythm.
It's weird moments like this where I sit back and realise I'm not even entirely sure what I'm playing. The narrative is all over the place, regularly throwing completely needless cutscenes at me. An early cutscene spends 35 seconds following Herzog over to a diner jukebox, watching him select a song and then walk all the way back to his table. The Zombie Squad go on to place an egregious order, with Stone taking an entire 24 seconds to ask for her breakfast "and a pack of smokes." A little later on, a roughly 90-second cutscene involves Stone walking into the police cafeteria. She sits down and mindlessly examines each plate of food while seemingly struggling to grasp the concept of using a fork. She looks up to see, for some reason, the rest of her team sitting at another table. That's it, that's the cutscene.
Even when the cutscenes are trying to tell a story, it's delivered so woodenly that I'm still not sure what's happening. I'm not particularly bothered by its wishy-washy narrative, but on several occasions, I had to sit back and say "What the fuck?" when a cutscene would fade to black. At times, Wanted: Dead resorts to telling its story through anime cutscenes, a choice that gave me severe whiplash the first time it happened. It's at such a juxtaposition with its normal aesthetic that it felt unnatural, though in isolation they were crisp and well-animated.
Wanted: Dead is too janky to happily exist in mainstream gaming in 2023. But it'll definitely strike a chord with a niche audience—one I'm sadly not a part of. Soleil had a vision, and it can be proud that it damn well achieved it. It won't be for everybody, but for those who it is for, they'll have a good-ass time with it.