Wanted: Dead Review

Lieutenant Stone cold

By Paul Hunter

Reading the press releases for Wanted: Dead seemed like a dream scenario: a stylish new hybrid slasher and third-person shooter from ex-Team Ninja members behind Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive. The weird trailers reinforced my curiosity with their bizarre mix of live-action cooking, anime flashback scenes, grizzly limb-severing gameplay, Suda51-style minigames and an eclectic Suicide Squad-esque main cast. Oh and something something about a global conspiracy involving shady multinational organizations and military contractors pulled right out of the Kojima playbook. It all seemed awesome and particularly suited to my offbeat tastes.

It's a wonder then how the final game missed the bullseye in some fundamental ways, although it shouldn't be that surprising considering the pre-release marketing was an unfocused mix of, well, everything. While I think Wanted: Dead's ambition of being a 2000's-era action title—nonsensical story, janky gameplay and all—ultimately limits its appeal, I couldn't help but root for what will probably end up being the strangest game of the year.

Let's head on into the Atomic Heart diner to get the lowdown on what Wanted: Dead is all about, here are two things I liked about the game...and two I didn't.

Liked: The Combat, At Times

In Wanted: Dead, you play as Lt. Hannah Stone, a no-nonsense cop who leads a ragtag group of reformed war criminals, called the Zombie Unit, in a dystopian version of Hong Kong. She's a badass, skilled fighter that's somehow highly proficient at katana hack-'n-slash melee combat and a broad range of tactical firearms. The gameplay leans into to her abilities hard with third-person cover shooting reminiscent of Devil's Third combined with the fast and furious blade slicing of Ninja Gaiden. And it actually works, at least some of the time.

In order to excel in battle, you'll need to expertly juggle between Stone's gunfire and melee attacks depending on the situation. Each serves a specific purpose: Gunfire is primarily used during parries to stun enemies and set them up for a melee combo, while your katana is used to rush in and deliver bone-shattering, limb-serving lethal strikes. The unique shooter/slasher gameplay takes some time to get used to but can feel satisfying once you've mastered the rhythm of battle.

It's worth pointing out that the gameplay in Wanted: Dead is brutally hard. Even low-ranking enemies can rapidly deplete your health bar if you're caught off guard. The harder enemies hit like a tank with each strike taking a sizable amount of your health away, destroying you in seconds if you make the wrong move. Usually, I enjoy the default setting of hardcore experiences, but I found the gameplay here to be extremely frustrating on the Normal difficulty and virtually impossible on Hard—so after the second level I dropped down to the 'easy' Neko-chan secret difficulty setting.

Why the harder difficulties are so aggravating is I think Wanted: Dead is a genuine case of poor game design decisions and not simply a matter of 'gitting gud'. When I play games like Dark Souls or Ninja Gaiden improving my game is a matter of optimizing my build or playstyle, deeply understanding the game mechanics and memorizing boss patterns. In contrast, I learned all I needed to know about Wanted: Dead's gameplay in the first half an hour and it never really builds from there. The game's idea of challenging combat is to simply give enemies an absurd amount of health to the point where even the easiest grunts can absorb an entire clip of 30 AR bullets and then another 30 after you reload. Your guns usually only carry around two or three clips, so imagine wasting nearly all of your ammunition on a single basic foe.

Then consider you often get rushed by five or more low-level enemies at a time and ammunition resupplies are far less plentiful than you'd think. Also factor in that after learning the basic combos in the first mission there's little incentive to master more complex combos since they're no more effective. There is a skill tree with unlockables divided into Offense, Defense and Utility, but most skills should have been accessible from the start. That I need to unlock skills like a dash attack, doing a follow-up attack after a parry or being able to 'finish' an enemy with severed legs just seems incredulous for an action game. With your guns and skill trees being near useless, what could have been an amazing shooter/slasher gameplay blend ends up being closer to a pure slasher with repetitive combat where the first combo you learn can carry you through the whole game.

That's a long-winded way of saying that dropping the difficulty down allowed me to enjoy the gameplay better. Opponents actually die when you shoot them, enabling me to constantly switch between blades and bullets—how I imagine the game was actually meant to be played. Enemies still have a lot of health, but a much more reasonable amount. By all means, play on the harder settings if that's your thing, but I found for this particular game it just makes the whole experience a slog. And hey, on Neko-chan difficulty Lt. Stone gets cute cat ears during cinematics, surely meant to humiliate you, but I found them funny and gave the story more charm.

Despite its shortcomings, Wanted: Dead's gameplay has sparks of brilliance. Take for example the brutal 50-plus finishing moves that not only help you defeat injured enemies but also replenish a portion of your health. Even better, the finishers are context-sensitive and change up depending on the particular enemy, which weapons they're carrying and your environment. Depending on where you finish an enemy, Lt. Stone might bash their head into a wall, smash them into a table or execute them using various stylish flips. She can even steal the enemy's weapon and turn it against them for a savage and humiliating finish.

On top of a range of assault rifles, SMGs, LMGs and rocket launchers, during a few key fights, you can also find my favourite weapon: the chainsaw. Harkening back to Lollipop Chainsaw, you feel ultra-powerful wielding the motor saw capable of shredding enemies in a single hit. It's a crime that there isn't a secret 'Chainsaw mode' as it's the most fun I had in the game. I also really enjoyed Stone's ultimate ability which initiates a bullet-time sequence where she sprays multiple enemies with gunfire, setting them up for chained finishers. It takes quite a while to charge up her ultimate ability though—and it's such a shame that my favourite attacks are the most limited ones.

Liked: The Minigames

Sometimes it seems like Wanted: Dead isn't quite sure what tone it wants to settle on as the story can go straight from blood-soaked combat to a Ramen rhythm game inside a Hong Kong noodle shop. It's a bit jarring but the good news is the minigames are quite fun and remind me a lot of SEGA's Yakuza/Like a Dragon series.

The Ramen game tasks you to press buttons in sync with the prompts, which speeds up your eating. It's silly but gets even funnier when you start getting ramen history lessons, like how the food dish originated in southern China and not Japan like I had assumed. There's also a karaoke game where you need to push buttons on a beat and includes a version of Nena's 99 Luftballons.

The Police HQ main hub zone also features a few minigames, including a Target Practice one next to the Gunsmith, played by Stefanie Joosten, who portrayed Quiet in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. There are also two different Crane Games where you can win collectible figures of the main cast and new songs for Ramen eating. I have no shame in admitting that I spent over an hour playing with the UFO catchers as I tried to complete the entire collection. If you ever get frustrated trying to grab a particular bobble you kick the machine twice to jiggle your prize closer to the shoot, pretty funny.

My favourite minigame at the Police HQ is the side-scrolling shooter Space Runaway playable in the break room. It's a complete, standalone shooter featuring seven levels, multiple mid-stage and end bosses, and all set to a nostalgic chiptunes soundtrack. It was even released for free on Steam to give players a taste of what they could expect in Wanted: Dead.

Didn't Like: The Gameplay, At Times

It's been some time since I've had such a love/hate opinion of the gameplay for a title I'm reviewing. Wanted: Dead's combat does so many things well, while also layering in so many unnecessary elements that drag down the experience.

I've already talked about how enemies are sponges, but compounding the issue is how inaccurate your guns are, plus their overall lack of utility. The constant running out of bullets and the low amount of ammo pick-ups seem done intentionally to force you to engage in katana melee battles. And sure, that would be fine if I didn't need to hack away at basic enemies 15-plus times just to take one of them down. Mercifully, but also braking immersion, is how enemies will stand idle while you attack one of their buddies—and then engage after your combo is done. You get a sense that AI was programmed to engage you one by one, certainly an odd choice for a high-action game.

I also saw weird AI behaviour like enemies that run away from the battle as if they were retreating but they never did, they just kept running around. Other times I'd encounter a particularly dangerous foe and decide to back off to a previous area and recover, but no matter how many corners I took and how far the distance got between us, they'd always know exactly where I am every time.

Perhaps the most egregious pain point though is how infrequent the checkpoints are. There were many times when I'd die on a boss or an elite enemy, and then I'd be forced to redo large sections of the mission to make it back to where I was. Surely this was done to make the game 'punishing' but knowing that doesn't make it any less frustrating.

Didn't Like: Incoherent Story

Wanted: Dead's story makes absolutely no sense from beginning to end. It has something to do with a major corporate conspiracy involving a large and powerful organization named Dauer Synthetic but I still can't tell you what exactly they're after. Captain Albert Simmons, your police boss, seems to be a pawn for Dauer who controls the police force for some reason. He swears constantly and has violent outbursts which are about all you need to know about Simmons.

Your Zombie Unit team is comprised of a hodgepodge of one-dimensional characters that have absolutely no chemistry together. There's Sgt. Arnold Herzog who's a womanizer nicknamed "The Beast" and enjoys telling penis jokes a little too much. Next is Sgt. Manolo Cortez, a mute that telepathically communicates with Lt. Stone despite that not ever being explained. And finally, there's Doc, a field surgeon that got kicked out of med school for engaging in wild parties and doing drugs. The foursome likes meeting at the Atomic Heart diner for chitchats even though they have a palpable sense of ambivalence towards one another. Making the meets up worse is how terrible the voice acting is, for sure among the worst I've heard in recent years.

Lt. Stone will periodically collapse during the story and has bizarre anime flashbacks that confuse more than shed light on her character and backstory. While I didn't learn anything of significance during these sequences, the anime quality is high with great animation and superb art. The short anime cutscenes were actually among the biggest highlights of the game, so it's unfortunate the actual content doesn't progress the story in any meaningful way.

The story features synthetic robots that bleed for no logical reason or have a romantic relationship that serves no purpose and is cringe to watch. It appears to be a scenario similar to Detroit: Become Human, where synthetics want to become more human, yet this interesting angle is never explored beyond robots claiming they feel human emotions.

You wind up fighting some interesting bosses like Mr. Holiday a pair of homicidal twins, but the characters are introduced without context and rarely speak so it's hard to care too much about them. There's a military sniper with a cloaking device named Kolchak who's the type of intriguing character that in a Metal Gear game would ramble on for five minutes about their epic past battles, but here says nothing and engages you in a brief yet forgettable fight. Even Richter the final boss is a blank slate character and I barely understood why we were even fighting. He's a swordfighter with incredible agility and regenerative power—it sounds cool on paper so what a shame his motivations are never explored in any detail.

The Verdict

Wanted: Dead is a hard game to review considering nearly every aspect has positives and flaws. The gameplay can be extremely satisfying when you get into a good rhythm, but the limited enemy variety and spongy health make every mission feel the same. The story and characters have wacky charm, at times being incredibly funny yet far too frequently becoming a head-scratcher. The cutscene voice acting is bad, but the anime flashbacks are superb. I could go on and on but the bottom line is this game is unique—for better or for worse—and probably just as many people will love it as those who don't.

Final Score: 7/10 - Good

Wanted: Dead details

Platform: PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC
Developer: Soleil
Publisher: 110 Industries
Genre: Action, Third-Person Shooter
Modes: Single-player
ESRB Rating: M (Mature)

A key was provided by the publisher.