Wanted: Dead - Ninja Whyden? (Review)
Wanted: Dead Released: February 14, 2023 Developer: Soleil Publisher: 110 Industries Systems: PC, PS4, PS5 (reviewed), Xbox One, Xbox X/S
Describing Wanted: Dead is simultaneously super easy and difficult as all hell. Focusing purely on the core gameplay, I can tell you it’s a standard hybrid of third-person shooter and hack n’ slasher that offers solid - if notably flawed - action across straightforward linear levels. It was made by former Team Ninja developers and that shows in the stylistic violence on offer.
Also it’s weird. Really weird.
For the first couple of hours, Wanted: Dead delivers the gameplay I just outlined with very little silliness. The first level is a lengthy affair in which Lieutenant Stone and her edgily named “Zombie Unit” tackle masked mooks who shoot from cover and spam so many grenades you’d think they hailed from an early Call of Duty game. This is all before things get truly strange.
Admittedly, there are clues from the outset that Soleil's bloody romp might be a little offbeat, and a sense that despite the relative banality of its foundation, Wanted: Dead is just plain off.
An introductory montage of fictional news reports goes hard with its political implications, mentioning corporate oversteps, the impact of automation on the workforce, and police brutality in Hong Kong. The first proper cutscene we get after that is almost unsettling in its low budget trappings. Character models are roughly animated with stiff motions and strange body positions which, combined with the lacking textures and overall visual compression, makes it look like an FMV from a PS2 game.
Accents are all over the place. Despite being set in Hong Kong, I’m not sure we ever hear from anybody who sounds local. Instead, we get a mixture of various European voices with what I assume are some attempts at American accents so poor they’re almost surreal. Words are slurred, lines are delivered with awkward inflection, nobody talks like regular people talk.
As for the game itself, Wanted is a solid experience but it's definitely one-note. Stone is armed with an assault rifle, handgun, and katana, making her capable of simple cover shooting alongside similarly uncomplicated swordplay. The handgun, rather than a useful ranged option in its own right, is combined at short range with the katana to stagger enemies and create combo attacks, as well as interrupt strong enemy moves that can’t be blocked or parried.
As a fan of hack n’ slash in general, I quite like how free of frills Wanted’s fighting is, and the handgun does a good job of making melee a little less of a pure button masher. Nevertheless, each level will see you doing largely the same thing over and over, and the handful of sub weapons dropped from enemies don’t do a lot to change things.
Partway through the initial level, we get the first open suggestion that Wanted: Dead is more absurd than its gameplay suggests. A limited use chainsaw is presented that carves enemies in twain while a big “CENSORED” logo attempts to cover the gore. Said logo isn’t large enough to account for the huge torrents of blood that gush out from screaming victims. The breaking of the fourth wall combined with the (presumably purposeful) ineffective censorship is a surprising bit of brilliance.
After the first level is where things start going truly strange, however. You hang out at the police station between every mission, and the first thing you’ll likely see are the two crane game machines in the break room. They’re fully playable, offering UFO catcher minigames in which you can nab statues of every character as well as some toy cats and a poop.
Oh, the police station is full of cats. You can walk into them and everything.
Wanted: Dead’s loading screen is a parody of the Supa Hot Fire reaction meme. There’s a random recreation of a scene from the movie Tampopo. An Australian voiceover suddenly starts narrating the game for less than a minute before disappearing for the rest of it. Did I mention the rhythm game in which our protagonist eats ramen to the beat? Or the minigame that’s a full fledged sidescrolling shooter? How about the random anime cutscenes?
After all that, the inevitable karaoke section is almost mundane.
All this occurs between action missions that present both themselves and the main plot with whiplash seriousness .
Don’t ask me to describe the actual story. Near as I can tell, Stone was in jail but then was made a cop but there are other cops who are the baddies and also synthetics are rebelling but they might be people and also a corporation is doing something. It’s all treated with stoic sobriety despite how bonkers everything else is. I don’t know what is happening. It’s like if Tom Clancy tried to write Blade Runner fanfic while running a fever.
With all this unexpected weirdness and a low budget feel, it’s hard not to think of Deadly Premonition, while its minigames and sudden tonal shifts are reminiscent of Yakuza. It doesn’t commit as deeply as either of those games, stopping short of their sheer unpredictability and surreal comedy. Nonetheless, Wanted is truly strange even if it isn’t as memorable as the gaming medium's truest oddities.
Wanted has a real throwback feel to it. The overall aesthetic and rather basic combat mechanics evoke memories of the Xbox 360 and its slew of middle shelf titles. I could easily imagine Wanted: Dead in the same bargain bin as Bullet Witch and Dark Sector. To be honest, I quite like how rudimentary its gameplay is - there’s a certain purity to just running around shooting and slicing stuff, and it's done well enough.
There’s a little trio of skill trees in which Stone can unlock grenades, buffs, and other such upgrades including an ability unique to each non-player member of the Zombie Unit. Stone’s main assault rifle and handgun also get upgrades, though the way in which they do is quite interesting - at least one attachment for either weapon is unlocked every time the player hits a checkpoint during missions. You sometimes get a weapon skin in place of an attachment, and there ends up being a small selection of these random cosmetics. It’s a weird system, but it actually makes checkpoints themselves a little bit more exciting, and I enjoy just how amusingly pointless that is.
Less appreciable is Wanted’s complete lack of balance. Checkpoints are placed quite far apart and only get further as progress is made. You hold three health kits (four with an upgrade) and your ally “Doc” can revive you only once, but before long you’ll be dealing with enemies more than capable of taking half your health in a single hit or slaying you in one combo. Even regular enemies are damage sponges capable of surviving even grenade hits, and they’re increasingly backed up by tanky wankers so exhausting they could easily qualify as mini bosses.
Your gear replenishes if you hit a checkpoint, but doing so can be an arduous task. Ammo is hard to come by, enemies only infrequently drop usable weapons, and you might get an extra med kit once in a blue moon. For added spitefulness, a few of the tougher sections split your unit and take Doc away, removing your one means of resuscitation.
I’m on what I believe is the last level, and I’m pretty convinced I’ll never complete it. By this stage in the proceedings, checkpoints are set between gulfs of combat littered with offensively devastating and defensively blessed opposition. Doc is gone, there are so many opponents with nowhere near enough ammo to cope, and the exact part I’m stuck at consists of thin corridors and small rooms seemingly designed to hamper dodging and give the camera a hard time.
If I make it far enough into all this hell, I keep getting stuck in an alley where a super elite ninja rushes in and combos me to death immediately.
There are many segments of the game that I would politely describe as complete bullshit. The lack of resources is a huge problem given the combination of ranged and melee attacks flying at the player with enough constance to ensure you’ll be tapped out before the next safe spot - that’s around the time you’ll be assailed by ninjas and heavy gunners who eat more bullets than Al Pacino at the end of Scarface.
An extremely patient player might see this game’s credits. Personally, I’m all out of spoons to deal with a final level that feels quite genuinely unfair, and it's a shame considering how much I’d been strangely enjoying myself.
An MSRP of $60 has to be doggedly criticized. While there’s a lot here for aficionados of oddball media to experience, the game feels extremely dated both visually and mechanically, and has neither the content nor replay value to justify a premium price tag. If anything is going to severely harm this game’s already slim chance of being a commercial success, it’s the frankly offputting entry cost. I'm genuinely puzzled as to why they decided to set it so high for what it is.
Wanted: Dead is a budget title in every way except the price. It’s rudimentary, almost crude in its presentation and mechanics, and while I find the throwback atmosphere entertaining, it sure ain’t worth a modern mainstream price tag. Still, Wanted's a decent entry in the rare category of “good bad” games, boasting a remarkable eccentricity hidden behind straight faced gameplay. If only its difficulty balance wasn’t a disaster, it would be something I’d heartily recommend to fans of entertaining rubbish.
As it stands, I’d say such trash fans would do well to check it out when its price suffers the same fate as the protagonist’s health bar and gets mercilessly slashed in half.