Wanted: Dead is a hybrid hack ‘n slash third-person shooter from developer Soleil and publisher 110 Industries. The game follows an inmate-turned-katana-wielding-cop named Hannah Stone and the other members of the elite “Zombie Unit” as they fight their way through waves of mercenaries, synthetics, and crime families to get to the bottom of a corporate conspiracy in retro-futuristic Hong Kong. It kind of sounds like a 90s action movie, and in many ways, it is.
The very first scene of the game is Hannah being recruited from her jail cell to join an elite task force, which she responds to with the kind of blasé compliance you might expect from any classic action star. While it’s endearing and definitely sets the tone for the rest of the game, this is only scratching the surface of what Wanted: Dead actually is.
The game’s developers describe it as “a love letter to the sixth generation of consoles”, and that sentiment can be felt in every aspect of the game, in a good way. Wanted: Dead is wildly adventurous, deliberately goofy, and it takes risks by throwing a ton of different, often conflicting tones and gameplay distractions at you.
"Wanted: Dead is wildly adventurous, deliberately goofy, and it takes risks by throwing a ton of different, often conflicting tones and gameplay distractions at you."
Where most modern games might try to do this and fail, Wanted: Dead manages to somehow take its weirdness in stride, and it does this by embracing a bygone era of gaming. Despite being made for release in 2023, it feels more like the kind of game you would have played back in 2003, a time when developers were less concerned with making “perfect 10s” and long before live service games.
Soleil doesn’t appear to have set out with the intention of making either of those things. Instead, what they have created is a very weird, very fun action game that knows exactly what it is and isn’t ashamed. It has hilariously bad voice acting, occasionally off-putting character models (just take a look at Hannah’s massive-eyed dead stare), and dramatic tonal shifts that could give you whiplash. In the first hour of the game, it is possible to go from intense action, to a heartfelt scene of Hannah comforting a child at a crime scene, to an inexplicable anime cutscene. You’ll also be treated to live-action cutscenes out of nowhere later in the game.
So yeah, Wanted: Dead is kind of all over the place, but it doesn’t come across in a bad way. The game is so competently made that all of the weirdness feels intentional. But, let’s put the weirdness to the side for just a bit so we can talk about what makes Wanted: Dead work so well.
The core of the Wanted: Dead experience is its combat, which was designed by former Team Ninja devs who now work at Soleil. You can definitely feel their influence, because Wanted: Dead’s core gameplay is only a few steps removed from a Ninja Gaiden game. Players have access to a katana and a handgun for close-quarters melee, where they will block, parry, and dodge roll, zipping from enemy to enemy with quickness and skill that puts Ryu Hayabusa himself on notice.
"Where most modern games might try to do this and fail, Wanted: Dead manages to somehow take its weirdness in stride, and it does this by embracing a bygone era of gaming. Despite being made for release in 2023, it feels more like the kind of game you would have played back in 2003, a time when developers were less concerned with making “perfect 10s” and long before live service games."
But that’s not all there is in terms of combat. Hannah also has a primary assault rifle to use for cover-based shooting, and you can pick up an assortment of other weapons on-site, including SMGs, shotguns, grenade launchers, and more.
When the bullets start flying, Wanted: Dead really does feel like a Ninja Gaiden game with guns, and that’s a huge compliment. You can switch between shooting and slashing on the fly, but the relatively low supply of ammo along with the variety of enemies you’ll have for each encounter means you’ll find yourself getting your hands dirty with the katana more often than not.
Thankfully, melee combat is as satisfying as you would expect from Team Ninja. You won’t be able to get by just mashing the attack button, and the combat system is designed so that you won’t want to. You can block enemy attacks and hide behind walls, but getting up close and personal to parry a combo successfully (or do enough damage) will open up your attacker to one of Wanted: Dead’s more than 50 different takedown animations.
Sure, limbs will fly off and blood will spatter during regular combat, but the ultra-violent, ultra-stylish takedowns feel like the real reward. Hannah becomes John Wick as she throws, shoots, and slices opponents up in numerous ways, even occasionally whipping out some Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to tackle enemies to the ground and take them out point-blank. It’s awesome.
"Hannah becomes John Wick as she throws, shoots, and slices opponents up in numerous ways, even occasionally whipping out some Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to tackle enemies to the ground and take them out point-blank. It’s awesome."
Even better, the combat experience improves over time. The range of maneuvers and combat options available to you increase as you unlock skills on the three different skill trees: offense, defense, and utility. By the time you’ve unlocked every last one of those skills, Wanted: Dead basically feels like a completely different game. You’ll go from a limited set of moves to an unstoppable force, light-stepping around the battlefield and calling in your squad mates as strikers to weaken enemies for you.
The progression is awesome and gratifying, but you’ll need every last one of those skills. Outside of the tough-as-nails boss encounters, the grunt enemies and their attack patterns change from mission to mission, and you have to adjust your approach to combat each time. Finding the key to accessing those takedowns while you zip and roll around, take cover, and shoot at enemies is enough to carry the entire game, but that’s not all you’ll do in Wanted: Dead.
To complement the perplexing narratives and characters, you’ll also be presented with a host of different things to do. This ranges from karaoke with your co-workers to crane games, retro arcade games, and more. It’s not quite Yakuza in terms of side activities, but there are definitely enough to keep you busy outside of normal missions.
The action-packed missions and delightful diversions are interspersed with cutscenes that can be in-engine, animated, or live-action. Funny enough, it’s the anime-style cutscenes that give the game its limited serious moments. The animation is high-quality and well-directed, and they serve as a welcome grounding for the game’s narrative elements. The in-engine and live-action cutscenes actually end up feeling sillier and more cartoony by comparison thanks to the over-the-top characters and some janky animations.
"The action-packed missions and delightful diversions are interspersed with cutscenes that can be in-engine, animated, or live-action. Funny enough, it’s the anime-style cutscenes that give the game its limited serious moments."
There are times when a strange, drawn-out, in-engine cutscene will play (there are plenty of those), and you might question if it was supposed to be that weird, or if it just didn’t land how the developer intended. Then the meme-parodying loading screen appears, and you realize, “oh yeah, that was intentional.”
This is what makes Wanted: Dead stand out from its contemporaries. It’s the intentional silliness and jank that hearkens back to the PS2 era, perfectly encapsulating the games that defined the childhoods of an entire generation. Those kids are all grown up now, and the way the industry is heading often looks like it will alienate us. So, it’s fantastic to have a game that doesn’t want to squeeze every last penny out of you or try to be a 100+ hour experience. Wanted: Dead just wants to be weird and fun, and that’s exactly what it is.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox Series X.
Intentionally strange to the point of hilarity; Fantastic combat system; Wonderfully weird story and characters.
Some janky animations; Hilariously terrible voice acting.