Wanted: Dead is a third-person hybrid slasher/shooter featuring a hack-n-slash melee mechanic with some gunplay thrown in for good measure. Coming from the makers of Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive, I was expecting a lot…
The game follows the Zombie Unit, an elite Hong Kong police squad tasked with uncovering a major corporate conspiracy involving Dauer Synthetics, a mega-company developing humanoid robots. Collectible documents and photographs fill in some of the backstory and provide info on the various enemies.
You play as former prisoner A-1-1-2-0, now known as Lieutenant Hannah Stone of the Zombie Squad. Hannah's squad is a 3-man team that accompanies her on every mission: Doc the rifleman & medic, Cortez, apparently a mute, is the heavy weapons breaching/demolitions expert, and Herzog, a tough veteran rifleman who, judging by the scars on his face, appears to have lost a fight with his pet cat, or possibly a grizzly bear. The game is single-player only and while the AI squad makes an effort to help, it's always down to you to lead and push forward with Hannah.
The game starts with the offer of a tutorial (but if you prefer you can do it anytime from the main menu, or even after you die, and there's a training room available between missions in the precinct building) the completion of which is highly advised as it teaches you pretty much everything you need to know about controlling Hannah Stone and killing efficiently. Wanted: Dead ain't easy by any standards and this is reflected by it initially only having 'Normal' and 'Hard' difficulty settings. Fail a few times and you'll be offered Neko-chan mode which means you're a kitty (or pussy) and Hannah shows this by wearing pussycat ears! (And yes, I gladly accepted the offer as I don't want to still be playing Wanted: Dead next Christmas.)
The character models are strange, they're realistically proportioned but oddly cartoony. In a departure from the norm, the playable character Hannah isn't what I'd call classically beautiful either. Although she has lovely auburn hair and freckles, she appears to be well over 6ft tall, has a prosthetic bionic arm and various other implants, is scarred and tattooed, and her undetermined European (presumably supposed to be German) accent gives her a stern aura.
Hannah has a fairly standard set of controls and actions. The left stick is movement and left click (L3) is sprint. She goes into cover mode automatically when near any scenery that actually offers cover. You have no jump button but 'A' is slide and also vault if approaching objects like desks, tables or low walls. However, there are numerous low objects that you annoyingly cannot vault over, like couches. 'X' is sword slash and various combos can be achieved and unlocked via the skill tree. 'Y' automatically fires her pistol at engaged enemies and can be used in combos (there are over 50!), including a 'Y+B' finishing move when an enemy has taken serious damage (they glow to let you know they’re ready to be “finished.”) The 'R' trigger automatically fires her primary weapon, an assault rifle. This can be carefully aimed by holding the 'L' trigger, 'B' is reload, 'Down' on the D-pad heals Hannah, and Doc will raise Hannah once per checkpoint if she's downed.
The squad's gunsmith sends a drone at the end of every section that heals and rearms you–although I'm not sure how it does this as it looks no bigger than a DJI Phantom! You can also mod your weapons (assault rifle and handgun) and it's also a good time to spend any accrued points on the skill tree. SMGs, Shotguns, Grenade Launchers and even a chainsaw can be picked up along the way and used as a temporary secondary weapon, but cannot be modified. Ammo is always scarce and although you'll pop a few heads and can shoot the legs of shield-wielding cowards, your katana is always your best friend–along with pistol combos to soften enemies up or stop them in their tracks.
One of the features of Wanted: Dead I like least is its Roguelite element, which means if you die on a level it's back to the last checkpoint, some of which are horribly placed, and you have to collect any pickups/collectibles and even allocate any skill points all over again. While checkpoints are initially reasonably spaced, later on you'll be replaying huge swathes of the game all over again just to get back to where you died–a major gaming no-no in my book. My main dislike is, even allowing for the fact that they may be androids, the ridiculous, insect-like speed at which even the basic enemies move, with plenty of aggression but next to no logic to their movements. The action is fast and frantic in the main, there’s plenty of gunplay and even a few opportunities to snipe, but it's nearly always "up close and personal" for Hannah, and it's here that the game's biggest flaw rears its ugly head. The camera simply doesn't keep up with the action, often allowing foreground scenery to obscure your view, corners mess the camera up and Hannah’s head even gets in the way time and time again when aiming! Add to this the ridiculously speedy movement of enemies and some stunningly good pyro and smoke effects and Hannah can end up dead before you know what hit her. The designers also saw fit to throw incredibly tough enemies at you, and then cheaply raise the difficulty by making two, three or four of the same enemy appear together later on in a mission, which produces difficulty spikes like few other games. Well-timed blocking/parrying/pistol use is always the key, but it's not as easy as in some games because 'block' is mapped to 'LB', which isn't the most responsive (or intuitive) of buttons on an Xbox controller. It's not clever, not fun, just teeth-grindingly hard and old-school. Much of the time Wanted: Dead feels more like a remodel of an old game rather than a 2023 release.
During battles grenades can be useful, but as I said earlier, the enemies move so quickly that they're not to be relied on, although incendiary grenades are always amusing should you catch enemies dumb enough to be closely grouped. The chainsaw is obviously a melee weapon and comes complete with its own 'CENSORED' panels that partially hide the gory deaths. This is a bit weird and pointless because of the number of heads, arms and legs you slice off with your katana.
Hannah seems to have some kind of fainting problem, and during these spells memories are envisioned in some nicely done yet bizarre anime sequences that don't actually resemble the game much. As some sequences are rendered with the game engine they just make the game look confused.
Between missions the Zombie Unit rests up at the precinct building. Mini games can be played here and reminded me of Shenmue, another franchise that I wanted to love but that never really lived up to the hype. The Crane Game is fun for a while, and just as frustrating and unfair as the real thing. The Ramen eating game is a rhythm action game; A song plays and well-timed button presses empty your bowl. More songs can be unlocked via the Capsule Capture crane game. The karaoke is another rhythm action game and gets bizarrely fast, maybe it's designed for the AI enemies to play, using their speedy movement. There are also some awful retro games to find and play–should you be masochistic enough. All of the mini games are quite well realised, but are only minor diversions.
Some of the dialogue is humourous, but some unintentionally so. I also wouldn't mind a fiver for every time I heard Herzog say "I’d expect nothing less from this team" – although other characters chip in from time to time, certain phrases seem to get recycled by the game far too often. One of your team warns you if a grenade is thrown at you, which is actually quite a help early in the game, but before long the enemies start using incendiary grenades which explode on impact–usually just as someone shouts "GRENADE!" for the umpteenth time. A rather more amusing thing happens if you stand still too long; Cortez pulls out a Nintendo Switch! - Which is kind of ironic as during this review I frequently wished I was playing Zelda instead…
Wanted: Dead is even more repetitive than I remember Ninja Gaiden being–it runs out of ideas very early on. This is a perfect example of a game that would have been SO much better with a 2‐4-player co-op mode. It looks, plays and feels old school, and you're either gonna love it or, more likely, hate it. It's bound to be compared to the 20-year-old Ninja Gaiden, but even allowing for rose tinted specs it's nowhere near as cool as Ryu Hayabusa's classic game. It is just as challenging however, although much of the challenge seems unfair and is simply down to the speed of enemies' movement rather than cunning AI or clever level design. This is by no means a bad game, and has that "just one more go" hook, but it's not the game I wanted it to be either.