February 14, 2023
It’s challenging to describe Wanted: Dead as just one thing. It feels like a melange of games from across the spectrum thrown together. You have cover-based shooting invoking the likes of Gears 5 or Outriders, and then melee combat that reminded me of Devil May Cry, and even Scarlet Nexus at times. Then it sprinkles in vibes from the Yakuza games of all things but also is reminiscent of a FromSoft game at times, too. It sounds crazy and muddled, providing a pretty unique overall experience. But can a game juggling so many elements, stick the landing on them all?
In Wanted: Dead you play Lieutenant Hannah Stone, who is part of the “Zombie Unit” in Hong Kong’s police force. Set in a dystopian future, you’ll soon uncover a corporate conspiracy that will see you tackling large swathes of gang members, mercenaries, and the like, just to stay alive. Your weapons are a katana for hack-and-slash melee combat, and a small range of guns that can help pick off enemies from afar. You’ll journey through various urban environments, clearing rooms and corridors of enemies before you can proceed to the next area.
Initially, Wanted: Dead feels like it wants you to do battle on its terms. You should have long-range shootouts with gun-toting enemies and then have intense melee battles with the sword-wielding foes in your way. But before long, you’ll realise the reverse is often more viable and enjoyable. Ducking in and out of cover to close the gap on shooting enemies and running them through with your sword is always satisfying. And this leaves bullets spare to pop into the defenceless melee wielders as they approach you, which helps to take them down too.
This epiphany makes Wanted: Dead a fun and manageable experience during the first few levels. You’ll find you have an answer for what the game throws at you, and even the boss fights, whilst suitably grand, feel approachable once you understand their nuances each time. The melee combat in particular, where swings of your sword can be combined with shots from your pistol, is very cathartic. Using this on enemies that have been damaged allows you to trigger one of many gruesome finishing moves with a simple input, and you’ll find yourself smiling at the TV as blood and death rain from on high.
But after a while, you get this nagging feeling that Wanted: Dead is running out of steam somewhat. Difficulty in later levels feels forced, with it predominantly achieved by putting more and more enemies between you and the next checkpoint, and making more of those enemies stronger variants of the grunt enemies you faced in earlier levels. Now, this is fairly standard for the genre, particularly those with fond memories of the Ninja Gaiden series, but in 2023 it feels flat and frustrating, particularly when it feels like padded difficulty, rather than a well-designed challenge.
To be clear, Wanted: Dead should absolutely get harder as it progresses, otherwise, it would become a passive experience. But ramping that difficulty up by introducing multiple enemies that can survive multiple full clips, or melee enemies who require a parry and dodge dance lasting minutes each become tiresome quickly, and obviously brutally punishing if you dare to make a mistake. That feeling of having an answer for what the game throws at you quickly vanishes and it becomes more of a war of attrition. Some will have the required patience, but most won’t.
In fairness, Wanted: Dead does have some mechanics that help strengthen Stone on her journey to combat the increasing difficulty. These include a skill tree which can be accessed at any point to unlock new moves, offensive options, and other buffs, which are permanent. But you’ll find that you’ll max out the skill tree long before the end of the game, meaning you have less of an answer for the difficulty hikes.
Additionally, at each checkpoint, there’s the option to interact with the gunsmith via a drone and tweak your weapon. Each new checkpoint unlocks a new mod that alters various stats on your main weapon, maybe focussing more on accuracy or damage to suit your preference. But in reality, your gun never feels like it’s getting notably stronger from your starting gun. Sure, the numbers might overall be higher, but not by enough to make a clear difference in fights. Plus, again, after a certain point, you just stop receiving additional mods at checkpoints, and much like the skill tree, this feels like a mechanic that stops before the end, again running out of steam.
And it’s worth mentioning the camera in Wanted: Dead, too. In big open spaces, it works absolutely fine, adjusting well to where you would want it, and you can also control it yourself. However, in tight rooms, corridors, or corners it can be problematic, wildly spinning around, giving you a new perspective without warning. And in a game requiring precision parrying or reflexes, this can make a tough situation unnecessarily harder too frequently.
It’s been a rollercoaster playing Wanted: Dead because it starts off so strongly. The combat is responsive, satisfying, and varied enough to keep you hooked, and the level of challenge there stops it from becoming mind-numbingly tedious. The sections in between missions unlock shooting ranges to hone your skills and wacky minigames to try your hand at for a change of pace. The unraveling back-story to Stone is interesting and the anime art style of the cutscenes is engaging and well-done, even if some are a little on the long side.
But the bulk of the game is those combat sections, and this is where it runs itself into the ground eventually despite its great ideas and competent execution. Your fun and optimism in the first few levels transform into tedious frustration and it is such a shame. For those who can stomach the repetitive nature of the difficulty, you’ll find plenty to love here, and that satisfaction from beating it will feel all the sweeter. Sadly though, others will look elsewhere for more finely-crafted challenges that feel more balanced throughout.
Fluid combat that hooks you in
Satisfying finishing moves
Difficulty by numbers rather than design
The camera can be a pain at times
Skill trees and gun mods end before they should
Wanted: Dead starts off strong with plenty to learn and enjoy, but towards the end bogs itself down by trying to be difficult, forgoing what made it good to begin with.