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Wanted: Dead review: third-person action that's more dead than alive

Save your money

Stone holds calls for her teammates not to get involved as a mysterious enemy approaches off camera in Wanted: Dead.
Image credit: 110 Industries SA

I think Wanted: Dead wants to be a singleplayer, third-person action game with kickass combat and a colourful cyberpunk universe that slides effortlessly between gritty and silly. And I'm guessing it wants players to experience the joys of shredding goons, and a story told through unpredictable cuts to karaoke and anime. I'm sad to report that it isn't any of these things. Aside from the tiniest glimpses of cool when a combo comes together, the game clearly doesn't know what it wants to be, or if it did once upon a time, its original vision must've gotten lost under a dogpile of ideas. I rooted for it when I first saw it way back when, and got excited when I heard it was being made by devs behind Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive, but what's arrived is a jumbled mess that fights you at every turn. If I were Debra Meadon playing it for the first time live on Dragon's Den, and someone sidled up behind me and pressed a katana to my throat, I would still carefully put the controller down and say, "It's a no from me".

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I'm going to be frank with you: I have no idea what's happening with the story. I think it's about a war between humans and robots, where you're a member of a police force trying to uncover some corporate conspiracy. It doesn't seem to tell a story, though? Like, all the cutscenes are largely just hot air or confusing time-skips. And sandwiched between each mission you're forced to hang out with three dudes, two of which make my brain leak, and one who kicks the leakage about, creating a mushy streak on the floor. Herzog, in particular, is misogynistic and abrasive and – typically – has the most to say. And each time you're situated at a diner (they spend lots of time in diners), you're forced to watch some 'banter' between the group, as if sitting amongst banter between strangers is a surefire way to understand a group's storied history. Everyone tells each other to "Shut the fuck up!" a lot. They exhaust me.

I've chucked a gif below which shows an Australian narrator barging into one of Herzog's many insufferable monologues and delivering a history lesson on ramen. The narrator hadn't made an appearance up until this point and disappears entirely afterwards. At least the food was nicely detailed?

I think the game wants to be a quirky blend of action and silliness, like Yakuza (or Like A Dragon) in the way those loveable beefcakes veer from seriousness to hilarity. After you've endured a bit of 'banter' post-mission, you're often thrown into rhythm games a la Yakuza's karaoke or a sidescrolling shooter, many of which are pretty fun! But they quickly disappear from memory because they don't inhabit a universe that’s anything more than a vague cyberpunk city, with a silicone sheen reminiscent of the many shagging sims that dominate Steam's "New and Trending" feed. A jarring cut to a ramen eating rhythm game may get a laugh, but it can't be anything more than a hollow chuckle because it's incapable of any social commentary. How can it? There's nothing to comment on.

You'd think combat would be the game's saving grace, given it's made by the devs behind Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive, and sees you fight with a combination of pistol and katana. Sadly, this isn't the case. Aside from radiating strong PS2 demo disc energy, which I adore, the hacking and slashing is dull and repetitive. Again, I think the game wants me to feel like John Wick but ends up feeling more like John's kicked me in the dick. I mention the Wickerman, because Wanted: Dead lets you parry enemy strikes with a quick blast of your pistol, and even mix in cheeky extra shots to stagger enemies and alter your – admittedly, limited – combos. Neat, right?

A blue haired woman wearing a yellow jacket with the hood pulled over her head looks at a police officer whose face is off-camera. It's an anime cutscene from Wanted: Dead.
Sometimes you'll get flashbacks delivered through anime sequences, which are surprisingly good, even if the bar to impress is low. I'd rather the story was told entirely through this format, if I'm honest.

The neat ends above. Without fail, missions are an exercise in clearing waves of samey goons until you reach a slightly more interesting boss at the end. Seriously, that's all you do. I'd be okay with this setup if carving through said goons was a joyous, complex thing. Unfortunately, you spam one of two or maybe three combos, all the while praying you avoid the agony of being warped back to a stingy checkpoint.

The saddest thing about the game's fights, is in its tiniest flashes of cool. In the briefest, briefest of moments, you'll slice a dude in half and maybe lodge a bullet in some guy's skull in a wombo combo that would make Uma Therman beam. For the most part, though, the game is unsure how to accommodate your skills. You are funneled into fights against guys who pepper you with gunfire, offering you plenty of cover but rarely enough ammo to return the favour. So, you spend much of your energy sighing, hopping over cover, and chasing down clones who offer little resistance when you cleave them down. You can't do basic things like switch the enemy you're targeting, so you often swing wildly at whoever the game's decided you've locked onto. Sometimes it actually wants to be a third-person shooter and slasher, yet actively resists these things whenever you try and embrace them.

Stone shoots an armoured goon while Herzog and Doc stand there in Wanted: Dead.
You've got three teammates, who are all largely useless in the heat of battle. Herzog has his own section of the skill tree, which mentions tag-team combos and the like, but I have no idea how you're meant to trigger them (or if there's even a way to?). There's a doctor who revives you once per life, so I suppose that's nice of him.

It's only when you meet a fellow ninja warrior in battle when the game's blocks and parries not so much as "come alive", but more gently lift a hand towards the sky in one desperate attempt to grasp at something, anything. If you're not being hounded by other goons, a one versus one duel can add some much-needed tension, and finally give you a chance to flex your toolset. It does, however, expose the how limited the toolset is for all involved, as fights descend into almost polite exchanges of, "I'll wait for a bit, then telegraph that one move I've done a lot, so you come in after and give me a thwack".

I'm genuinely a bit gutted about Wanted: Dead. I really wanted the game to be a stylish hack n' slash romp with a quirky, cyberpunk edge. The result, sadly, is anything but. It doesn't know what it wants to be! And in many ways, it's bucket of ideas and force-fed zaniness only serves to make it feel both incomplete and directionless. Save your money folks.

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