Remember Devil’s Third? Former Dead or Alive weirdo Tomonobu Itagaki’s 2015 Wii U exclusive combined elements of Gears of War and Ninja Gaiden to create something pretty janky but unlike anything else I’d played at the time. Devil’s Third ultimately flopped, but the idea of a character-action game with first-person shooting and third-person brawling lodged itself into my mind as I hoped someone, somewhere would give it another go. Only now, finally, has Wanted: Dead answered the call. It’s 2023's jankiest, most insane game, and I’m glad it picked up.
It’s cyberpunk Ninja Gaiden with guns
Developed by the folks who worked on Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden, Wanted: Dead is a hybrid shooter-slasher that feels like the evolutionary next step for Devil’s Third. You play as Hannah Stone, a hardened convict-turned-cop tasked with…well, the story is kind of irrelevant. There’s something about a tech company producing artificial humanoid workers and selling them to various global military powers because capitalism, but the narrative takes a back seat to the game’s real premise: a week in the life of a Suicide Squad-like unit sent in to do the work long-time officers are too afraid or too inept to handle. So, with an assault rifle, a handgun, a katana, and a plethora of other weapons, you bust in guns blazing and sword swinging, dicing up humans and synthetics (“synths”) or filling them with lead as you uncover the relationship between the real and the fake.
What does this look like in practice? If you can imagine The Division’s cover-based shooting mechanics mixed in with Ninja Gaiden’s hyper-violent sword-swinging, you’ll start to get the picture. Basically, you can swap between melee and ranged combat on the fly, letting you tackle enemies with either style individually or simultaneously.
To be even more specific, Hannah Stone is an adept swordswoman and an expert markswoman; she can handle a handgun in her right hand and a katana in her left to do some brutal if samey combos. She can also step back to fire her assault rifle to thin the herd before chopping up the rest of the goons. It’s crunchy and satisfying as Hannah, nimble as she is, darts across the battlefield to lob off one dude’s head, shoot another in their leg to initiate one of over 50 unique finishing moves, then turn some other dude into Swiss cheese. It’s cyberpunk Ninja Gaiden with guns, except Hannah’s no ninja. She’s just a person with a robotic arm, a terrible smoking habit, and a host of some truly wacky characters around her.
Glorious anime absurdity
It’s the relationship between these characters, Hannah’s three other squadmates in the Zombie Unit, that make up the primary component of Wanted: Dead’s zaniness. Hannah’s team, all fellow convicts, is wild. Between Alexander “Doc” Flotsky’s overly sarcastic demeanor, Arnold “The Beast” Herzog’s unwarranted womanizing, and Manolo Cortez’s blunt attitude, the Zombie Unit is this ragtag group of misfits that kinda-sorta gets along if only because the Captain told them to.
But really, it’s the activities they get up to when not on the job and the conversations they have throughout that gives way to Wanted: Dead’s insanity. Like, after a cutscene in which Hannah gets her assault rifle tweaked by the Gunsmith (played by Stefanie Joosten, who portrayed Quiet in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain), you’re suddenly thrust into a randomly narrated sequence about the history of ramen.
Immediately after, Wanted: Dead presents to you its first Yakuza-esque rhythm minigame: a ramen-eating contest with Herzog in which you must time your button presses to finish a bowl of noodles. If you scarf fast enough, you’ll get another bowl, which adds another line of buttons. I never really figured out what the score meant at the end because I was too busy laughing over how jarring everything felt; right after the ramen eating ended, it was back to turn goons into minced meat.
That’s what makes Wanted: Dead so bananas: the nonsensical juxtaposition between the campy and the violent. This is a game that, despite the political intrigue setting the backdrop, doesn’t really take itself too seriously. It throws a sobering plot point about the love two synths share, only to instantly drop it for an over-the-top boss fight with a jerk wielding a flame sword. Or there’s a debate about “cuck culture” in the gang’s fave diner which gets abruptly cut short for Wanted: Dead’s second Yakuza-esque rhythm minigame: a singalong to “99 Luftballons” by the German new wave power pop band Nena. As if the game wasn’t batshit enough, interspersed between the combat and cutscenes are video sequences à la Sam Barlow’s Immortality and anime cinematics reminiscent of Studio Trigger’s Cyberpunk: Edgerunners. It’s cool, it doesn’t make sense, and I don’t care. Wanted: Dead is the most fun I’ve had with a game this year.
A love letter to over-the-top 2010s games like Vanquish
That’s not to say the game isn’t without real faults. While the combat’s gratifying, especially after you’ve maxed Hannah’s skills and hit up New Game+, it can grow predictable and rudimentary after a while. The shooting isn’t as accurate as in Gears of War or Fortnite, being serviceable at best. The action-figure-like character models are strange, with extremely dead eyes and peculiarly glossy skin. The voice acting is atrocious, giving the most I-just-got-out-of-bed-to-deliver-my-lines kind of energy I’ve heard in a minute. And enemies are both dumb as fuck and obnoxiously talkative, taunting you nonstop while largely just standing around as you dismember them one by one. Some enemies do present a decent enough challenge, such as the Snake Eyes-looking ninja ripoffs, but most others are fodder. The challenge mainly comes from a handful of tougher bosses, the infrequent checkpoints, and the bugginess.
About those. Developer Soleil bills Wanted: Dead as “a love letter to the sixth generation of consoles,” meaning the GameCube, OG Xbox, and PlayStation 2. And like some games on those ancient systems, Wanted: Dead has sparse checkpoints littered throughout its five levels. If you die, you’ll get set back up to 10 or so minutes, which means you’ll battle the same enemies repeatedly just to get back to your previous point. Couple this fact with the variety of bugs, from glitching into non-enterable rooms to inconsistent frame drops resulting in unintended damage to outright game crashes, and you’ll see the same handful of brown corridors and drab buildings over and over again while executing the same one or two katana combos ad nauseam. This can be frustrating, but thanks to the game’s pretty competent combat, it’s tolerable.
Janky, but memorable as hell
I was out with some friends for drinks recently. In a dimly lit and noisily crowded bar in New York, one of them asked what I was playing. While I’ve been preoccupied with Team Ninja’s Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty as of late, I instead gushed to the attentive group for maybe 10 minutes about Wanted: Dead, calling it one of the most memorable games of 2023. And I stand by that statement wholeheartedly even though February isn’t over and I was (I think…) two beers in..
Is it a good game? That’s subjective. I could say it’s a bad game, since it’s buggy and janky, but I don’t think that’s right either. Honestly, it’s a mid game, but it’s mid in the best way possible. It’s a game that throws everything at the wall to see what sticks, knowing there is no velcro on the wall to stick to. Wanted: Dead is gutsy for mashing all these disparate ideas together, and though it ain’t winning any awards, it’ll stick with me.