Wanted: Dead review: The lost PS2 game that never was

By Luke Albigés,

Soleil's brutal action title Wanted: Dead launches today for Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One, and what a perplexing, entertaining, intriguing, frustrating, and occasionally satisfying mess of a game it is...

What are you, Wanted: Dead? That's the question I've been asking, occasionally aloud, during my 20-odd hours with Soleil's barmy new game, and even after rolling credits and having seen more or less everything in the game, I'm still not sure I have an answer... if anything, I only have more questions. The team describes the game as a "love-letter to the sixth generation of consoles," and that absolutely shines through — Wanted: Dead has that same kind of energy, carefree playfulness, and utter jank as something like the Simple series on PS2, a long-running budget range for Japan that saw a fair few low-price localisations which spawned cult favourites like Power Diggerz, Earth Defense Force, and The Sniper 2. The issue with creating something that channels those budget bygones, though, arises when you decide to charge full price for it, and while I'm sure a certain niche of players will absolutely love this ridiculous hot mess, a short, linear, old-fashioned action game is going to be a tough sell at 60 bucks. But let's circle back a second... what even is Wanted: Dead?

Wanted: Dead is definitely a video game... I think

Is Wanted: Dead a hack-and-slash game? It certainly presents as one, and with much of the pre-release bluster bigging up the fact that the dev team includes several key Ninja Gaiden alumni, that would be a fair assumption to make. But go into Wanted: Dead expecting that same kind of depth of combat and you'll come away disappointed. The vast majority of flashy melee combat featured in trailers up to this point has been somewhat misleading — much of the cool stuff shown off has just been the canned finisher animations that you can trigger on critically wounded targets, so it's kinda like if Capcom put out trailers for a new Street Fighter game that only showed footage from its elaborate super animations. Actual combat is incredibly shallow, with just three basic combos and a couple of unlockable extra moves, so way short of what you might find in the likes of Ninja Gaiden and similar games. It's basic, but it works decently enough for the most part, especially once you unlock perks that let you hit finishers on any enemy missing a limb (katanas are famously quite good at lopping those off) and use adrenaline more often for stunning pistol shots. Finishing Strikes are satisfying to pull off (and top up your recoverable health), even if they do start to get old later in the game when you've seen most of them a dozen or more times, and taking enemies out of the fight quickly is crucial when combat is as unforgiving as it is.

That's one thing the game does share with Ninja Gaiden — it punishes mistakes hard. Gunfire mostly just tickles you but any explosive or melee weapon attack can take massive chunks out of your health, making it incredibly easy to die in just a few cheap shots or one solid combo. For some reason, the game decides to introduce its hardest non-boss enemy type halfway through the very first level, and this dual-bladed ninja will be a huge wall for some players as he's nimble, has stacks of health, and will drop you in just a few slashes. It was at this point that I realised that Wanted: Dead was basically just Parry Or Die: The Game, with well-timed blocks knocking away melee hits and perfect pistol shots interrupting unblockable attacks. This guy did me in a few times before I came to that realisation, though, so it's a good thing Wanted: Dead has such generous checkpointing... no, wait, the other one. Wanted: Dead's checkpointing is garbage, often making you slog through multiple extended encounters and a bunch of cutscenes just to get back to where you died and try again, and since you never know how far away the next one might be, it's very hard to know how you should be managing resources like healing stims and ammo. It's another throwback to the old games it desperately wants to mimic, but it can be supremely frustrating to slog through a bunch of generic fights only to find another ninja waiting for you at the end when you're almost dead and out of heals, then one missed parry is going to send you back like 20-odd minutes to do it all again. It artificially extends the length of an otherwise very short game, and not in an enjoyable way.

wanted dead review xbox

Is Wanted: Dead a third-person shooter? Well, it is a third-person game and you do have a selection of firearms, so that wouldn't be an unfair takeaway, although thankfully, shooting only plays a fairly small role in the moment-to-moment gameplay, because it's not particularly good. You have a pistol and an assault rifle as standard, the former primarily being a tool for interrupts and mixing up melee combos with close-range shots to transition between different strings and break through guards, while the latter is your main ranged utility option. You can also grab weapons in certain combat areas or from some downed enemies — the typical array of shotguns, SMGs, grenade launchers, and a chainsaw because why not — but one constant between them that makes it abundantly clear that this is not a shooter first and foremost is that they all have extremely limited ammo. Even in the very first encounter of the game, you'll likely burn through all of your reserves before you even get through the first wave of enemies if you try to play safe, so it's clear that Wanted: Dead wants to push you into melee range as much as it can. It's nice to have the ability to open an encounter by taking out a couple of goons or softening up a tough target — an especially useful option once you unlock the incendiary grenades to put down fire pools that block choke points to stop enemies getting in on you while you whittle them down — and as an approach option to put in a little damage as you advance into melee, but aiming is pretty loose and most feel very weak. We also hit the odd weird glitch with some of them, such as grenade launcher rounds simply clipping through certain enemies or weapons just randomly not doing damage to enemies occasionally, so that was fun.

So it's a hybrid action game then, with more emphasis on ranged weapons than games like Devil May Cry that have them more for showboating than practicality a lot of the time, but less focus on that deep, satisfying combat you'd find in those games. It's also devoid of any kind of scoring or grading to add challenge and replayability, and there isn't even a level select to individually replay Wanted: Dead's five stages so it's a good thing most of the collectables are near-impossible to miss thanks to how painfully linear the game is. Level design is yet another throwback here, packing in all the classics from impractical mazes of waist-high walls you can't get over to round-the-houses routes that make you laboriously take the long way round every damn time. It's in these sections where gunplay is a little more useful, since by the time you've done a lap of the map to reach them via the one long route available, your AI buddies will likely have put them down anyway. They're vaguely effective for the most part, but their special skills are useful — Doc can pick you up when you die once per checkpoint, Cortez gan grapple enemies to take them out of the fight for a bit (and set up finishers once upgraded), while Herzog takes a powerful sniper shot that can be enhanced to be a one-hit kill on most opponents. You can't rely on these too heavily as you don't always have the full squad with you, but they're still useful in a pinch, especially that revive to give you one final chance at a tough fight, assuming Doc is actually around (which he isn't for many of the harder fights).

wanted dead review xbox

Is Wanted: Dead an advert for Stefanie Joosten? Because it sure feels like one. The Dutch actress rose to fame after starring as Quiet in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain — as she hints at in the overview trailer up top here — and she's everywhere in Wanted: Dead. She stars as one of the main support characters, Gunsmith, a weapons expert who is inexplicably allowed to keep 12 cats in a police station and who is in contact at pretty much every checkpoint drone; she's on the jukebox in the station's break room, and not just once or twice, either; you can sing karaoke with her, performing a duet of 99 Luftballons in a typically janky musical mini-game; you can even unlock completely bizarre videos of her hosting a mock cooking show, which you naturally get by playing a crane game that doesn't really work properly. It's verging on overkill, honestly — there's less Tony Hawk in the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater games than there is Stefanie Joosten in Wanted: Dead.

Those side activities aren't the only ones, so is Wanted: Dead a variety game? Similar to the Yakuza games, it offers a selection of weird and not-so-wonderful mini-games and distractions to pad out the game a bit more. The aforementioned crane game is pretty horrible, with the claw often getting caught on things and prizes defying physics to inexplicably vibrate wildly, ping around the machine of their own volition, or even just clip out of the machine completely so you can't win them. The claw also behaves realistically so will often decide not to fully grip, so maybe save grabbing those toys and stuff for NG+ where the claw seems to be guaranteed to grip properly. Retro arcade game Space Runaway is actually a pretty enjoyable shooter, once again challenging like the games it emulates in the sense that taking a death will cost you your power-ups so can make progress more difficult, akin to classics like Gradius. The ramen song mini-game is okay, but songs go on for way too long and the scoring is straight-up busted — my top score is still the one from my very first attempt during the story, inexplicably thousands of points higher than my full combo run (which is an endurance test of an achievement likely to trip a lot of people up). There's also a gun range which is only really as good as the shooting, so passable, and there's that karaoke mini-game too... which only has one song. What a mixed bag that is, and with achievements in every one (some extremely tricky), you'll be seeing a lot of them — I think messing around with these and some of the daft unlockables probably accounts for close to half of my time with the game so far.

wanted dead review xbox

That veritable Joostensplosion makes it clear that Wanted: Dead puts a lot of stock in characters, so is it a narrative game? You'd sure think so from the number of cutscenes it throws at you, each trying and failing to make sense of a plot that is frankly just gibberish. It's Cyberpunk Suicide Squad, with your ragtag bunch of convicts released solely to serve as the Hong Kong police's Zombie Unit to do the kinds of high-risk dirty jobs and wetwork that the regular officers won't touch. They're a relatively entertaining bunch, if mostly rather cliché, but a lot of the dialogue and voice acting is dire — right at the start of the game, Doc helpfully mutters "Careful, there might be an ambush" as you approach a building which already has glass shattering from the volleys of bullets pouring at you from inside, which pretty much sets the standard for dialogue for the rest of the game. It's close to having that kind of kitsch B-movie charm that it's clearly going for and does land it on occasion, but with so many phoned-in or misdelivered lines and some genuinely awful performances, it's more bad bad than so-bad-it's-good for the most part. Music is another matter entirely, though, and the soundtrack is generally superb, so that's one thing Wanted: Dead certainly gets right... when the music isn't randomly cutting out mid-fight, that is.

That's by no means the only bug or glitch to be found in the jankfest that is Wanted: Dead, either. AI is often a mess, with enemies sometimes just glitching out and wiggling on the spot, while others will take the ingenious strategic gamble to charge at the nice lady with the chainsaw... not sure how they thought that would end, but rest in pieces, lads. Performance is far from stable as well, with some weird stuttering here and there, even in some of the somewhat simple mini-games, and at one point just wandering around the police station hub, it turned into a total slideshow for a bit. The crane game's dodgy physics, wonky weapons, and audio glitches we've already mentioned, and there are plenty more, typically not game-breaking and often more chuckle-worthy than frustrating but the jank permeates the entire game... which seems to be what it's going for, and Wanted: Dead hits that brief square-on if that's the case.

And so, having cleared up most of what we can about the perplexing thing that is Wanted: Dead, we reach our final question — is Wanted: Dead a good game? This one is harder to answer than the rest because truthfully, it'll depend entirely on what you as a player want or expect from it. It's really quite challenging even on Normal (Hard doesn't seem that much more difficult from the few levels I've played, although Japanese Hard's removal of recoverable health will likely make some checkpoints pretty grim), and there's a lot of padding around its five linear levels to beef it out to maybe an 8-10 hour run, assuming you don't get lost in the silly mini-games like I did. As a big fan of parrying in games, I naturally like that Wanted: Dead is geared so heavily around deflections and counters, although not having a reliable way to deal with regular gunfire does make some encounters and one particular boss feel very cheap. Given that it is actively trying to mimic those budget titles of old in its jankiness, you have to hand it to Wanted: Dead for mostly pulling that off, and while it doesn't really excel in any one area, it manages to pull everything together into one totally and intentionally incohesive whole that feels better than the sum of its parts, if not by much.

The achievement list will likely put some people off, asking as it does for completion on all difficulty levels (Japanese Hard is no pushover) and mastery of every daft mini-game as well as a bunch of situational and cumulative things you might expect to see here. I actually think it's a pretty good list for the most part, though demanding 1,000 of each pure melee and pure ranged kills is probably overkill, and seeing all of the different executions is really a matter of luck as there are some enemy-specific ones that may or may not trigger for you, which is probably why that has no unlocks yet. That's assuming that Wanted: Dead's jank doesn't also extend to its achievements, of course, which might be a dangerous assumption to make, but everything has popped properly for me so far with only eight left to go. One of those is a platinum-style 'unlock everything else' achievement, though, and those are often dodgy, so let's not celebrate too soon.

wanted dead review xbox


Wanted: Dead is very much an acquired taste, but those for whom its eclectic nonsense clicks will likely love it, even if it's not technically a great game. It's a throwback to a bygone age of gaming that's clearly made with passion, with the team just doing whatever the hell it likes rather than sticking to typical gaming standards to create something that certainly stands out in the modern landscape, if not always in the way it intends to. Stingy checkpointing can kill the game's momentum should you fall foul of a tricky encounter and have to replay large portions of a level, but there will be some folks who like that extra punishment for failure — just as with more or less everything else about Wanted: Dead, it's all going to land for someone out there, and I can see this one going down as a bit of a cult classic. The price point might be a bit of a dealbreaker for an old-fashioned linear action game that only really has the harder modes and achievements for replayability, mind, and I think folks might have cut Wanted: Dead a little more slack had it not been a full-price release. If you're out for some janky, old-school action that doesn't take itself seriously in the least, there's a good chance you're in the minority that will very much enjoy Wanted: Dead. But at the same time, I imagine a lot of people would bounce off this somewhat scuffed throwback pretty hard.
6 / 10
* Luke spent around 20 hours trying to figure out just what the hell Wanted: Dead actually is, unlocking 47/55 achievements in the process. The game was played on Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S, with a review copy provided by the publisher.
Luke Albigés
Written by Luke Albigés
Luke runs the TA news team, contributing where he can primarily with reviews and other long-form features — crafts he has honed across two decades of print and online gaming media experience, having worked with the likes of gamesTM, Eurogamer, Play, Retro Gamer, Edge, and many more. He loves all things Monster Hunter, enjoys a good D&D session, and has played way too much Destiny.
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