Hardcore action games that aren’t souls-likes are hard to come by nowadays, and it’s rare to see throwback experiences that pay homage to old school titles. The team at Soleil, composed of developers that worked on Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive, have answered this call with their newest third person hack-n-slash game Wanted: Dead. Set in an alternate history 90s-inspired cyberpunk version of Hong Kong, the game has you playing as lieutenant Hannah Stone, a convicted war criminal given a second chance to lead a mercenary team known as the Zombie Squad to uncover a corporate conspiracy. Aside from some patchable performance issues, Wanted: Dead may very well be a sleeper hit for games coming out in 2023.
Wanted: Dead features a unique hybrid slasher and shooter battle system. You’re equipped with a razor sharp katana, an infinite ammo pistol, a customizable assault rifle, and an open secondary slot that you can fill up by picking up enemy weapons. These might include a rapid fire submachine gun or a single shot grenade launcher. For the most part, the game is designed in such a way that you need to utilize both your sword and guns in order to succeed. I found myself leaning more towards melee combat because guns just seemed to do little to no damage, especially on mini-bosses; ammo is limited and these enemies are just bullet sponges. Certain enemies and bosses are also smart enough to dodge or block your bullets, so keep that in mind.
What makes the combat loop so addicting is how visceral and intuitive fighting actually is. Every great action game requires a parry ability and this game doesn’t disappoint. There are two types of parries: one from your katana and one from your pistol. The first one counters enemy melee attacks while the second one counters otherwise unblockable attacks that glow red. I had my doubts about using a katana to fight against dozens of gun wielding enemies considering they could just shoot me dead from afar. But you actually have a small amount of lifesteal when you chop people up with your sword, so don't be afraid to rush down packs of baddies with your bloodstained blade. You can have up to four health injections and your buddy Doc will even revive you once should you fall in battle. Every kill earns you points that you can then spend on unlocking abilities, like a counterattack after you land a parry or a finisher move on enemies with missing limbs. I won’t go into too much detail but the entire system just works, and boy is it addictingly fun.
Unfortunately, progression is poorly paced, as you’re left with more points than you need to spend on unlocking nodes in your skill trees. I had over 15,000 points by the end of the campaign with nothing to spend them on. Some enemies are also way more overpowered than others, especially the dual bladed ninja that comes out pretty early on and can kill you in a few hits but takes years to take down. I played on Normal difficulty and found it to be quite hard; I could only imagine how difficult the actual Hard mode is. There is a new game plus option with an added “Japanese Hard'' mode, but the new game plus mode does nothing more than allowing you to start the game again with all your unlocked skills and weapon attachments. There’s no extended skill tree, no more weapon unlocks, or unique enemies. But hey, at least you can play the game over again being overpowered!
Let me paint a picture of how much content is available in Wanted: Dead. There are a total of six bosses in the game, each featuring their own unique moveset and twist, although one particular fight is reused later on. These bosses are split among five stages that are generally well paced out with narrative bits and mini-games between. Every level is visually distinct, taking you through different parts of cyberpunk Hong Kong, from high-rise skyscrapers and neon lit clubs to industrial alleyways and village slums. A good amount of enemy variety is also offered, featuring low level grunts wielding various melee weapons, guns, or riot shields, and mini-boss type ninjas and mech suits that can gut you in two hits. There’s no manual save option, but every stage is split into multiple checkpoints where your health and ammo get replenished in addition to the game autosaving. Vivienne, whom you may have seen on her Late Night Chow show, is actually your gunsmith in the game, and provides you with better attachments for your weapons as you progress through the game.
Narrative tidbits, on the other hand, are sprinkled in via in-engine cutscenes and pre-rendered anime sequences. Yep, you heard that right – Wanted: Dead features multiple flashback sequences of straight up anime that give more background on certain characters. It’s extremely well animated and I hope the developers end up making a full-fledged film down the line. Hannah’s story is an interesting one that I hope to see further developed in a sequel or prequel. While the dynamic between the rest of the cast isn't as fleshed out as I had hoped and the story isn’t anything to write home about given the generic cyberpunk premise, it does leave you wanting more. Not going to lie that the voice acting is pretty bad here, with a quality that reminds me of a poorly voiced B-movie. The actual volume of dialogue is also weirdly quiet compared to how loud the background noises are, as I sometimes could barely hear characters talk and had to rely on subtitles.
If you caught up with any of the promotional trailers or marketing, then you would already know that this game offers a plethora of slice-of-life minigames built in. Whether it was singing karaoke or eating bowls of ramen via rhythm-based button pressing or blasting baddies in a space shoot’em up on an arcade machine, I found myself appreciating the nice change of pace. Spending quality time with my gang of knucklehead teammates doing non-violent deeds is always a good time. It’s the little details that genuinely impressed me. You know how claw machines are generally pretty frustrating given how unfair it is? Well, the developers thought of that and you can actually kick and shake the entire machine to get the prize out. Be careful though… as the machine will break if you kick it too many times.
It pains me to say that performance on PlayStation 5 fell below expectations. In my playthrough of around 11 hours, the game hard-crashed over 10 times, bringing me to the dreaded bug report screen. Given that this is a checkpoint-heavy game lacking a manual save, I found myself retreading the same stages again and again due to lost progress. This became increasingly frustrating as the difficulty curve of the game skyrocketed towards the end, so every crash was another confrontation with some overpowered enemies. At least I got more practice in… am I right? There were also frequent frame drops that dropped the FPS to single digits when dozens of enemies flooded the battlefield. Fear of the game crashing or lagging during hard combat encounters was an added layer of stress on top of an already intensive experience. Load times are relatively quick thanks to the PS5’s SSD and minor DualSense features are utilized such as rumbling and adaptive triggers while trigger pulling.
Soleil has created an absolute banger of a game with Wanted: Dead. It’s a throwback to an older generation of action games that we just don’t get nowadays. Sure, it’s janky in more parts than one but that’s all part of its retro charm. The performance, on the other hand, needs to be addressed as soon as possible. It might not be a game for you if you’re wanted alive, but if you’re wanted dead, then what are you waiting for?
It’s without a doubt that Wanted: Dead is oozing with style and glamor thanks to its immaculate art direction and addictive hybrid combat system. The cherries on top are the included shmup, claw machine, and karaoke minigames that simply add more drip to the overall experience.We don’t get enough games like these nowadays and I’m all for it. Unfortunately, there's just a ton of technical performance issues at launch that need to be addressed immediately.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.