Jeez, where do we even begin with Wanted: Dead? It feels like an action game from another age, harkening back to the many lower budget, madcap brawlers that found cult acclaim on the PS2 and PS3. It's also an extremely janky release, absolutely packed with dodgy character models, borderline unreadable combat animations, and baffling cutscenes. Honestly, it's been a long time since we played such a captivatingly crap game.
And we say that with a genuine appreciation for what Wanted: Dead is trying to do. It wants to be an unapologetically to-the-point action title in the vein of something like Vanquish, but it also gives off some serious Deadly Premonition vibes in how nonchalantly unfocused and downright messy it can be.
There's an undeniable charm here, but trying to pinpoint its source is difficult. Is it the comically terrible character dialogue? Maybe it's all the weird little minigames that casually pop up in between main missions? Or perhaps it's to do with the jarring amount of effort that's gone into some of the fully animated cutscenes? In truth, it's probably a bit of everything. Wanted: Dead is so strangely stitched together that you end up looking forward to its next completely unpredictable moment of madness.
However, in order to actually reach these meme-worthy events, you'll have to grind through some rough combat-focused gameplay. The tragedy of Wanted: Dead is that its combat system is just functional at best, while at its worst, it's a woefully unbalanced and frustrating slog. On the whole, it doesn't even come remotely close to the genre's finest, and that's a real kicker when the vast majority of your time will be spent hacking and slashing cyborg goons.
The game's been marketed as a challenging action title, but in reality, its most challenging scenarios stem from disappointingly bad design. Combat is a mix of sword-based melee and third-person shooting, but for most of the campaign, we found guns to be deceptively ineffective. A cover system seems to encourage long-range potshots, but erratic enemy movement makes the already cumbersome aiming mechanics a bit of a joke. You'll run out of ammo very quickly if you try to take things slow.
Indeed, Wanted: Dead is best played as an up-close and personal execution simulator — but don't mistake it for an especially fast-paced, combo-loving slasher like Devil May Cry. Melee combat is surprisingly slow and deliberate, in that main character Hannah's trusty katana attacks can rarely be cancelled out of. As a result, finding yourself surrounded by even the lowliest grunts is a death sentence, while more elite foes will punish the faintest of whiffs.
Or at least, that's how fights are supposed to be. The aforementioned design flaws start to kick in when you realise that basically every grunt enemy in the game operates in a very similar way, and most can be locked in place by alternating between sword swipes and close-range pistol taps. This back and forth is meant to form the basis of the game's combo system, but it becomes very repetitive just a few missions into the experience. There is a skill tree that grants fresh techniques as you progress, but by the time you stumble across some desperately needed variety, the combat's already long since lost its edge.
Speaking of the skill tree, there are a handful of unlockable perks that feel crucial to gameplay — like you shouldn't need to be spending skill points on them to begin with. Such perks include being able to block more than one attack at a time, and actually having the ability to counter incoming blows. Fortunately, you do gain skill points very quickly — but that just makes the unlocking process feel even more unnecessary.
And then there are the elite opponents that require a bit more nuance to dispatch — except Wanted: Dead's idea of 'nuance' involves Sekiro-style parries that may or may not work as intended. You'll dread having to face-off against certain types of foes because of how unreliable some of the game's core functions feel — and sadly, it only gets worse as the campaign progresses. Do parries actually interrupt this enemy's attack string? Can this unblockable move actually be countered? There's only one way to find out, and if you guess wrong, that's usually half of your already short health bar gone.
The biggest problem, though? You can cleave through countless grunts across an entire 20-minute mission, only to come up against a boss who simply disregards all of the game's prior mechanics. Several of Wanted: Dead's big boss fights are astoundingly cheap, and, depending on your tolerance for broken hitboxes, buggy environments, and tediously long health bars, you may find yourself having to cheese your way to victory. It's perhaps a blessing in disguise, then, that the enemy AI ranges from basic (read: hyperaggressive but fairly predictable) to braindead.
Lieutenant Hannah Stone is joined in battle by her three squadmates, all of whom are pretty much useless during gameplay — although they do manage to distract an enemy every now and then. Your war buddies also play key supporting roles in the game's story, as the ragtag mercs are utilised as police-backed shock troops in a cyberpunk future.
The underlying lore of Wanted: Dead is fairly interesting, but it's barely explored beyond an intriguing opening movie. Instead, the plot deals in predictably malicious mega corporations, the struggles of justice, and the "can robots actually be human?" theme that's been done better thousands of times before. Watching it all unfold is thoroughly entertaining though, primarily because of all the hilariously stunted dialogue, out-of-place pop culture references, and some enjoyably awful voice acting. At times, the storytelling is like a fever dream; it's an absolute mess in terms of tone and execution, but it's near impossible to look away.
It's an ugly game as well. As alluded, the main character models look decidedly cheap, rubbery, and awkward (especially when it comes to facial animations). Meanwhile, the NPCs look like they've been ripped out of a Steam Greenlight asset pack — and the same can be said of the environments. The police station in particular — your hub between missions — feels like a placeholder from another project.
Wanted: Dead is, at its worst, a frustratingly bad action game, but in its inexplicable presentation, nonsensical storytelling, and baffling character dialogue, it's difficult to completely dismiss. There's undeniable fun to be had here in a so-bad-it's-good kind of way, and that might even be enough for the game to secure cult status somewhere down the line. But for now, you'll need to slog through some of the most jank combat in full-price gaming to squeeze enjoyment out of the experience. Wanted: Dead is a truly fascinating mess.