Imagine. Mixing the world of action games and shooters. Gory, stylish, probably a bit janky and incredibly Japanese. Misplaced in time. Starring a protagonist who is incarcerated for an absurd amount of time, given a second chance. No, isn’t about Devil’s Third. But instead, Wanted: Dead, which despite what the developers at Soleil say, seems almost as a do-over. The team at Soleil does in fact share a substantial number of staff with the ill-fated Valhalla Game Studio.
It’s the near future, a neon-infused Hong Kong is a backdrop. A company called Dauer Synthetics seems to control the town, including your payroll. You control Hannah Stone, “The Blade” Member of the elite Zombie Squad. Plagued by constant The Zombie Squad in itself is a ragtag bunch of misfits, war criminals, and all of them are absolutely a joy to see interact. Doc; “”The Nihilist”. There to help you if you fall, always asking if you’re doing alright, checking in on you. Cortez seems to be a first or at least a very rare occurrence in a videogame, a character who speaks exclusively in sign language, “The Heart”. He’s a bit of a gamer and absolutely a bookworm. Then we have Herzog, “The Mouth” Who is the shooter in more ways than one. He quite likes the ladies and telling a crude joke. A non-line of duty member of your team is Vivienne Niemantsverdriet aka Gunsmith. An ex-Olympic Medalist, ex-musician, ex-celebrity chef. You may recognize her because she’s played by Stefanie Joosten in a thankfully non-demeaning role. No flimsy excuse for a poorly designed T &A fest. Just a gun loving, dozen cat owning, officer.
After an unbelievably chaotic introduction giving the main plot of the game, you are introduced to this squad. This isn’t exactly the greatest of first impressions.. Audio mixing is absolutely horrendous. This is showcased no better than in the first diner scene. The waitress Cinnamon was practically silent, while everyone else was fine. Thank god for subtitles.
You’re given a brief, but thorough tutorial, catching you up to the controls. You have a single melee attack, a handgun to do a quick shot out or to make some room, then you have your guns. You *can* play this as a cover shooter, if you want. That’s no fun though, hop over that chest high wall or get away from corner and go nuts. Slice and dice, and oh you will slice and dice. Occasionally, you can even do a finishing move, shown by an enemy glowing. These are particularly gruesome and at times, you might even feel for the guys you’re chopping up.. Just bisecting some poor grunt is kinda icky. Many of these moves are liable to bother or disgust players.
The finishing moves feel good to pull off, but not quite as meaty as say…Devil’s Third, a game that is lauded by it’s few fans for it’s finishing moves. However, a satisfying move would be the “Bullet Time”, which is available when your adrenaline is full, which is done by attacking and countering. Bullet Time will have Hannah do a quick shoot everything move, which stuns enemies in your vicinity, leaving them open for finishers, which also can lead to healing you. On enemies it won’t stun, it just can do some extra damage or buy you some space.
Wanted: Dead isn’t the kind of game that just lets your health regenerate. There are ways to get health back, like slaying enemies, especially with finishers, but you can’t just sit back and hope it comes back. Stimpacks can heal some of it, but your goal should to be not getting hit. If you die, and you will you’ll be given a second chance by Doc. If you die again, it’s back to the last checkpoint. It can be devastating if you’ve made decent progress, but use this as a learning experience. And also to git gud.
Do you like skill trees? Well, Wanted: Dead has them and you’re going to want to dig in immediately. Grenades? A counter attack after you parry? A sliding melee attack? It’s some vital stuff here. Of course, you also get defense, combo, and assist boosts. Just use the skill points you get as you feel comfortable. You’ll get quite a handful of ability by the end of the first level. Counter or Parry based skills are a must, get them ASAP. Wanted: Dead is deceptively a game about counters more than playing aggressively.
You can customize your guns too. Once you hit a checkpoint, signified by a drone, the helpful, cat loving Gunsmith will not only replenish you supplies and health, she’ll let you fix up your handgun and rifle. The default weapons you have, not ones you can pick up. Scopes, barrels, stocks, etc…you can change it all. Even the color. There’s no outright broken parts, so just make the gun how you’d prefer it to be, weather it has less recoil, or has better accuracy, or just shreds whatever you shoot.
Bosses will almost definitely tear you a new hole or two. Hannah will perish to physical attacks or explosions quicker than you might expect. And yes, while you can regent health by attacking, gunfire will just chip away, getting your face kneed in will deplete a good hunk. Each boss will in itself test one’s skills. The first with a adaptability to go from swordplay to guns, requiring one to shoot off grenades. The second, tasking the player to keep on their toes with it’s three phases and an arena full of grunts. The third, coming at you with the expectation of you learning and mastering counterattacks. The quality of each boss is…sporadic to say the least, but they all have a sense of tension, knowing each move could be your last. Soleil hasn’t lost their touch on human bosses however. And Boss 3 is so, so, so good.
Between levels, you can wander around the police department. Just walk around, talk to civilians and other officers, almost consistently get talked down to. Lets just run to the rec-room and have some fun. Early on, you have a set of UFO Catcher or Claw Machines to waste time on. The one of the left can grant you a few figures (character models) and access to cutscenes and music in their respective viewers and even access to some more. The one of the right is purely those figures. If you feel you need to just budge a prize, you can make Hannah kick the machine a few times, but do it too much and the machine will just break down temporarily. Soon you unlock a ramen slurping minigame, a Karaoke session of “99 Luftballoons”. Best, but not least, Space Runaway; an old school shoot-em-up. For a little extra in-game lore, it’s based off of an in universe television show. If you play on PC, you can even play it by itself via Steam.
Also available is a shooting gallery. You can see how fast and efficiently you can clear out targets, how many points you can get within a time limit, or just test your guns out. These can all be done in the police department or through the main menu at any time. Which is helpful if you just want to unlock stuff or play Space Runaway.
Lets touch on audio for a bit, shall we? Music across the board is phenomenal. Most is by Keiichi Sugiyama, but the game also hosts…quite a bit of licensed 80’s tunes. There’s even a record label by an in game corporation. Venomous Grace is a standout for me, which made Boss 3 even better. The Final Stage’s theme Escape gives a triumphant mood to a level that is quite possibly, the most chaotic and stressful I’d played in a long while. You can listen to music in the game whenever once unlocked in the gallery section. If your music is good, let us listen to it at our leisure, please. Voice acting on the other hand… is kind of not good. The dialog is fantastic and got some chuckles out of me, but there is an air of none of the voice actors having English as their first language. It makes dialog from most characters sound awkward. Hannah does start to grow on you and Gunsmith sounds fine, but it’s inconsistent.
There’s a lot of good, or at least interesting stuff here, but it’s got plenty of legitimately annoying issues too. You’ll run into crashes a plenty. Cutscenes, in action, it doesn’t matter. It’ll probably happen at least half a dozen times before you beat the game. The framerate is wildly inconsistent as well, with it being a nice, smooth 60fps majority of the time, but it can DROP hard. Into single digits in fact, which is showcased in a particular room in Chapter 3.
Inconsistent is honestly the name of the game with Wanted: Dead. Are cutscenes going to look good and clean? Or is it stilted with aged models? Here’s the occasional well animated anime cutscenes, which are usually flashbacks to Hannah’s previous life. There’s even live action cooking shows you can watch, hosted by Gunsmith in her previous job as a celebrity chef. This goes for character models too. Hannah and the enemies, including bosses are the only models that consistently look good. Facial hair is probably the biggest thing that games period get wrong nowadays and it definitely doesn’t look good here.
Environments all look fantastic at least. Level design might leave to be desired for some, but each level is vibrant, colorful, and has plenty of detail. And if you want to, you can absolutely just destroy majority of rooms. Make those sprinklers go off, it’ll be a good way to obscure everyone including your squad’s vision! Superfluous, sure. And these superfluous details are everywhere in this game for no reason besides “sure”. Go and idle a bit near Cortez. Maybe pay attention to Hannah’s top each chapter.
Wanted: Dead feels sporadic and unfocused. Quicksilver action, different styles of cutscenes, random interstitial minigames that’s goofiness feel at odds with the stakes at play. Is this silly cop game where you slurp ramen and crack jokes about having four balls or is this a serious story about what it means to be human or how predatory the pharmaceutical industry is? Is this really a shooter or a sword fighting game? Why is Hannah mostly blonde in everything but the gameplay? Including concept art, flashbacks, the introduction cutscene, and even the supplementary music video for Cinnamon. Why does this feel like it’s just German stuff mixed with Japanese stuff, stuck inside of a cyberpunk 80’s Hong Kong? Where everyone has a eastern European accent. Who knows.
Wanted: Dead has been pushed as a throwback to action games of old, but do those kind of games fit in in the modern age? If Devil’s Third was considered antique and misplaced in time in 2015, saying it’d be great in the year 2008 by some reviewers…the answer is probably not. But regardless, this kind of game does have fans. A game’s intrinsic value can potentially outweigh any flaws it may have in polish or general presentation. If a developer tries or does something out of the status quo, people will almost definitely take it over something with a bigger budget or “refinement”. Give people the NeverDeads, Devil’s Thirds, Balan Wonderworlds, and yes Wanted: Deads.