Wanted: Dead Review – A Loaded Six-String

    Title: Wanted: Dead
    Developer: Soleil
    Release Date: February 14, 2023
    Reviewed On: PS5
    Publisher: 110 Industries
    Genre: Action

So, imagine if SUDA 51, Hideki Kamiya, and Tomonobu Itagaki co-created a game with Hideo Kojima as the producer. It would be a pretty wild output, but honestly, the chances of that ever happening are next to impossible, as just the egos alone could never function in the same room. And yet, this is exactly what Wanted: Dead feels like, the breakout release by studio 110 Industries.

Wanted: Dead is a love letter to a bygone era of character action games, the kind of gaming experience we almost took for granted during the sixth console generation. Although 110 Industries may largely be made up of Team Ninja veterans, their first real studio effort distances itself from any obvious influences.

Set in the cyberpunk rendition of Hong Kong, Wanted: Dead follows protagonist Hannah Stone and her ragtag squad known as the Zombie Unit. They happen to be the least liked division in the police force, especially when each member has a checkered past involving serious war crimes, but this team takes on the jobs no one wants to touch. It’s clear everything is working against them, and what starts as battling obvious criminals quickly turns into a sinister conspiracy, as our anti-heroes find themselves in the middle of some deadly in-fighting.

The plot devices borrow from cyberpunk tropes, in particular synthetic humanoids and the like, but these familiar elements fuse together to create a unique vibe. The presentation just feels surreal, and the most immersive aspect of the experience is simply watching the narrative unfold in the most bizarre way. Whether it’s the vivid mix of cinematic styles, to the disjointed yet utterly captivating dialogue, this is a setting that immediately grabs your attention and surprises you in every moment. There is a convoluted sense of mystery, and some of the themes get pretty dark and violent, but there’s still room for a comedic undertone to it all.

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Hannah is a protagonist unlike most in the genre. A badass to a fault, and yet there is something awkwardly charming about her vibe and the way she speaks. Her personality shines thanks to the natural chemistry and interplays with her squad mates. It’s an offbeat friendship, and most of their conversations are largely about nothing, almost like something out of Seinfeld, but the flow of dialogue and its deadpan sense of humor come through in the most organic way.

Most gamers may remember Stefanie Joosten in her role as Quiet from Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. It seems like she may have learned a thing or two from her time working with Hideo Kojima, especially when it comes to the fine art of breaking into a game’s universe. Her imprint is all over Wanted: Dead, whether it is her role as the quirky Officer Vivienne (who was the star of the pre-release cooking show trailers) or her catchy vocal talents in most of the game’s soundtrack, Joosten lends herself to the heart and soul of the whole experience. It’s a significant detail, being one of the things which help to create an inescapable atmosphere for the game.

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As an action game, Wanted: Dead starts out in a pretty ordinary fashion. The combat system is varied but it isn’t designed for stylish combos. In fact, the game doesn’t even grade combat performance, as it’s all about brutal effectiveness, and while the controls and mechanics feel restricted in the early sections of the adventure, in no time skill points can be earned to complete most of the skill tree early. It’s best to learn all the defense and utility skills first, with the former greatly enhancing mobility while the latter enables the AI squad mates to become far more useful with their various assists.

Mixing shooting and closed-quarters combat is generally effective, and this mix of contrasting gameplay styles is intended to create some gameplay variety, especially during long stretches of enemy encounters. While it has the right idea, for the most part, this is a closed-quarters action game, where getting up close with enemies using the sword is far more effective than shooting from a distance. The sword combos aren’t versatile, but in conjunction with a powerful handgun, a range of parries and counterattacks go a long way in decimating foes in an effective and satisfying manner.

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Surprisingly, the game does have a cover shooting system, and while a machine gun and other firearms can be used, more often than not Hannah will be stepping out of cover and taking foes head-0n. The level design rarely ever lends itself to cover shooting, although this can occasionally be useful when launching grenade attacks. Besides, most enemies will rush toward Hannah in a matter of moments. In other words, be prepared to engage more in combos than shooting.

There are a few weapons to choose from, and the primary handgun and machine gun can be upgraded with new parts. The arsenal is enjoyable, and the various systems are simple yet effective, but having a better balance of the combat styles within the level design would have helped bring all the gameplay systems together.

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Combat is the crux of the experience, and Wanted: Dead is structured as several enemy encounters with boss battles. It’s not a difficult game once the skill tree is fully unlocked, but the pacing can feel sluggish as wave after wave of enemies needs to be dealt with. In fact, some of the cumbersome enemy waves can prove to be even more difficult than the boss encounter. The bosses are few and far between, but they are memorable thanks to their interesting design and their stylistic presentation.

The segments between the main action stages prove to be more enjoyable, with various mini-games adding life to the game world, while also showing a different side of the main characters. There’s even a fully playable arcade cabinet for the shmup Space Runaway. This shooter is a fully-fledged game and not a mere distraction, enough to be its own standalone release.

These extras are more than just distractions, as they have meaningful substance and give players a reason to take their time to explore the hub world. Speaking of, there are a ton of collectible items which help flesh out the game world and its lore. And so, it’s worth enjoying these downtime moments of the adventure before rushing into the main combat missions.

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To say the game is flawed would be putting it lightly. The graphical performance is rough, with dated textures and some serious framerate issues even on next-gen consoles. There are animation bugs and glitches too, all of which hinder the flow and responsiveness of the combat system.

These issues are nothing game-breaking by any stretch, as the game is generally competent and functional, but it certainly looks and feels dated in a jarring way. The artistic charm and thematic direction help make up for these graphical shortcomings, but just don’t expect this to look amazing on newer hardware.

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Wanted: Dead is a commendable effort from this team and a sign of much better things to come. It is unapologetic in what it wants to be, and so despite all of its quirks and faults, it offers a charming and memorable action game experience that is backed by a captivating presentation. Come for the brutally effective combat but stay for the utterly surreal game world filled with fun distractions and addictive carnage. With this debut title, 110 Industries takes us back to a time when a standout vibe made up for a lack of polish.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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Jahanzeb Khan

Old SEGA games will go up in value... you'll see!