When crafting a violent action game, there are few titles you want on your resume more than the first two 3D Ninja Gaiden games. Wanted: Dead loudly advertises that it was developed by some of the people who made the revamped series starting with Ninja Gaiden in 2004. Wanted even boasts having the Ninja Gaiden co-director as director. Therefore, it’s not exactly unfair to expect the game to offer a fair amount of what made those classics so beloved. And Wanted: Dead does certainly have some of it. Violently slashing enemy soldiers asunder with a katana is what a fan would want from a game with such a pedigree. But it can’t outweigh the horrible storytelling, questionable design, and ridiculously small amount of variation on display.
To say that Wanted: Dead has a story is an insult to narratives. You play as Hannah Stone, a formerly incarcerated war criminal. She’s picked to lead Hong Kong police’s Zombie Squad, a team of war criminals that someone decided should be police. The group is called to the headquarters of Dauer, an android maker, one evening, only to find itself battling an army of foes. Then the team goes and fights a group of androids that are rebelling. And then Stone breaks into a criminal’s club because he might know something about one of the androids they captured.
What’s the story?
There’s not really much of a through-line in the narrative and, after beating it, I’m not sure what the story set out to achieve. It basically boils down to this one cop who wants to kill everyone on the squad for some reason. There are a lot of cutscenes and none of them say much of anything. In one cutscene, the game tries to be Blade Runner for a few minutes, horribly embarrassing itself in the process. There are even anime cutscenes that show Stone’s past. Why are they anime? Who knows?
Stefanie Joosten from Metal Gear Solid V fame plays a supporting character here that mostly looks like her. The rest of the voice cast delivers their lines in stilted European accents. Stone’s voice actor is Swiss and doesn’t sound like she has any idea how to act in English. It’s all shockingly awful, save for Stefanie.
But nobody plays hyper-violent action games for the story! When I first started Wanted: Dead, enemies lined up to shoot at me, requiring me to seek cover. Stone takes cover automatically. She’s equipped with a rifle, pistol, and katana by default, leading me to assume the game was primarily a cover-based third-person shooter. But the shooting is miserable, and the rifle has barely any ammo. The pistol also can’t be aimed because why would you want to aim a fucking firearm? It didn’t take long to figure out that there’s literally no reason to play the game like a third-person shooter, because Stone can just roll around hitting any ranged enemies with her sword until they die.
This works even on the unlockable super-hard difficulty, which isn’t actually that much harder than the other difficulties. There are five types of enemies to fight in Wanted: Dead: guys with guns; guys with machetes; guys with shields; ninjas; and heavies. There’s a single mission where you fight androids exclusively and they’re mostly similar to the other enemies. They never show up again. Stone can pick up dropped enemy guns to use until they run out of ammo, but the only weapons she can hold onto are her sword, rifle, and pistol. The game, for the most part, has you fight the same five enemies while using the same three weapons for its entire duration. Spoiler alert: it gets old.
This could be fine if there were a lot of neat additional combos and maneuvers to pull off. Too bad you really only have Stone’s default sword swings and a couple of combos where she combines those with pistol shots. You can unlock new abilities in Stone’s skill tree, but the gameplay doesn’t change much; all of the ranged enemies are feeble and die in a few sword slashes. They’re also the majority of what you’ll be fighting, so I really hope you like rolling around rooms and mashing the attack button.
It’s a rollercoaster
Against the machete enemies, ninjas, and heavies, the combat in Wanted: Dead can actually be engaging. Stone can parry most attacks, and unblockable strikes can be interrupted with properly-timed pistol shots. If you master these two mechanics, you can handle pretty much anything the game throws at you. If the combat had more weapons or, I dunno, some depth, that would mean something. But nope. Mash the attack button when fighting ranged enemies and parry the other enemies until they flash white and allow you to kill them with a finisher. It’s dead simple, even if it can get pretty satisfying once you master it.
But the game’s difficulty curve is atrocious. It mostly has two experiences: ridiculously easy and laughably unfair. The game throws shield guys at you in the first level and you’ll need to use the absurdly slow katana charge move to make them vulnerable to attacks. But you probably won’t learn that until after you meet them with no skill points left to spend on said move. You also fight two ninjas in the first level. The ninjas are fairly over-kitted and can absolutely ruin your shit if you don’t immediately figure out how to play the game. There are ridiculous difficulty spikes here and there, including in the first level.
The second level is mostly braindead easy the whole way through, until you get to the boss. The second level’s boss is easily the hardest boss in the game. Not only do you have to fight a mob of androids, but you do so while your main foe opens the fight by shooting grenades at you from a distance. It’s an awful fight, especially since you need to fight the entire mob again each time you die. This is indicative of nearly every instance of “difficulty” in Wanted: Dead. There’ll be a ton of enemies (many of which can kill you in a single combo), and checkpoints can be too spread out.
There’s two of them
Aside from these difficulty spikes, the game really isn’t all that challenging. But there are a couple of sections where you have to fight through a ton of enemies, only to come face to face with two heavies or two ninjas who can easily kill you after you’ve used all of your healing items and your revive. You have a squad with you for some reason. They’re really only good for distracting the enemies from you and providing you a revive. Other than that, they serve no real purpose. All three of them can be upgraded a single time, with two of them gaining the ability to instakill the occasional foe.
These two sections are so much harder than the rest of this game. For the fight against two ninjas, I had to spend some time perfecting my parrying abilities just to get through it. A section at the end of the third level ends with you fighting two heavies (insanely tanky enemies that take forever to die) on a cramped roof where there’s hardly any room to maneuver. After you beat them, you’re treated to a battle against a master assassin that was so easy I could hardly believe it. Even the last boss is only somewhat challenging. Almost all of the difficulty comes down to that one mob boss battle and the two other sections. It’s laughable.
Grind it out
Aside from the campaign, there’s not really much else to do. When you’re not rolling through one of the game’s five missions, you’ll be doing awful, out-of-place mini-games such as rhythm-based ramen eating, karaoke, or playing a crane game for extra skill points. These crummy mini-games can be replayed in the police station or from the main menu, but most of them show up in the campaign proper.
Beating the game unlocks a new game plus and harder difficulty. The latter doesn’t change up the enemy arrangements however, and only allows you to keep the skills and gun parts you unlock. There’s a four-mission training mode that takes less than 10 minutes to complete as well, but the game is overall light on content. Even the OneeChanbara games let you fight infinite waves.
The thing is, I do kind of like playing Wanted: Dead despite how repetitive and horribly unbalanced it is. It is not a good game, not even close. And yet it can be oddly enjoyable if you’re in the right mindset. But so much of what’s on display here is horribly muddled and confused. Wanted: Dead doesn’t have any idea how to tell its story and doesn’t even know what kind of game it wants to be. It’s an intriguing curiosity. Anyone who doesn’t mind laughing at the absurdity of it all can definitely have somewhat of a good time. But anyone looking for a good old-school action game won’t really find it here.