The last few years have seen developers looking to capitalise on the lingering fondness for a simpler time in action games. New games in this older format have been a welcome break from today’s sprawling, open world odysseys. Developed by Tokyo-based outfit Soleil, Wanted Dead is explicitly a part of this trend and a tribute to the sixth generation of consoles. It promises grisly, stylised action, a self-consciously zany cyberpunk aesthetic, and a linear narrative-driven campaign. Unfortunately, Soleil has got numerous basic elements of the formula very badly wrong and the result is deeply disappointing.
Things begin promisingly enough, with a clever introductory montage which charts a disintegrating world and recalls both Mad Max 2 and stock footage documentary guru Adam Curtis. Next we meet protagonist Lt. Hannah Stone, katana-toting supercop and head of the no-nonsense “Zombie Unit” of the Hong Kong police. This is a neon-lit, cyberpunk iteration of the “fragrant harbour”, made by developers hopped up on midnight rewatches of Ghost in the Shell and RoboCop. Sure enough, the Zombie Unit is a privatised subsidiary of malevolent megacorp Dauer Synthetics, maker of the rogue androids at the centre of the game’s scattershot plot.
A besieged Dauer facility is the setting for the first lengthy level, which serves as an introduction to the combat systems Soleil has contrived for Wanted Dead. The first impression is fairly promising; Stone is quite mobile, and sword and pistol attacks are swiftly deployed at any time, each from their own button. The cracks in the edifice begin to show quickly, however. Stone’s Zombie Unit colleagues are invincible, but useless – they rarely make a kill of their own. Enemies are absurdly tanky and ammunition is desperately scarce, and so gunplay feels barely viable. With her sword, Stone can command only a couple of sluggish combos which feel weak and ineffective.
It’s difficult to overstate how flat and monotonous the combat in Wanted Dead feels after the first hour or so. Put simply, Soleil have bungled the absolutely core feature of their game. No amount of awkward Zombie Unit banter, Yakuza-style minigames, or anime cutscenes can compensate for this basic failure. Worse, the difficulty is a source of constant frustration.
Bosses have huge reservoirs of health and opaque attack patterns, the few basic enemy types engage in huge groups, and sparse checkpoints are far too widely spaced. All too often, a tough new enemy will appear with no preamble and if – as is likely – Stone dies, this can cost the player upwards of ten minutes play time to return to that point. It is an infuriating chore.
The game’s second boss fight perfectly encapsulates why Wanted Dead is so tiresome. In the first phase, Stone faces about ten identical sledgehammer-swinging android construction workers – any one of them can kill her with one successful combo. The actual boss constantly fires grenades from an inaccessible position above the arena. Stone’s own grenades are useless, because the androids instantly sprint away from them before they explode. In the second phase, the boss has a deadly rifle with infinite ammo; Stone’s rifle doesn’t dent him, and has hardly any ammo. Confronted up close, he can kill Stone with even part of one combo. It is miserable to play.
One might hope that the progression system that governs Stone’s abilities might soften these harsh edges, but that hope is sadly misplaced. New skills come thick and fast, but have little impact. Sometimes, they seem broken – a charged sword strike seemingly cannot break enemy riot shields, as advertised. In general, Stone feels less like a cyborg supercop and more like an all-too-human rookie, doomed to fall again and again under another samey android assault.
While Wanted Dead is by no means an ugly game, its technical execution leaves much to be desired. Built on Unreal Engine 4, at the time of writing it can crash repeatedly during the first boss, a spider tank which lifts wholesale from the last act of Ghost in the Shell. Character models seem out of date, and environments are restrictive and rife with thinly-disguised invisible walls. Voice acting is uniformly awful. At least there is welcome support for AI upscaling on PC, with provision for both FSR and DLSS for those with compatible graphics hardware.
With the right execution, Wanted Dead could have found a ready-made audience for its old-fashioned approach. But what the developers of Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Earthblood and particularly Evil West did so well, Soleil has done very badly. A game built so totally on combat simply cannot afford to have combat which is implemented in such a tiresome, frustrating way. Wanted Dead is a confusing, disappointing miss which will likely fall far below the quality of forthcoming action games in 2023.