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Soleil Software Studio Inc.



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Wanted: Dead (XS)

By Lee Mehr 14th Mar 2023 | 2,367 views 

Wanted: Dead captures the spirit of schlockier action blockbusters that've been long forgotten, but doesn't successfully argue why they deserve a comeback.

Wanted: Dead’s existence is like seeing a dodo bird today on a safari ride with David Attenborough monologuing your internal thoughts.  In this era, it's nigh unbelievable to think of a company creating a new blockbuster-priced shooter/slasher hybrid seemingly plucked from the 2000s.  Just imagine a time when the Ubisoft open-world action title will seem retro and people fondly reminisce over the item chickenpox smattered across their map menu.   Apparently enough time has passed for developer Soleil and publisher 110 Industries to bet the farm on a niche nostalgia.  And despite wanting to vaunt this experiment on the pure quirkiness within the game and shameless audacity surrounding it, dulled execution gets in the way too often.

In this cyberpunk near-future of Hong Kong, Lt. Hannah Stone and co. are called to a break-in at a synthetic company’s headquarters.  This'll kick off a rather impenetrable corporate conspiracy, but who really needs excuses for shooting and slicing armed mercenaries?  Given that the cheesy opening starts with Stone and her infamous "Zombie Squad" shooting the shit at a skuzzy diner, the contrived plot elements seem more interested in building comradery with this team.

From the outset, Wanted delights in combining old-school 3D action sensibilities with stop-n-pop cover shooting.  Said action template is more interested in quickness than a more deliberate Souls-like; in fact, one of its biggest marketing hooks is Soleil's crew having ex-Ninja Gaiden and Dead Or Alive developers.  Everything is framed around combo chains, fast parries, staggers, and finishers.  Complimenting melee combat is third-person cover shooting dating back from before Gears of War's heritage. 

Interspersed between chapters are ancillary slice-of-life moments where Stone either explores the Hong Kong streets or the police HQ with her friends.  After taking a post-fight shower (framed from several spicy angles), she’ll typically engage with a strangely demanding QTE mini-game.  The first time, she's racing her partner to eat the most ramen noodles, the next she's belting "99 Luftballoons" off-key with her friend.   After these bits, you're given some brief freedom to explore the multi-storied PD that’s 95% repeated asset-flipped rooms with collectibles and 5% game room filled with extra doo-dads like nefarious crane games, a decent shoot-em-up arcade cabinet, and unlocked QTE mini-games.  The station also gives players several snippets of Stone's pre-police past via anime shorts – though typically they're more vague than informative.  Everything about this structure harkens back to those C-Tier action blockbusters of yesteryear.

Being carbon-dated to the time of antiquity isn’t an issue by itself, but rather how faithfully that feeling is recreated and balanced with all of its components. 

Alarm bells are immediately going off with respect to ranged combat.  Since so little of an already-modest skill tree focuses on guns or equipment, there’s no sense of genuinely improving damage output, recoil, or anything else.  Even the minute details from Gears of Yore haven't been learned.  Wanted’s cover system falls into that uncomfortable middle ground between not having a dedicated button to enter/exit chest-high walls, nor the fluid movement system seen in modern Tomb Raider and Quantum Break; instead, you just get in close, eat some enemy NERF shots, and see if the game's systems recognize that as valid cover.  From cover to general locomotion, so many minute details feel kineaesthetically unsatisfying; there’s little grace or polish while also being repetitive and only sporadically creative with its locations.  Alongside that, Wanted also breaks a rule I'm presumptuously coining Mehr's Guns: if a shooter showcases gun racks full of varied weaponry, they should be played with in some capacity.  Now I can pretend my game legacy lives on by being the first to articulate and cement this law!  It's pronounced 'Mare,' by the way.

Given every element from marketing to the game's design, swordplay obviously has a greater emphasis than shooting.  Instead of the rigid feedback enemies take from a distance, the expressive limb-lopping tied with close-range shooting from Hannah's sidearm tries to fulfill a Jane Wick fantasy – especially with its array of well-animated finishers.  You want to get in close to test your timing with sequenced combos and parry windows; when bigger enemies want to use an unblockable hit (indicated by a red flash), counter with a pistol interrupt and a devastating blow.  Even if the moveset and connected skill tree are only modest, it’s easy to see how this flavor of close quarters combat could really sing. 

Although it has sporadic moments of genuinely good build-up and neat scenarios, fundamental issues should've brought Soleil back to the drawing board.  For an action game amalgamating two different combat philosophies, I don't understand why melee wouldn’t have a dedicated lock-on option.  Without it, managing groups typically feels too sloppy; but when they're easier to manage in confined spaces, then the camera can be a bother.  This… loosey-goosey framework is reflected by iffy visual communication which can result in getting consecutively stun-locked: Hannah's complete recovery from an initial knockback matches perfectly with an enemy's next swing.  Even if infrequently occurring against a couple of specialty classes and bosses, it led to some genuinely rage-inducing moments – especially given their damage output. 

This also correlates with difficulty being more about the gap between checkpoints than tests of pure skill.  Each drone checkpoint is separated by roughly four challenge arenas, and successfully reaching them fully replenishes equipment, health, and ammo count.  Given how draining melee-focused foes can be (even on Normal), some bouts feel like a pure battle of attrition.  While I try to avoid complaining about difficulty – as my usual reflex is to evaluate above the default, it’s hard not to when the design stultifies so much creative experimentation.  It too often feels like Soleil's idea of challenge comes back to Hannah's frailty against damage sponges (for the special classes), when a better route could compliment this ranged/melee mixture.

Even when considering all of these critiques, I still had hope for Wanted.  It’s like appreciating an ice cream waffle bowl with all the extras: nuts, caramel, chocolate, and so on.  But no singular element – of any aspect – can help but be conditionally cheered.  It’s neat how one of Zombie Squad's members is mute and his signing feels naturally incorporated in cut scenes; however, he actually has a voice during gameplay.  Sometimes the gory splendor involves a one-hit kill chainsaw, but it’s just the same animation (with an in-game CENSORED warning obscuring the carnage) over and over again.  Although the skill tree is serviceable in adding complexity, you’ll likely have a surfeit of xp points before the last level with nothing to spend them on.

The grocery list of issues keeps growing, but a part of me still appreciates its eccentric, oddball style.  None of it really makes sense, but in a fun B-movie way.  One of Wanted's best moments involves Hannah and her mute partner barging into a nightclub.  The sequence transitions to an anime short with "Maniac!" playing in the background.  Everything from tempo to editing is incredibly clean and the scene feels genuinely tense.  The issue is everything about this is just a pretty detour, which also speaks to most of the story.  You’re just being shuffled along from one loosely-connected thread to the next until you face off against the most obvious Big Bad in recent memory.  It touches on topics of synthetics, corporate power, and so on, but it’s unrefined and poorly explained.  It's implied that completing the campaign on different difficulties nets a new ending each time, but it's simply not worth exploring for me.

What makes this silly plot tease at being worthwhile comes back to Wanted's presentation.  Everyone’s lines and delivery dawdle between insanely corny and uncanny.  It's hilarious to hear our statuesque protagonist (voiced by a German VA) sound tough while struggling with the English language; hell, the best voice actor is ironically assumed to be a synthetic at first glance.  On top of that, there are several outlandish storytelling decisions that only serve to burn time, but they’re such fun distractions that I wouldn’t want them on the cutting room floor.  There’s a layer of absurdist humor not found in any other modern blockbuster.  Even the model work done on Stone – Amazonian height, tattoo sleeve for one arm, robot prosthetic for the other, iron knuckle implants, and so on – simply exudes style.  I love when I can’t pinpoint another heroine she’s desperately trying to emulate.  

Even with a unique personality, the value proposition will be another hurdle for some.  My Normal campaign playthrough (with plenty of exploration) lasted around nine hours, but a few hours could easily be shaved off for many players.  There are only five stages, albeit sizable in scope.  Rather than an expansive odyssey, Soleil is trying to sell the extra goodies surrounding this modest campaign: the previously-mentioned mini-games, training rooms, New Game+, and so on.  While these supplementary add-ons are solid, it's tough to exalt this while there are so many issues with the main course.

Angered, confused, elated, annoyed, and a pool of other emotions are what I felt playing Wanted: Dead – typically at the same time.  One emotion I often didn't feel was bored.  With such fundamental flaws, is that enough on its own?  Although I’ll say that’s a definitive no (save any hail-mary updates that come along), it still earns some admiration.  I liken it to viciously wrecking the last iconic car of its kind.  It may have violently exploded and crumpled like a soda can, but Soleil was trying to beat its previous land-speed record.  How much that carries the work itself will be incredibly contentious, but I can safely say I won’t forget it.

Contractor by trade and writer by hobby, Lee's obnoxious criticisms have found a way to be featured across several gaming sites: N4G, VGChartz, Gaming Nexus, DarkStation, and TechRaptor! He started gaming in the mid-90s and has had the privilege in playing many games across a plethora of platforms. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.

VGChartz Verdict


This review is based on a digital copy of Wanted: Dead for the XS, provided by the publisher.

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