It would be difficult to categorize Wanted: Dead from Soleil Ltd. as anything close to a focused experience. Even its core gameplay mechanic is a hard fusion of third-person shooting and hack-and-slash swordplay that juggles the feeling of Gears of War with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice without managing to hit the highs of either game, yet it still balances out well enough for a truly fun time. Though if any singular identity persists within its retro futuristic dystopia, it’s that its main character Hannah Stone is lethal as all hell.
Stone is a former military operative first introduced to players in a solitary confinement cell. Despite her situation, she’s flippant when the Warden visits with her, offering a proposition for a way out. Stone assumes she’s being hired for a straight-up assassination but instead is strangely placed on a Hong Kong police strike team alongside a number of former squadmates who were also previously serving life sentences for war crimes. Details about exactly what happened in her past are scarce, but in the years since their release, her team has become known as the Zombie Unit due to the sheer amount of death and destruction they leave in their wake — in the name of justice of course.
Wanted: Dead puts you in Stone’s shoes for a full week of their escapades, and it’s quickly apparent that she’s at the center of the team’s trail of blood. As Stone you’re armed with a primary assault rifle, a sidearm, and a katana. Practically speaking, bringing a sword to a gunfight is ill-advised, but Wanted: Dead employs a set of mechanics that make Stone’s swordplay incredibly powerful. Attacking enemies enough with her katana can put them in a weakened state primed for execution with a flashy finishing kill.
This status can be applied to several enemies at once with an ultimate move that empties your pistol into all surrounding enemies. If multiple enemies are in the weakened state when the finisher is initiated, Stone will move from target to target, murdering them all like the Bride from Kill Bill. Early on I kind of turned my nose up at the lack of interaction involved once you set the sequence in motion. While the kill animations are admittedly well done, you can literally place the controller down after starting the first finisher and just watch Stone wreak havoc as long as she has a line of sight to the next weakened grunt.
But as I unlocked more of the skill tree’s abilities, I began to see the true nature of Wanted: Dead’s combat system. A great majority of upgrades only act as new conditions to place enemies in the weakened state. Cutting off a limb, parrying a melee attack, countering an unblockable with your pistol — all of these conditions become setups for adding enemy after enemy to your queue for a lengthy chain of kills. The payoff for strategically weakening as many people as possible is an incredibly stylish string of finisher animations, of which Wanted: Dead boasts 50 unique varieties. After you’ve done all the preparation, why not sit back and watch your meticulously crafted carnage unfold?
As strong as the chain finisher is, it’s balanced somewhat by the obnoxious amount of opposition thrown at you, particularly in later levels. The enemies not only grow in number but start to carry shields, explosives, and katanas of their own that disrupt your chances to mow the crowd down unimpeded. Stone’s ultimate becomes a saving grace in these moments, as focusing on the lesser threats and parrying attacks from the greater ones can quickly charge it for much needed mass application of the weakened state.
The ensuing chain of finishers after navigating the overwhelming odds placed in front of you is one of the most rewarding gameplay payoffs I’ve ever felt. The fight you put in to earn it is often nothing to sneeze at either; watching for enemy attacks and parrying deadly strikes still hits all the right synapses to make me feel like an unstoppable badass. But you actually become an unstoppable badass once you trigger the finisher and start the killing spree. Video games are often designed to be power fantasies, but for me the feeling of being overpowered has always robbed me of a sense of satisfaction. Without the pushback of a worthy foe, victories ring hollow and my engagement with a game’s systems plummets quickly.
Wanted: Dead’s answer to this is essentially to put all the tension in the setup, which on its own is a really fun combat system. But what it lacks in depth, it makes up for by treating rooms full of enemies as an obstacle course with an end goal to create a seamless stream of executions that leave dozens of bodies in your wake. It’s an intoxicating feeling that turns the threat of droves of heavily armed soldiers into a murder playground for a sword-wielding psychopath. As Hannah Stone I welcome the conflict — I imagine she walks into each room with a sick smile on her face because all she sees are dead men.