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Riot response cop Hannah Stone is covered in the blood of her enemies in Wanted: Dead. Image: Soleil/110 Industries via Polygon

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The most batshit video game of 2023 is already here

Wanted: Dead breaks the rules of video games — but to what end?

Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

In late December, the creators of Wanted: Dead published a 90-second trailer on YouTube. It is, without hyperbole, a masterpiece of video game maximalism.

As if they were stuffing every Christmas gift into a single stocking, the developers made the most of the diminutive run time, splicing together anime cutscenes, a live-action cooking show, rhythm-based ramen slurping, a retro-inspired arcade shooter, karaoke, a crane game, and a flurry of cutaways to what looks like a John Wick-inspired third-person action game that blends sword fighting with “gun fu.”

Every trailer sells a pitch, and best I can tell, the pitch here is: What if you played every video game, all at once? Well, I’ve now played roughly half of Wanted: Dead, and I am happy and horrified to say, it’s exactly what the trailer promised.

Wanted: Dead is the debut game from developer Soleil and publisher 110 Industries, a pair that includes developers who cut their teeth on the Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden series. You play the role of Hannah Stone, a battle-ready killer with a knack for filleting humans with the grace and efficiency of a master sushi chef.

Stone’s penchant for de-limbing human beings is curious for one reason: Stone is a lieutenant for the Hong Kong police force’s “riot response.” So why is it that she and her crew — dubbed the Zombie Unit — exclusively carry extremely lethal weapons?

The story of Stone and her squad opens with a subdued (bordering on lethargic) Tarantino-style diner scene. (The game shares Tarantino’s obsession with pop culture history, particularly film history.) Like in Reservoir Dogs, the group chats. And chats. And chats. The longer the scene lingers, the more time I have to notice how off everything feels: Why do all of these Hong Kong officers have European accents? Why does Stone’s performance feel like it’s been lifted from an entirely different game — or maybe a Neil Breen movie? What’s up with the extended Hideo Kojima-style montage suggesting some global corporate conspiracy and why isn’t the squad talking about that?

The Zombie Squad eats at a retro diner in Wanted: Dead. Image: Soleil/110 Industries via Polygon

But just as I’ve settled into this Jarmuschian cinematic trancebrrrrring — a phone rings. Professional criminals have taken over an office complex coincidentally located a couple of blocks away. At this point, I suppose none of my questions matter, because the game has finally dropped me into Stone’s sneakers and I can obliterate baddies with my sword and my machine gun.

But wait, OK, I’m sorry, I know I keep getting hung up on the riddles, but which weapon should I use: the sword or the gun? As I approach a barrier, the game automatically sticks me into cover, tacitly suggesting I approach the level like Gears of War and so many other cover-based shooters. But the bullets are imprecise and ineffective. So, naturally, I rush in with my sword and immediately get sprayed with gunfire, taking damage as I try to hurriedly slice and dice and dodge and generally survive.

Eventually, I do find a rhythm. The trick isn’t to be a flawless assassin — it’s to never stop moving forward, even as you’re covered in a vague mix of your and your enemies’ blood. I have some muscle memory at my disposal because this is how video games used to work. Big levels. Lots of enemies. Repetitive combat. Limited save points and old-school health packs. Carving up enemies earns XP, which can be spent to unlock more powerful moves and weaponry. Rinse. Repeat.

Hannah Stone prepares to cut open an enemy with a chainsaw in Wanted: Dead. Image: Soleil/110 Industries via Polygon

110 Industries’ website describes Wanted: Dead as a “love-letter to the sixth generation of video game consoles,” which includes the Nintendo GameCube, PlayStation 2, and the original Xbox. And if that’s what the devs set out to achieve, they nailed it — frankly, too well. Across what feels like an endless first level (in which I unlocked nearly a third of Wanted: Dead’s Steam achievements), I murder my way through environments that look, at the same time, new and old.

Let me try to unpack that contradiction. On one hand, the game makes formidable use of modern hardware with graphics that, at first blush, evoke contemporary big-budget action games. And yet, something is clearly off. The world is a series of humongous corridors and cavernous offices; a bizarre mish-mash of museum spaces and industrial weapon design laboratories and other sets that could be pulled from a video game grab bag.

That’s the rub: The environments look like video game levels, but they seem pulled straight out of 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand, Earth Defense Force, and Matt Hazard. These spaces hold a funhouse mirror to reality, making it bigger, warped, and comically out of scale.

That first level stretched for so long that I wondered, on several occasions, if it might comprise the entire game. Except I had the trailer to remind me what lay ahead: anime, minigames, and live-action cooking shows. After carving through dozens of enemies and a mech-tank boss fight, Stone and her crew finally get a reprieve and return to police HQ. And like that shrill brrrrring of the telephone, I’m immediately launched into a bizarro world of joyous non sequiturs.

The weapons expert at police headquarters waxes philosophical in Wanted: Dead. Image: Soleil/110 Industries via Polygon

The sheer audacity of creative choices contained within the police HQ entranced me. How did this get made? Why? For who?

What do I tell you? About the building’s architecture, which looks like a dollhouse three sizes too large for its dolls? Or the ramen-slurping rhythm game set to a song that sounds like a looping MIDI file and drones endlessly until it abruptly ends in the middle of a loop? How the load screen between minigames is a re-creation of this reaction GIF starring Hannah and the Zombie Unit? Or how I’m 99% sure the only song playing in the headquarters is a cover of “I Touch Myself”? Why were the flashbacks to Hannah’s life in the early ’00s animated in an anime style? And speaking of Hannah Stone: What’s up with the real four-song album seemingly “produced” by Wanted: Dead’s mysterious corporation Dauer Industries, which has an experimental music division?

The closest cultural comparison I can muster for Wanted: Dead is the 1960s French New Wave, when a band of critics turned filmmakers were hellbent on intentionally breaking cinema so that it could become something new. Traditional structure, framing, camera work, and all the other rules of filmmaking were questioned, blended, or outright abandoned.

Wanted: Dead is unquestionably breaking things; it’s the intentionality that’s less clear.

Hannah Stone hangs out with her friend at the ramen shop in Wanted: Dead. Image: Soleil/110 Industries via Polygon

At this point it probably doesn’t need to be said, but: Wanted: Dead is one of the messiest, most confounding, and most out-of-step games I have ever played. But I can’t quite bring myself to say it’s bad. Or even that I disliked my time with its many bizarre twists and turns.

There’s a branch of critical theory that believes we must meet art on its own terms — review the media off what its creators aspired to do, not what you wish it to be. And hot damn does Wanted: Dead benefit from such a generous reading. This is the game the trailer promised: way too many ideas crammed into too small of a box. In the same sense that cinephiles love the classic B-movies for their collision of big ideas and even bigger limitations, there’s something deeply admirable about the audacity of this silly video game.

To put it another way: This game does everything poorly, but mostly because it tries to do everything. It’s an anime, a cooking show, a Family Guy-esque pop culture reference-palooza, a biting critique of the military industrial complex, a meme graveyard, an ode to Tarantino, an ode to Suda51, and an ode to bad taste.

I can’t recommend you play this video game, but I won’t encourage you to look away. And so, here I am at the end, and all I really know for certain is this: Thank goodness I don’t have to assign a score.

Wanted: Dead is now available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by 110 Industries. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.