Cultivating a Cult Hit

What makes a game a cult hit?  Ask fans of games like Deadly Premonition and Shadows of the Damned.  Far-fetched ideas and head-scratching plots melded together with shoddy but lovable gameplay and enough charm and humor to overlook the flaws that pepper the title.  The game may not be “good”, and critics may have panned it across the internet, but fuck it: you like it, and that’s what matters!  But cult hits aren’t manufactured, they’re taken in by a select few that embrace it for what it is.  So, if all the above is true, what happens when you try to make a game a cult hit?  To do everything “average” or worse on purpose to garner the love of the select few and be a nugget of enjoyment for the ones willing to see through the flaws?

As a self-proclaimed “love letter to the sixth generation of consoles,” it feels like Wanted: Dead wanted to see how far down the road nostalgia could take them.  Lieutenant Hannah Stone, a cop with a rap sheet longer than a CVS receipt brought in to serve the toughest streets of Hong Kong, runs the equally heinous Zombie Squad. Think The Suicide Squad but 480p.  This ragtag group is on the cusp of unearthing a major corporate conspiracy that will unravel the futuristic city of its devilish details within the darkened alleys and backdoor deals that decide who runs what in the underground.

The Zombie Squad are Hannah’s second fiddles into the foray of cyberpunk chaos.  Hannah is surrounded by Cortez, a heavy hitting mute, Herzog, a wise-cracking womanizer, and Doc, who’s a doc. Gunsmith helps in base to customize your weapons and provide upgrades, and Captain Simmons is the main honcho of the police force, guiding you to your next goal because that’s his job.  There are a few other personalities that roam about the main hub area, but you will speak to them once and then never again, so I wouldn’t even worry about them.

Wanted: Dead hails itself as a hybrid of third-person shooting and hack-n-slash melee combat.  Enemies will pounce you into having to use both as a mixture of melee-based swordsman and assault rifle wielding sharpshooters work together to mow you down.  Stone is tooled with a main rifle and secondary pistol and grenades, the former two customizable in several aspects to cater towards different aspects like being harder hitting or more precise at long ranges.  Secondary weapons can be picked up from fallen enemies, like SMGs, LMGs, and Grenade Launchers.  Melee is done with combos, dodges, and block/parrying.  Enemies will attack you with normal attacks and the occasional unguardable that can be interrupted with your pistol to keep them on their toes.  Melee damage can revive small portions of HP recently lost ala Bloodborne, so it’s sometimes worth the risk to run in swinging to get back lost health.

The enemy placement does well to mix up both aspects of combat, but the whole experience feels one-note and stale.  Gunplay is mapped to cover-based shooting made mainstream during the 6th and 7th gens, but Stone doesn’t have a dedicated cover button and just attaches to cover when close.  This will inadvertently have you eat some bullets waiting for the game to catch up and can be a pain.  Shooting is snappy and the customization of your weapons feels good, but it all boils down to “wait until person pops their head out, shoot at head, repeat ‘til dead.”  Melee offers a little more variety but the enemies attacks don’t vary enough to pose much of a challenge so it boils down to recognizing their one pattern of attack and abusing it until the combat is over.

But for the love of God, don’t let anything hit you.  Looking to amp up the difficulty of the experience, every enemy hits like a damn Mack truck, especially the melee enemies.  It’s common for melee enemies to remove near 80% of your HP with one failed parry and eating a 3-hit combo, thus forcing a heal and making sure you don’t goof again.  It’s a tough lesson to learn in the early game as the first level’s first fight is 3-4 melee fighters and 3-4 shooters at one time, and they will throw you around until you understand the rules of this world.  After dying a few times I wondered how the checkpoint system would be set up, if there even was one at all: thank you Gunsmith for providing a flying drone to refill my weapons, med kits, grenades, and a one-stop shop to customize my guns with new fittings.  These drones were like a gift from God, in that you feel eternally grateful for their contributions and they are never around to help you when needed the most.  You’ll feel this squeeze later on in the game where drones are separated by multiple fights and mini-bosses and dying at these scenes can net you back almost 30 minutes of game time, which was incredibly deflating and caused a few early wrap-ups for the day during my playthrough.

When you beat a level, Wanted: Dead takes this time to inject more plot and scenes to better relate you with Stone and the Zombie Squad. What you receive is some of the hardest pacing whiplash you’ll get this year.  Time at the Police HQ will give an opportunity to grab some of the game’s many collectibles which range from enemy dossiers to reports of past crimes and newspaper reports of current events.  Starting your next mission will hit off a series of cutscenes, showing off the grisly details of what was learned last mission and what you’ll be settling into going forward.  Scenes will have an intense aura of them, no nonsense attitude conversations and what they hoped to be gripping police drama, and with one singular loading screen you’ll be thrown into a buddy-buddy scenario doing a rhythm mini-game about how much Ramen you can eat.  Where did this come from?  Where are we?  This happens again in the game with a hard-pressed interrogation scene with a cybernetic fugitive going into the ethics of pseudo robotic slavery and the free will of mechanically thinking being that feels straight ripped from I, Robot, followed immediately by a fully anime-esque animated cutscene straight into a karaoke singing mini-game with Stone and Gunsmith covering 99 Luftballoons.  Also the jukebox in the Police HQ, peppered with covers of 1980s hits, has Nems in it.  Fucking Nems.  Nems on the mic.

This whiplash is exasperated even more so with the barmy script, direction, and voice acting.  I don’t want to dog on the voice actors working with what they were given but there was a distinct lack of direction with the scene’s emotion so lines are delivered as flat as week-old opened soda.  Enemy lines are re-used frequently; one level has hoards of enemy androids with the same voice actor spamming the same 3 lines for the entire duration to the point of head-shaking hilarity.  For a game running this caliber of a team with as many man hours put into it, the quality of this portion of this game is inexcusable and releases any tension in the game with scene delivery as poor as this.

Wanted: Dead for what it’s worth did not have many bugs during my playthrough, but wasn’t squeaky clean either.  Music would randomly cut off in areas of the Police HQ, enemies would continually spawn if you were playing areas carefully (if this is intended, this is just rude), and I had one soft-locking bug where a specific trigger didn’t hit and enemies needed to kill to move on didn’t spawn, forcing a quit to title and reloading the game, which lost me a good 20-30 minutes of progress. I did get a Fatal Error as well on the first boss which needed a hard-close of the game.

But in the back of my head I’m thinking to myself, “…this feels almost purposely done?”  No cult game plays perfectly.  It runs that dumb charm to the grave and banks on it like a 00 on the roulette table.  But Wanted: Dead doesn’t even commit to the silly, off-brand humor bit throughout its paltry 5 mission campaign.  It plays like something you’d buy at GameStop for $7 with the generic Sharpie-scribbled case and forces you to live in its crazy multi-dimensional world, and then scraps the whole damn idea on Mission 4!  You play 40% of the game in absolute serious connotations and this game just cannot do that!  These last two missions are by far the worst parts of the game, implementing crushing lengths between checkpoints where getting through the amount of enemies becomes a war of attrition and your biggest enemy is running out of ammo.  Multiple failures can add hours to your game time.  These missions re-hash an earlier boss which is unacceptable given there were only 5 slots for main bosses, and the final boss has a one-hit kill, because of course they do.

But that’s the problem with cult hits: you either love them, or you don’t.  Some may read between the lines and see the light-hearted enjoyment of just making a game as ridiculous as you want, packing in whatever is felt necessary and utilizing your characters to do what they want outside of the hard-nosed job that they’re practically forced to do.  But all the ideas in Wanted: Dead don’t feel nearly fleshed out enough to cover the ridiculousness of the full package.  Stale combat, ludicrous pacing, poor design decisions, and a complete lack of direction combine into a masterclass on why intentionally trying to make a cult hit never works.