Gamers have longed for a proper beat’em up game for years, but the world has moved on. We are no longer content to just play clean-cut “heroes” wiping the streets clear of scum, we want to have a reason for doing so, or to just remove all pretense and be the anti-hero ourselves. The repetition and questionable morality of beating up every stereotypical thug you come across has been done to death, but some days you just want to make the world bleed. And boy, have we got the game for you...
Mother Russia Bleeds may be one of the most appropriate titles in recent memory. It’s a decidedly old-school beat’em up and it masterfully does the “updated 1980s graphics and sound” things that people are nuts about lately. You play as one of four Russian gypsy street fighters- the average guy, the big bruiser, the fast woman, or the crazy old guy - who are battling their way from a secret lab where they have been injected with a drug called Nekro that’s plaguing the streets. The drug is turning folks into deranged madpeople, and you have to stop it via a revolution.
You break out and try to get to the source of the problem, fighting through dozens of addicts and riot police on the way. But you're an addict too, and thus gifted with abilities. You can stab yourself in the neck with a syringe full of Nekro in order to heal some of your life bar - a wonderful thing in a beat’em up - or go into a rage mode that allows you to uppercut people’s heads off. Nekro is not hard to find either, as it’s taken from dying addicts. Simply stab them in the face as they die and replenish your syringe! No fuss, lots of muss. Just don't mind the nightmarish visions you keep having.
But the fighting plays as you’d expect. You can punch, kick, jump, or grab enemies, and can combine the actions for some slight combos. There are weapons to be found EVERYWHERE, and they range from the predictable (knives, chairs) to the ridiculous (accordions, condom dispensers.) Weapons are hugely overpowered and you’re going to want to fight off those enemies wielding them first, as they can get in cheap shots before you realize it. The combat is fast and visceral, with each hit really felt, doubly so thanks to some clever blurring that makes your moves appear faster than they are.
But the game has to cope with the big problem of replicating an old-school genre - be completely faithful, or update it for modern sensibilities? Mother Russia Bleeds straddles this. It certainly has some of the cheapness taken from the genre's arcade roots, but the addition of addiction changes things up a bit, and it feels as if you have a lot more control over your character. The game supports up to four player local co-op, although I was only able to to play two players, and you can choose friendly fire or not as you please.
The script… is a low point. It’s a French team making a game about Russia but it feels American, if that makes any sense. They went full Russian stereotype with the characters and the enemies (you fight a goddamn cyber bear at some point, for Putin’s sake) so why does everyone speak like an 1980’s action hero? It’s a missed opportunity.
There’s a surprising amount of story told in-game through each of the eight levels. There are also some interesting things to be said for a beat’em up that makes you part of the same street trash you’re fighting as opposed to someone who’s supposed to be drug-free and pure, but ultimately who cares about all that? We want to make things bleed until they have no more blood left, and in that respect the game delivers. It’s an absolutely brutal game, with every character taking multiple stages of damage before finally laying down and going still… or twitching and allowing you to plunge a syringe in them for more Nekro.
That makes for a little bit of strategy here. Since you’re addicted to this awful drug, you’re always trying to get your fix and can only do that by stabbing downed enemies with heads intact. You have to make sure not to explode them. This means that guns which automatically headshot enemies can also leave you without a supply of the juice you need to raise your health.
It’s a nice little touch but usually not much of a choice since guns are so extremely overpowered that you’ll never pass them up. You’ll also never cease to curse out enemies that appear with pistols and instantly wack off 50% of your health, because the game can be enormously, enormously cheap. Just wait til you get to that final boss....
Mother Russia Bleeds was famously conceived after one of the developers saw Hotline Miami and wished to do something in a similar style. It definitely has the look down - there’s one level that’s a direct homage, in fac t- but it’s lacking that authentic feeling. Hotline Miami feels dangerous. Like a real grindhouse film it felt like there were possibly demented people behind it, and that by playing it you were somehow guilty of whatever crimes they were. But for all its gore and sexuality Mother Russia Bleeds feels fake, like the content was included because it’s cool and shocking. When you see a guy spinning his dick around in a cage in an S&M club you’re just going to laugh rather than feel disturbed. It's funny, because this is the kind of game that would have terrified parents back in the decade it's set, but now it all somehow feels tame. Perhaps we really have become desensitized...
But does that matter when the game is so gloriously (gory-ously?) fun? Probably not. After beating the main campaign you unlock an arena mode for each level, which lets you fight waves and waves of enemies. It’s hard to stop playing, and each arena offers different enemies and challenges and somehow avoids the feel of playing the same thing with a different background. Future free updates to the game will include a boss mode and a versus mode to fight your friends, although as with most of these games the real fun will be taking friends along on another journey through it.
Those of us enjoying this nostalgic 1980s renaissance will find that Mother Russia Bleeds more than fills that hole in our lives, and plugs it up with a syringe. Make of that what you will.
Mother Russia Bleeds was developed by Le Cartel and is being published by Devolver Digital. It’s out today for PC, Mac, and Linux, with a PS4 version on the way later this year.