There is nothing subtle about Mother Russia Bleeds. Heads explode into clouds of pulp, riots erupt in city squares, and prisons become Jackson Pollock paintings of blood, corpses, and human bile. In short, Mother Russia Bleeds is an exercise in frenzied combat and hyper-violent themes. The problem is, it doesn’t always know what to do with them.As a 2D brawler, Mother Russia Bleeds plays host to ideas dozens of years old, hearkening back to the days of beat ’em ups on arcade cabinets and early consoles. Mother Russia Bleeds allows you and up to three other players punch, kick, headbutt, and shoot your way through crowds of thugs in an alternate reality 80s Russia, with simple controls and a variety of weapons to use along the way.Where so many brawlers succumb to repetitive encounters, Mother Russia Bleeds, on the other hand, is a shining example of how to extract complex scenarios from simple mechanics.This is due in large part to the way its stages unfold. You not only grapple with a slew of multifarious fighters, but also wrestle attack dogs, leap away from speeding motorcycles, and evade clouds of poisonous gas. You’ll learn how to control your fighter easily, but defeating a boss while trains barrel back and forth across the screen is another task entirely.
In 1992’s Streets of Rage 2 Eddie Hunter, better known to his friends as ‘Skate’, wore a yellow vest and red rollerblades. In a pinch he could roll into a tight little ball and, like a bowling ball striking a huddle of ninepins, send a crowd of bruisers wheeling through the air. Skate referred to his signature move as the ‘Dynamite Headbutt.’ Classic Skate.In 2016’s Mother Russia Bleeds, Boris wears a soiled bandage for a shirt and wanders shoeless. When he has withdrawal pangs, he is able to syringe chemicals from the convulsing bodies of the addicts that he’s battered to the ground and inject the fluid into his neck. Boris refers to the drug, based on Krokodil, a real drug that, in the final stages of use, strips the skin from its user’s flesh to expose the lurking bones, as Nekro.Classic Devolver Digital.
The publisher, in conjunction with French developer The Cartel is, in other words, banking on grimness and shock to bolster its bid to revive the long-departed scrolling beat ’em up. In contrast to Streets of Rage’s Saturday morning TV take on street fighting, Mother Russia Bleeds’ cast of characters are scab-pocked down-and-outers. The game’s stages are lined with drug users, its streets run by small-time gangsters wearing tracksuits and gap-toothed grimaces. Your opponents don’t disappear from the playfield when defeated. Instead, they shudder in a wet pool, perhaps while a passing pig sniffs at their crotch. Coupling a vintage video game aesthetic with the ultra-violence of films such as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher series to tempt modern audiences is a trick that worked for publisher Devolver Digital with Hotline Miami. Yet Mother Russia Bleeds unlocks whole new rooms of depravity. It is, after all, a game in which you can punch the head clean off a man’s shoulders, and then use it as a weapon to strike another.It’s in its final moments that Mother Russia Bleeds approaches greatness, just before it stumbles. The final boss is one of the most abrasive difficulty spikes I’ve ever encountered in a game, let alone a difficult beat em’ up. It took me 90 minutes to finally best. Compare that to about 20 minutes on the more difficult enemies I encountered throughout my playthrough. For all of the ways Mother Russia Bleeds paces itself so well over the course of 6 hours, its ending is drawn out to a fault.But for all of my frustration with the encounter, the difficulty of this boss made thematic sense: I had eliminated many thugs along my journey through a war torn Russia, from army captains to sadistic drug lords. But as its story comes to a close, and without spoiling the resolution, Mother Russia Bleeds asks the more important, if not slightly clichéd, question: isn’t your biggest enemy yourself?This is Mother Russia Bleeds’ greatest strength: it may appear to be a simple brawler with retro art reminiscent of the beat em’ up golden age. But it goes much deeper. It alleviates the monotony of some of the best brawlers. It introduces wrinkles that make each level feel fresh. And it weaves complex themes into its gameplay in ways that, although not subtle, are nuanced. Mother Russia Bleeds knows how to upset many expectations of the genre–I just wish it wasn’t always trying to shock me.