For me, 2-D beat ’em ups elicit a strong sense of nostalgia. I spent much of my youth playing the likes of Golden Axe, Streets of Rage and TMNT arcade. Hell, I still play them now when I get the opportunity. Unfortunately, over the years since, the genre has faded into the background. The excellent Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World both spurred a brief renaissance, but the latter was released six years ago. 2016 may be the best year for beat ’em up in decades, with the release of brawler Dungeon Punks and now the frantic Mother Russia Bleeds.
Set in an alternate version of the 1980s USSR, Mother Russia Bleeds centres on a surrogate family of fighters living in a Roma camp. After clashing with authorities, the crew finds themselves imprisoned and the victims of an experimental drug called Nekkro which has some really disturbing side effects. After escaping from prison, the crew is determined to seek out the criminal authority that violated them and free the oppressed citizens of Russia.
Mother Russia Bleeds is a 2-D beat ’em up with co-op gameplay that supports up to four players, local co-op only. You can always go it alone or set AI companions for the remainder of the three slots. The AI is somewhat useful. They don’t do a lot in battle but always sacrifice their own health to revive you when downed. Just be cautious as the number of on-screen enemies scales depending on the number of players. The four characters are Sergei, Natasha, Ivan, and Boris. Each has slightly different stats and unique finishing moves. Beyond that, they only differ in appearance.
Mother Russia Bleeds channels classic games like Streets of Rage. It’s a side-scroller packed with eight frantic levels of varying enemies for you to punch, kick, grab and attack with dozens of weapons, before facing off with a boss at the end. The enemies are a diverse bunch that forces you to incorporate a small form of strategy. Drug addicts hurl syringes and riot cops brandish shields. In later levels, enemies begin carrying firearms. Learning enemy’s abilities and weaknesses early on will save you a lot of health and Nekkro in the long run.
The boss battles are easily the highlight of each level. They are always large and unique. Some are giant machines resembling something that Dr. Robotnik (Eggman) might have used if Sonic the Hedgehog was classified MA15+. Others bosses are wild animals and the horrors that stem from the inner depths of your drug riddled mind. I would love to talk about them more but don’t want to ruin the surprises that await you. Each boss is typically supported by waves of annoying grunts but also provide you with special weapons and environmental hazards to shake up the gameplay.
What sets Mother Russia Bleeds apart from other beat ’em ups is the Nekkro. You may use the Nekkro at any time to restore lost health or to improve your attack damage and speed to unleash some devastating attacks for a limited time. Other abilities can be unlocked, but I preferred to stay with the default. Three vials of Nekkro can be held at once. You gain more by retrieving it from downed enemies. Just be sure not to destroy their heads.
Mother Russia Bleeds is dark and gory, as close to exploitation as gaming can get. Drug abuse, sexual violence, and extreme physical violence are prevalent throughout. No, you are not engaging in sexual violence, but some enemies are. There are even levels set within a BDSM club and a penthouse where things get disturbing. The plus side, the graphics are pixelated. Thus it’s easier to watch the decapitation uppercuts and that one rape scene. Mother Russia Bleeds is certainly not for everyone.
The sound design is excellent. Frantic electro beats compliment the intense gameplay. The quiet scenes do an excellent job of building tension before a big battle. It reminded me of the insanely good soundtrack to the ultra-violent Hotline Miami. Producer Fixions has created one of the best game soundtracks so far this year.
Apart from the story, an arena mode is available from the main menu which pits you against increasingly difficult waves of enemies. Arenas are set in the major set peices of the story and are unlocked by completing the corresponding level in story mode. Every time you pass wave ten in an arena, you unlock different Nekkro abilities for use in the arena and story mode.
Mother Russia Bleeds is an excellent homage to classic side-scrolling beat ’em ups, perfectly channeling the gameplay and aesthetics that made those early games so special. It doesn’t bring much new to the genre, but that’s okay. The fact that there has been a resurgence of the beat ’em up genre through quality games is enough for me. It’s more enjoyable with some friends but going solo is still a lot of fun. So far I have only achieved the sad ending, so finding out how to get the happy ending and unlocking all the Nekkro abilities in arena mode means there’s plenty of reasons to continue playing once the drecits have rolled.
Mother Russia Bleeds is developed by Le Cartel and published by Devolver Digital. It’s available on PC, Mac, Linux and Playstation 4.
Michael Vane is a freelance journalist and co-editor of PN2. He’s on Twitter @DrVane