Gaming: Mother Russia Bleeds - Reviewed

Available on PC and PS4
The more I learn about the history of games, the more I wish I had been around to experience the height of the arcade game. Many of my peers and heroes speak fondly of making the trek to the local arcade, whirring with the music of square-wave noise and pockets full of coins. I have fond memories of playing arcade games as a young man in the 90s, but I’m not sure I will ever truly have the reverence for the arcade like my wiser counterparts. Despite this fact, I still have a deep-seated love for the classic arcade beat’em ups of my childhood, like The Simpsons and X-Men. There have been some great modern games that play on this genre (Castle Crashers anyone?) but in the last half-decade, the genre has stagnated leading me to believe it dead outside of early access and failed kickstarters. Much to my excitement, the genre had a new entry recently, and when it was revealed to me to be brutal, dark, and set in an alternative 1980s Soviet Union, I just had to know more about Mother Russia Bleeds.

What I found was something brooding and unique. Developer Le Cartel Studios took one part Streets of Rage, one part Hotline Miami, one part Cold War Soviet hysteria, smashed it together, and hit blend. It harkens back to the brawlers of old flawlessly, but with the tone and brutality we have come to enjoy over the years of Devolver Digital indie titles. And when I say brutal, I mean the kind of bloody and over the top violence that walks the line of comically absurd and uncomfortably real. Heads explode in a deluge of blood, beaten bodies writhe on the ground in an unsettling fashion, and enemies show their damage with blood and bruises, in lieu of the classic health bars. Like many other modern indies, Mother Russia Bleeds chooses a pixel-art aesthetic, and in this case it feels appropriate considering it’s roots in arcade sprites. I was impressed with the level of detail, and similarly the level of revulsion, the artists were able to capture using the decades-old techniques. I am still feeling the pixel art fatigue after years of indie titles, but I never felt like this choice harmed my experience with Mother Russia Bleeds.

To complete the triple-threat of ‘adult themes’, and more importantly to add some much-needed variety to the gameplay, Mother Russia Bleeds comes complete with a drug use mechanic. In practice, ‘Nekro’ as it is called, operates as both a powerup and a healing item. When taken one way, your character is thrown into a psychotic rage, adding extra damage, knockback and resistance. When taken otherwise (in this case, a different side of your neck), it regains a decent amount of health to combat the game’s difficulty, in addition to smoothing-over some of the mechanics vestigial of the quarter-sucking era. In a genre where freshly-roasted chickens are meticulously placed under trash cans and burn barrels, having a mechanic that achieves the video game function of regaining health, while not betraying its dark tone is welcomed. As is the grotesque way you use a syringe to abate your fallen foes of the drugs coursing through their veins.

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The Soviets had an interesting definition of ‘Science’ in this revision of history.

Mother Russia Bleeds makes an effort to freshen the gameplay up with dedicated grab and throw buttons, multi-hit combos, and the aforementioned drug system, but it ultimately doesn’t address the inherent flaws of the genre as a whole. The difficulty doesn’t feel balanced; While I was able to move through the game solo, I often had to resort to strategies that, while effective, brought the pace and fun of the gameplay to a screeching halt. Play enough of any beat’em up and you will end up dive-kicking packs of enemies over and over, and Mother Russia Bleeds is no exception. The unique gameplay elements  do allow for more flexibility, but it still suffers from repetitiveness of gameplay, something plaguing the genre since its inception.

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Can’t get much more Soviet than this.

Overall, I had a really fun time with Mother Russia Bleeds. While I don't think it's going to be a chart-topper, it quickly became clear that a lot of love was put into the development of this game. The look, the feel, the soundtrack, it all feels straight out of a Jack Thompson nightmare, all without losing its arcade charm. If you are faint of heart, or simply don't have fondness for violent rollicks through fiction, appreciate Mother Russia Bleeds from a distance.  Fans of the genre, grab some friends and make a couple nights out of it, and you will not be disappointed.

Developer: Le Cartel Studio
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platforms: Playstation 4, PC
Release Date: September 5th, 2016

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-Justin Wicker