During the arcade boom of the 90’s, beat ‘em up style games were among the most prevalent video game genres. Games like Golden Axe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the X-Men arcade game were extremely popular due to the intense button mashing combat and cooperative gameplay. One of the most identifying earmarks of the beat ‘em up genre was the over the top violence, and it didn’t take long for developers to start making games like Bad Dudes and Streets of Rage 2, which poked fun at the exaggerated version of reality in which the games took place. Mother Russia Bleeds was clearly made in the spirit of games like Streets of Rage 2 and Bad Dudes, but updated for the 21st century with gallons of pixelated blood, drug induced hallucinations, and an alternate history version of Soviet Russia. While it’s easy to see what games Mother Russia Bleeds is trying to emulate, the execution is somewhat of a mixed bag; but in the end Mother Russia Bleeds manages to deliver a challenging and cathartic gameplay experience.
As I mentioned before, Mother Russia Bleeds takes place in an alternate history version of the Soviet Union, where you play as one of four Roma street fighters who is kidnapped and turned into test subjects for a drug called Nekro. After escaping from the lab, you and up to three allies hit, stab, and shoot their way across the motherland to exact revenge on their imprisoners. Though your character seems extremely pissed off at being force fed Nekro, they seem totally willing to take the drug after their escape. Nekro is actually a central mechanic in the game, carried in a three slot syringe, the drug can either restore your characters health or can supercharge your attacks and speed. Nekro is collected from the corpses of certain enemies who can be identified by their green skin and convulsing dead bodies.
Before embarking on your quest for revenge, you choose one of four fighters to play as. The game gives you the standard archetypes of the medium sized fighter with balanced stats, the big slow fighter with high damage, the fast but relatively weak fighter, and, because the game needs a fourth character, another medium sized fighter with slightly different stat balancing. Having four playable characters may seem like a great way to lend the game some replayability, but unfortunately, while all of the fighters have differing stats, they have identical attack sets and dialogue through the game, which means your gameplay experience will be pretty much identical regardless of which character you choose. Despite this lack of variety, combat still manages to be delightfully chaotic; pixelated blood flies as you inflict devastating attack combos on the hordes of hobos, skinheads, cops, S&M freaks, and even Tetsuo-esque, body horror monsters. In addition to your fists and feet, the game provides plenty of bats, crowbars, knives, and guns to more efficiently dole out death. Overall the combat is fun, if a little simplistic, but it isn’t without its drawbacks; one of the main problems with Mother Russia Bleeds’ combat is that it is difficult to determine if your fighter is standing in the same lane as their intended target. This leads to a frustrating amount of your fighter’s kicks and punches missing, I realize that this is a common problem for side scrolling beat ‘em ups, but it’s also a problem that has existed since the genre’s creation and I feel like it’s high time that some clever developer figured out a solution.
My other big problem with Mother Russia Bleeds’ gameplay was with the multiplayer component. When playing with friends (or with bots for those lonely gamers) the number of enemies scales up with the number of people playing. This makes sense on paper but in practice it turns the screen into an oversaturated mess. When all four characters are in play it becomes almost impossible to keep track of your character. This problem is also compounded when any character uses Nekro to supercharge their abilities; when this occurs, the screen warps and pulsates in a hallucinogenic kaleidoscope of color, making it that much harder to keep track of what’s going on.
The story of Mother Russia Bleeds feels like a bit of a mixed bag as well. It features some of the standards of any action game set in Russia; ie. organized crime, corrupt politicians, and green jacketed revolutionaries, along with a less conventional story that teases a supernatural angle that is ultimately unsatisfying. For a game that features, among other things, a level inside a perverse S&M sex club and an evil Russian president who bangs prostitutes on screen, Mother Russia Bleeds takes itself deathly serious. It’s not that I have a problem with a serious game, it just feels totally at odds with everything else in the game; if I’m going to fight a franken-bear monster with a toilet, don’t act like it’s Uncle Vanya. It feels like a story that was written by someone who had no knowledge of what the final game would look like. In the end, the story feels like the rest of the game, lots of effort that was poorly allocated.
Mother Russia Bleeds feels like the creators wanted to make a side scrolling beat ‘em up for adults, but it ends up feeling like what a middle schooler would come up with if you asked him what their idea of a mature game would be; one that’s full of blood, sex, and drugs. While the combat is challenging and often satisfying, the lack of variety between the characters and a graphically messy multiplayer keeps Mother Russia Bleeds from being an exceptional game. Most people will find something to enjoy in Mother Russia Bleeds, but unless they’re a die hard fan of beat ‘em up games, they probably won’t be booking a trip to Moscow anytime soon.