Beat ‘em ups were once arcade staples (when arcades were the staple) that started to go out of fashion as home consoles became more powerful and the genre itself became stale. When your 20-40 cent coin/s were at stake, each play basically amounted to a form of training as you committed each level to memory in the slim-to-zero chance you’d ever complete the game. The blood-soaked alt-history brawler Mother Russia Bleeds by Le Cartel (published by Devolver Digital) is a blatant appeal to retro sensibilities with vivid pixel art and old-school gameplay, for better or worse. With retro-inspired games, their success is usually determined by how the game subverts the genre or our expectations, or how it manages to do things that simply weren’t possible 20 or so years ago. Unfortunately, Mother Russia Bleeds completely misses the mark on both points.
Thanks to Hotline Miami, we’ve become accustomed to a certain level of edginess and complexity from Devolver Digital published games, something not achieved here with Mother Russia Bleeds. Set in an alternate ’80s Soviet Russia, you play as one of four Roma street fighters on a vengeful rampage after being kidnapped by mobsters and experimented on with a drug called Nekro. Narrative takes a back seat generally to the action and only pops up as short conversations, and the times it does show up are clunky and unsatisfying. The game presents an elaborate conspiracy, a crazy drug, and a social revolution – not to mention the main characters’ quest for revenge – and yet we’re only given a whiff of story to chew on. Dialogue is passable without being memorable, it just would have been nice if it had a bit more wit or self-reflection.
When starting out gameplay is gloriously nostalgic with a current-gen sheen. Movement is fluid, and attacks carry a satisfying crunch, especially when enemies start to pile on screen. Mother Russia Bleeds’ gimmick is the Nekro drug the characters have been experimented on with that heals or sends them berserk. Nekro is refilled using your syringe on fallen enemies (so edgy), but only if their heads are still intact. It adds a little strategy in larger brawls as it requires good timing to draw the Nekro before the fallen enemies completely die while also dodging the hordes surrounding you. Fighting itself is relatively simple with a punch, kick, grab and jump button, plus a dash move, all of which can form simple combos. It doesn’t take long for the combat to get stale though as there’s only so many attacks available and combos are limited. In later levels when the screen is flooded with enemies, the best course of action tends to be jumping around doing fly-kicks (the only aerial attack available) until their numbers slowly start to thin out.
Once the initial thrill of combat wears off, all the niggly little issues start to show themselves. Enemies are knocked to the ground easily, which leaves them open only to the ground-pound attack that fixes you in place which is a pain when there’s more than a couple enemies and eventually you’re better just waiting for everyone to get up before attacking again. Dogs and other small enemies are a pain to deal with as there’s no low attack aside from ineffectual slide kicks (knocking them to the ground!) and become nightmarish in packs. There’s a good number of set-pieces with environmental elements to shake things up like oncoming trains or attack helicopters, but often they’re efforts in frustration due to a lack of telegraphing and going on far too long.
Weapons can be picked up and used by yourself or enemies and are satisfying to use, although getting destroyed by gun-wielding goons is hardly fun. You get the feeling the designers’ intentions with the huge swarms of enemies in the late game is to give you a sense of “badassery” as you cut swathes through them, but it’s mostly just annoying. Bosses are well designed in general without requiring too much thinking in terms of strategy but offer a decent challenge. A huge missed opportunity is with the 4 playable characters. They each have different stats, but their move-sets are identical and make no difference on dialogue or the story, so there’s little replayability beyond chasing high scores. There is local co-op for up to four people, and you can add a bot when tired of slogging it out alone.
One thing that can’t be faulted is the game’s vivid pixel art. Each level has a distinct feel and is wonderfully detailed with all sorts of interesting things happening in the background. While pixel art isn’t exactly cutting edge anymore, Mother Russia Bleeds does an excellent job of creating a distinctive 1980s Soviet Russia aesthetic. The slums look decapitated yet lived in, the Nekro lab is gruesome, and the world of the Soviet elite is decadent and despicable. There’s a good variety of enemies (that get pallet swaps) that are usually distinctive to each level but by the end are just rehashes from earlier levels. As they cop a beating their visibly becomes bloodier and disfigured, which is a nice touch, but not much extra effort was put into deaths or execution moves (there’s one). Loading screens are an unfortunate issue in how often they appear and how long they take for such a low-fi game, as it really breaks the flow of the game.
One of the things we like to gloss over in our rose-tinted memories of time spent in the arcade is how frustrating those games were. They kicked your arse and took your cash, taunting you with the dreaded “Continue?” countdown. They were hard, sure, but not always fair. This is why I always hope retro-inspired games try to take what we knew and make it awesome, rather than aping the past – faults and all. Mother Russia Bleeds carries the faults of the past and makes me wish Le Cartel had put more effort into creating more complex gameplay, to at least match the fantastic art style.