Painting the Motherland red
When it comes to video games, few genres can match the simple satisfaction that a good beat-’em-up provides. Since developer Technos Japan first introduced the Brothers Lee as they punched and kicked their way through a murderous metropolis to rescue their beloved Marian in Double Dragon back in 1987, players have taken great pleasure in cracking the skulls of countless punks with lead pipes and sending deranged criminal masterminds to their bloody demise for nearly three decades. And while the side-scrolling slugfest hasn’t enjoyed quite the same popularity that it did in the glory days of 2D gaming, many of us who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s have been clamoring for the genre to make a comeback.
Thankfully, the fine folks at France-based Le Cartel Studio and Devolver Digital have answered the call with Mother Russia Bleeds, a brutal trip down memory lane that’s bound to make any armchair back alley brawler’s knuckles burn with nostalgia.
Best described as a bloody cocktail of Streets of Rage and Hotline Miami, Mother Russia Bleeds is set in a grim version of The Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Players take take control of a fearsome foursome of gypsy street fighters who’ve been kidnapped by Russian mobsters and pumped full of an experimental drug called Nekro, which gives its users tremendous strength in exchange for their sanity. After fighting their way out of a secret prison that’s being used to test the drug by using Russia’s less fortunate citizens as unwitting guinea pigs, the game’s pugilistic protagonists embark on a bloody fight for revenge that takes them on a tour through Russia’s seedy criminal underbelly to the corrupt heart of the Kremlin itself.
It’s a cool premise, and the backdrop of the superpower on the brink of collapse serves as fertile soil for a story that is surprisingly interesting for a beat ’em up. That’s not to say the game’s furious fisticuffs are propped up by a Shakespearean narrative, but the sordid setting of a country caught in the stranglehold of corruption and mob influence is a great excuse to do your civic duty hitting the streets to crush some commie noggins. If you liked the way the story was told in the Hotline Miami games, you’ll find Mother Russia Bleeds‘ storytelling is very similar in its delivery, offering a compelling blend of psychedelic surrealism and raw thrills that will keep you glued to your controller from start to finish.
Of course, the pelmeni and potatoes of Mother Russia Bleeds‘ punch-drunk package is the story mode, which challenges one to four players to right their way through 8 stages teeming with bloodthirsty mobsters, crooked Soviet soldiers, and ruthless bosses who would like nothing more than have your heroes slurping borscht through a straw. This may be developer Le Cartel’s first rodeo, but you’d never guess it after spending five minutes with the game. The studio has really managed to hit all the right notes, crafting a fighting engine that feels tight and responsive as you punch, kick, and horribly maim your opponents in increasingly sadistic ways. That’s right, the Russian mob doesn’t take any prisoners, and neither should you. Thankfully, each stage provides you a smorgasbord of messy ways to dispatch your foes, including such tried and true genre staples as baseball bats, lead pipes and swords. And if those aren’t enough for you, you’ll also find plenty of more exotic tools of destruction, like chainsaws, shotguns, and massive rolling meat grinders to get the job done.
Some stages switch up the formula in pretty interesting ways. While hurtling across the country on a train, you’ll be forced to keep a radio out of the hands of dozens of goons who are attempting to call for help. Another stage has you outwitting an unrelenting attack chopper in order to clear out an army of goons who would otherwise make short work of the player. These are just a few examples of ways the game consistently spices up the moment to moment action, and they do a great job of keeping the action fresh and exciting.
As mentioned before, each of the game’s four playable characters have been unwitting test subjects for a drug called Nekro, and this bad habit comes into play heavily throughout the game’s roughly four-hour campaign. Stabbing yourself with a syringe and taking a dose of this nasty narcotic will put you into an overdrive mode, where you’ll move faster and hit much harder, allowing you to wipe out massive waves of hoodlums with little effort for a limited time. While you’re in this heightened state of awareness you can even unleash single-button fatalities, which completely eviscerate one target, but will bring your bad trip to a grinding halt. These attacks are as stylish as they are sadistic, packing more pulpy red pixels than a 24-hour Gallagher Marathon. That said, squeamish gamers may want to look away when Ivan crushes his victim’s head between his hands like an overly ripe melon with his flashy finisher, or when Boris shatters his victim’s spine over his knee like a twig. Oftentimes the best strategy for success is to carefully conserve your Nekro, using it when the going gets tough and then quickly rushing to any convulsing enemies on the ground, who can have their own Nekro siphoned out for later use. While this isn’t the most sanitary way to supercharge yourself, the enemies pack a serious punch in Mother Russia Bleeds, so we’re not about to judge.
Completing stages in the game’s main campaign makes them available in the Survival Mode. It’s here that our heroes return to their pit fighting roots and take on increasingly challenging waves of attackers. This mode offers a serious challenge, as players only have one life to progress as far as they can, and you’ll quickly find yourself burning through your supply of Nekro in an effort to beat back the advancing hordes of hoodlums. Completing ten waves unlocks new drugs as well, which can also be used in the game’s story mode to help even the odds. Of course, all beat ’em ups need a Boss Rush Mode, and Mother Russia Bleeds delivers on this front, allowing you to test your mettle on the game’s varied cast of challenging bosses in a battle that’s bound to test your endurance.
Publisher Devolver Digital has never shied away from publishing games that push the envelope when it comes to edgy content, and Mother Russia Bleeds is no exception, effectively turning the dial to eleven. It’s stylish, vulgar, and unapologetically visceral. As you pummel your foes, the damage you inflict on the faces of your victims will become more and more visible, until they eventually look like sentient hamburger. Limbs and heads roll across the floor, and naked, tattooed mobsters are never too shy for a fistfight. One stage set inside the bowels of a Bratva controlled night club introduced me to a leather daddy who eagerly became my attack dog, siccing and maiming and bondage harness-clad thugs who got in my way as naked dancers proudly swayed their massive commie schlongs to the beat of harsh electronic music. It’s bizarre. It’s crude. And it’s downright glorious.
Speaking of music, Mother Russia Bleeds‘ mix of harsh synths and pounding bass is a perfect fit for the on-screen action. Each stage’s theme sets the mood for each bloodbath, and is sure to please any fans of Devolver’s work on the Hotline Miami soundtrack and electronic music in general. Thankfully, snatching up your copy of the game will score you a copy of the digital soundtrack, allowing you to blare these brutal beats long after you’ve finished cleaning up Russia’s grimy streets of mob influence.
As a product of the eighties, I certainly have a soft spot for the beat ’em ups, and I’m happy to report that Le Cartel’s debut release is one of the best ones I’ve played in my nearly thirty year love affair with the genre. It’s a bone-breaking homage to such classics as Final Fight and Streets of Rage that’s guaranteed to both shock and entertain. Whether you’re diving in solo or teaming up with friends or paint Russia red, Mother Russia Bleeds is a damn good time, and a masterclass brawler that deserves a spot in your library.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PC (reviewed), PlayStation 4 ; Publisher: Devolver Digital ; Developer: Le Cartel Studio ; Players: 1-4 ; Released: September 6, 2016 (PC) PS4 release date TBA ; MSRP: $14.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on review copy given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.