After growing up in the 90s and enjoying the likes of Streets of Rage, Golden Axe and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade games, I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for side-scrolling beat ‘em ups. You don’t see so many releases in the genre these days, but when one comes along I always like to give it a try. Somehow though, I missed out on Devolver Digital’s Mother Russia Bleeds when it first launched back in 2016. It’s been on my radar, but there has always seemed to be something else to play instead. Fortunately, it’s just released on the Nintendo Switch so I’ve finally got to play through the ultra-violent side-scrolling beat ‘em up and it feels like a real blast to the past – albeit one that full of blood, guts and drugs.
Mother Russia Bleeds puts you in the worn shoes of one of four prisoners of an alternate USSR, with the government and its police force all supporting a new drug known as ‘Nekro’. After being experimented on and abused whilst imprisoned, you break free with one goal in mind: to bring down the government and anyone else associated with ‘Nekro’. It’s a grim and hate-fuelled quest, but it’s one that’ll provide plenty of motivation for the violent escapade than ensues.
Gameplay-wise, you’re getting exactly what you’d expect from a side-scrolling beat ‘em up: a bunch of levels to get through that are full of enemies to beat down. Fortunately, these beat downs are easy to dish out, with the player able to mix together weak and strong attacks together into a variety of combos. You’ve also got charged attacks at hand for when you need to give someone a bigger hit, whilst you can even spam jumping attacks if that’s how you roll (it used to work in Streets of Rage).
There’s a choice of four characters to play as, thought they all feel the same to use. The only differences come with their appearances and stats, with the move set of each one never really changing up – some are just stronger or more resilient than others, so you can use that as a guideline when picking a character that’ll suit your playstyle.
It’s worth mentioning that you’ll have a ton of different weapons at your disposal too (which can either be used for beat downs or launched at an opponent’s skull), whilst you’re also equipped with special drugs than be used to either give you a powerful boost to kill foes with ease or simply replenish your health – either way, they’re a good way to get you out of some sticky situations. You have a limited amount of doses available to you so you can’t use them carelessly, though you can replenish them by draining the drug from the corpses of your foes… sounds pleasant, right? It might all sound a little grim, but it does add a bit more depth to what is otherwise a fairly simple combat experience.
That simplicity can work against Mother Russia Bleeds though, with it often making the game feel a little repetitive at times.Sure, it’s the nature of the beast with these 90s style side-scrolling brawlers, but a lot of players expect more these days. You shouldn’t expect too much variety when working through levels, with set-pieces themselves low in count and enemies not offering a whole lot of variety in their fighting styles -the boss battles do add something a little different, but besides those there’s a lack of diversity to be found. There’s just very little here to make the game really stand out as a unique entry in the genre from a gameplay perspective.
That’s not to say it’s bad though, because it really isn’t. In fact, I had a lot of fun playing through Mother Russia Bleeds – it’s just that I’ve just come to expect a little bit more from the genre over the years. At least there’s the ‘Arena’ which acts as a survival mode to take on countless enemies and, of course, there’s the multiplayer mode which adds a bit more excitement to the experience.
Much like most side-scrolling beat ‘em ups, Mother Russia Bleeds is at its best when played with friends. You can team up with up to three other players to take down the enemy forces, and honestly, it’s an absolute blast with the multiplayer element actually adding a more tactical edge to some gameplay sequences seeing as you can plot out how to lure and attack each mob of enemies. There’s only local multiplayer available which is a bit of a shame, though the over-the-top nature of the game and its extreme violence offers the sort of experience that’s more appreciated when you can see the reactions of everyone around you – even if most of those reactions will be laughter at just how bloody gross the game can be.
In an interesting twist, you can actually have the AI control allies if you’re playing solo and want a bit of extra support. I’ve trudged through countless titles in the genre like Streets of Rage and Golden Axe in the past and an extra pair of hands would’ve been useful when taking down the likes of Mr. X or Death Adder, so the fact Mother Russia Bleeds allows that without having to have friends around is nice. Sure, the AI isn’t the smartest you’ll find, but it’s still a neat touch.
Visually, Mother Russia Bleeds looks the part thanks to some impressive pixel art, with the well-designed environments doing a great job of making me feel like I’m exploring this bleak dystopian setting. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing pretty to see, but you will really feel like you’re a part of some grindhouse movie where you don’t know what seedy or violent sight you’ll see next.
The character sprites aren’t quite so good, with each one having this murky and less-detailed look to them. There’s nothing bad and I think a lot of it is intentional in design, but there’s definitely a disparity in the quality of the characters and the world they’re a part of. Still, you won’t really notice when they’re in a bloody and gore-filled heap on the floor. I mentioned Mother Russia Bleeds is pretty violent, right? Well, the team at Le Cartel certainly didn’t spare the detail in portraying that in-game, and you can expect to see levels fill up with the gross remains of your slain foes. If you don’t like that sort of thing you’ll want to steer clear, but those who don’t mind a bit of blood and guts (myself included) will certainly be impressed by how much of it is actually on display in each level.
Mother Russia Bleeds offers an enjoyable side-scrolling beat ‘em up experience with its ultra-violent take on the genre, whilst the world itself is impressively designed to make me really feel like I was a part of this drug-fuelled and worn down world. Add to that a really fun co-operative multiplayer component, and it’s easy to find yourself losing hours as you beat down your enemies in this alternate USSR.
Whilst enjoyable to play though, Mother Russia Bleeds is a little guilty of feeling repetitive at times with a lack of set pieces and variety in its combat holding it back. There’s not much there to return for once you’ve beat the game either, with the ‘Arena’ survival mode proving enjoyable but lacking the rewards to keep you coming back for more.
Still, those who loved the side-scrolling beat ‘em ups of the 90s will certainly have a lot of fun with Mother Russia Bleeds and will enjoy beating down their enemies in the abundance of violent ways that the game offers. Just don’t expect to see anything here that you wouldn’t have enjoyed before all those years ago.
Developer: Le Cartel
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, PC, Mac, Linux