Mother Russia Bleeds is the game I wished for some thirteen years ago. In a gaming landscape that felt too safe, too neutered, where enemies bled green blood, plots were twisted so heroes were fighting robots or aliens instead of killing fellow human beings, and where even the bad boys like GTA merely hinted at sex, I pined for adult comic book levels of gore and sexual excess. Well, Mother Russia Bleeds is here and is that game, albeit a bit late. But it turns out that, as cool as gore and sex are, this game proves they can be overdone.
But let’s go back a bit, because Mother Russia Bleeds also goes for another of my fantasies: a revival of the old 90s 2D beat’em all, in the veins of Capcom’s Final Fight and SEGA’s Streets of Rage. There games are still much loved, and returning to the genre via a modernized version is a thrilling proposal. Mother Russia Bleeds has the basics mostly down, and succeeds in giving the genre a much needed mechanical update, but seems to lack spirit, as if the developers were ticking genre boxes without really understanding what was their purpose.
There are four fighters to choose from, covering the whole gamut of the strength/speed spectrum, but for the most part their move-sets feel similar, and the stat differences aren’t palpable enough. Too many attacks feel weightless. In the classics, throwing a single punch felt satisfying. Here, some moves feel quite visceral, while others you barely feel connect.
Checkpoints, in the meantime, are generous and restarts are infinite, but if you have to stop playing and shutdown the system, you’ll have to restart the level from the beginning. It’s telling, then, that having to go through this feels like a chore.
It’s not that the combat system is not good. Mother Russia Bleeds has probably one of the most nuanced and complete combat systems in the genre. From air grabs to catching projectiles as they are thrown at you, to judicious use of charge attacks, there is a great toolset here for the player to enjoy, and the designers consistently engender scenarios and boss fights where the player is challenged with making the most out of said toolset. The odd firearm feels threatening in the enemy’s hands and powerful in our own. Environmental hazards can be beautifully turned against our foes. So why does it seem to lack the appeal of the classics of the genre?
It turns out that it’s a matter of tone. There’s only so much you can do with the mechanics of a 2D side-scrolling beat’em all, but games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Streets of Rage were a joyous, colorful experiences. They might have been about kicking people in the head, or about breaking baseball bats on their backs, but it was mostly comic book violence, punctuated by the silliness of street thugs with neon pink Mohawks dropping a cooked chicken with their last breath, which you would consume to top up your health.
In Mother Russia Bleeds, sometimes enemies have seizures before dying, at which point your character can stick them with a syringe to draw whatever amount of Nekro, the most popular drug around, from their failing hearts, storing it in their reservatory to shoot themselves up later for a Health top-up or a few seconds of screen-clearing berserk rage — considerably grimmer business than a discarded chicken leg.
It’s a grim world and a grim game throughout. Starting from beating up zombie-like drug addicts in sewers, you’ll eventually end up at a nightclub with a BDSM theme. There will be penises in the background, sometimes being hit by riding crops. At one point you will see a naked woman tied upside down to a pole, while you’re being assaulted by overweight half-naked dominatrices wearing pig masks, their sloppy breasts waggling with each attack. Your character will soon puke on the floor and halucinante the kind of fleshy hell that would be at home in a 2D version of Silent Hill.
While part of me wants to applaud the developer for bucking the usual politically correct trend and dumping loads of potentially shocking imagery into the game, in the end it all feels rather pointless. Much like the combat system, all of the edgy themes soon leave you numb. Games like Hotline Miami use extreme violence as punctuation; it opens and closes the gameplay loop. Here, while the violence indubitably extends to the combat, it all too often feels like like mere background.
By the time the game tries to pull the classic “he was just one day away from retirement” joke, it’s halfway through the game. You arrive at the aforementioned nightclub as one of the bouncers says to the other how he’s going to quit tomorrow to spend more time with his daughter. Seconds later, it’s not fun when I cut his throat open with a broken wine bottle, nor is it shocking, and neither does it make me wonder who is the real villain here. It was just one more step in a bleak, spirit-sapping journey.
For all its mechanical richness, for all its exquisitely crafted showcases of gore and lewdness, Mother Russia Bleeds rarely managed to push the buttons that had me feel anything other than numbness. Despite deeply appreciating it on a visual level (the soundtrack, in the meantime, is terribly forgettable), I found myself decreasing the difficulty not because I felt overly challenged, but mostly because I wanted it to be over faster.
Perhaps someone else will appreciate its unrelenting bleakness, but for me, Mother Russia bled a bit too much.
Mother Russia Bleeds was reviewed on PC (Windows) with a copy provided by the publisher.
Developer: The Cartel | Publisher: Devolver Digital | Genre: Beat’em All | Platform: PC (Windows/OSX/Linux), PS4 | PEGI/ESRB: N/A (but you probably don’t want to let your kids play it) | Release Date: September 5, 2016 (PC), TBA 2016 (PS4)