When I was younger, I thought that the Beat 'Em Up genre was always a bit strange. How come Mike Haggar doesn't send some teeth flying when he slams a metal pipe into somebody's cheek? Where was the blood when Terry Bogard nailed someone with a Crack Shoot? Even though I loved the games, I couldn't help but think that these games about street violence surprisingly lacked in the violence department. In just one title, Le Cartel's Mother Russia Bleeds has made up for that lack of carnage — and then some. But more than that, it's proven itself to be an immensely enjoyable Beat 'Em Up in its own right.
Mother Russia Bleeds is a game that, as its title suggests, is set in a brutal reimagining of the USSR circa 1984. Revolution is brewing, crime is on the rise, and the government is hard at work on a mysterious drug known as Nekro. After troopers raid our protagonist's humble camp and kidnap them, they find themselves waking up in a strange cell, guarded by even stranger men. From there on out the game becomes an exercise in brutal revenge, with our antiheroes plowing their way through anyone that stands between them and the men who took their lives away.
I feel the word 'gritty' gets thrown around a bit too much these days but make no mistake, Mother Russia Bleeds is as gritty as they come. While playing the game I couldn't help but think of movies like Grindhouse or Garth Ennis comic books — there's just this never-ending aurora of unpleasantness in everything from the character designs to the use of dangerous drugs as one of the main gameplay hooks. It builds its entire aesthetic around brutality and over the top sadism in a way I haven't seen a lot of games do before. It's also the only game where I've had trouble getting good screenshots for the review because of the featured full frontal nudity, so take that as you will.
The harshness of the setting and story is perfectly tied together by the title's sublime presentation. The soundtrack consists of various blood-pumping synthwave tunes by Fixions, while every hit is exemplified by meaty thwacks! that really drive home the power of the punches and kicks. Of course, the punches and kicks themselves are wonderfully done, and while the sprites may be a tad on the simple side compared to some of the game's obvious influences (Streets of Rage, Fatal Fury, Final Fight), the addition of motion blur with every attack covered up for a low detail while also enhancing the perceived impact and speed of the hit.
While the attacks sure look flashy, they're actually quite standard when you get down to it. You have your standard trifecta of punches, kicks, and throws that you can augment by holding down the punch button for a heavier hit. Of course, you also have weapons scattered about the level to pick up and use, each of which having unique designs that take full advantage of the settings - from ceremonial swords in a penthouse to signs at a violent protest. Of course, you can also get your hands on all sorts of firearms, and each of them can turn even the toughest foes' head into a bloody stump.
But the real hook here is the Nekro itself, which acts as both a super mode and your only method of healing. This puts players in an interesting position, where there's always a need to carefully budget your resources. Thankfully, certain Nekro-addled enemies will begin to convulse upon defeat, and that allows you to literally suck the drug out of their veins and into your supply - that is, as long as you have enough time to safely extract it. The Nekro use also ties into the story of Mother Russia Bleeds, and the ending changes depending on how liberally you use the dangerous and addictive substance.
As to be expected, Mother Russia Bleeds supports four-player co-op play for each of the four characters, but I never got the opportunity to give it a whirl. Thankfully, Le Cartel saw this coming, and you can actually create bots to help you out. While they can be a bit simple minded at times, their presence was still greatly appreciated and helped add another level of mayhem to the experience. While I would've preferred online play, this isn't a bad solution to my crippling loneliness either.
While many Beat Em Ups can get a tad formulaic, Mother Russia Bleeds constantly finds new gimmicks to throw into the mix and keep you on your toes. Throughout my time in the drug-addeled USSR, I escorted prisoners, dodged helicopter gunfire, and threw grenades into an approaching squad of riot officers. It's that kind of ingenuity that keeps the admittedly simple gameplay from ever getting stale, and I was consistently excited to see what levels had to throw my way.
However, if one thing was consistent between the levels, it would be that each stage ends with a tough-as-nails boss fight that showcases a rather dramatic step up in difficulty. While I had relatively little trouble getting through the actual stages, bosses would thoroughly wreck me multiple times, and I only managed to do well on my first go on just a single boss. However, I never found myself frustrated with dying, and genuinely found myself pumping my fist in triumph after spending thirty minutes toppling the game's brilliant final boss.
When you get down to it, Mother Russia Bleeds is hardly the most inventive game in the world. Rather, Le Cartel takes the strong foundation built by Capcom, SNK, and SEGA, polishes it for a modern age, drenches it in a thick coat of blood and guts. It may not the most original game of 2016, but it has taken me on a bloody ride I don't think I'll ever forget.
Mother Russia Bleeds was reviewed on Steam with a copy provided by the developer. It is also available on PlayStation 4.
An exercise in brilliant simplicity, Mother Russia Bleeds takes you on a thrilling and depraved ride through the USSR.