Wot I Think: Mother Russia Bleeds

Living as we do, deep in the Age of Nostalgia, it’s easy to see why an old-school beat-em-up would appear out of the blue, complete with all the classic features – waves of enemies, four player co-op, destructible cars, weapons to pick up and throw at the bad guys. But, despite adding a few tweaks to the formula, Mother Russia Bleeds [official site] sticks so closely to the game design of the arcade that it also replicates all the obvious mistakes. It’s less a reimagining of the left-to-right brawler than an outright resurrection. But this is just wot I think.

You begin the game as a brawler in a fighting pit. Soon, a well-armed troop of goons comes to shut you down – servants of Russia’s mafia government. You wake up in a cell, addicted to a sickly green drug called Nekro, and break out to wreak havoc on every bad guy who gets in the way of your rightward march, while also suffering mysterious visions. You can use Nekro to heal yourself or send yourself into a superpowered frenzy. If one of your enemies goes into a dying spasm, you can harvest some Nekro from their body (green-skinned baddies will refill your needle entirely). In co-op mode you can also revive your buddy by popping your needle into them.

Fighting-wise, the controls are fairly straightforward. Punch, kick, grab, throw, uppercut, dodge and jump your way through the hordes. Combining the dodge button with others results in some more complex moves, such as slide-takling or a speedy grab, while holding down punch eventually offers a forceful mega-punch. Weapons sometimes come along – one-hit-kill knives, baseball bats, chairs, even guns and grenades come out in later levels.

Getting to know all the possible combos and follow-ups takes a couple of levels. It feels good to grapple with a blocking opponent and throw him into a vicious guard dog, for instance, knowing that’s the best way to deal with both of them. But coming to terms with the fighting style doesn’t feel like you’re learning a game, it feels like you’re re-learning a whole type of game. While there’s a part of me that enjoyed putting my fist through the heads of naked junkies and breaking down walls with a sledgehammer, there’s also a part of me that questions the validity of bringing back an archaic genre which was designed to kill you unfairly in order to elicit another handful of quarters.

Not that this outing published by ultraviolence connoisseurs Devolver is as sinful as the beat-em-ups of old. You have a choice of difficulty levels and, even if you don’t have a friend to go breaking ribs with, you can still add an effective bot (or three) to help you out. The checkpointing system is much more forgiving than the classics, even if it does sometimes put cutscenes before frustrating boss fights or tough sequences.

In fact, the presence of any cutscenes at all is a bizarre choice. On surface level, here is a game about putting your boot through the faces of multiple guards, flipping a homeless man over your shoulder and pulling a drug addict to the ground before pummelling his head until his brain spills out. Why in God’s name would it need so much po-faced exposition? I had the same problem with Hotline Miami in that I wish the creators had just dispensed with the plot altogether.

In this fighting nightmare, people will start speaking in square text bubbles about drugs or the revolution or gypsies or beer and you can’t help but skip through the dialogue immediately. There’s no humour or character to any of it and there’s something half-hearted about the way enemies will get into a conversation with you, or make heavy-handed sexual advances towards bystanding women, in a way that often feels as dated as the beat-em-up format itself.

Which brings up another concern, albeit one which will depend heavily on how strong your stomach is, or how bored by violence you are. The gore and guts philosophy behind a lot of Devolver’s games has often run alongside interesting design decisions. The blood-spattered artistry of Hotline Miami, Broforce and Shadow Warrior co-exist with games that feel instinctively good to play, the speed and urgency of your character being complimented by a violent nature and the red smears you can create feed into that.

But with Mother Russia Bleeds, all the irritations of the genre remain – the inability to hit someone if you are not on the exact ‘plane’ as them, overpowered enemies with ranged weapons, thugs that require countless strikes to kill. I have never enjoyed encountering bullet sponges in a shooter, why would I ever want to come up against punch sponges?

It’s not that the violent artwork isn’t to my taste. On the contrary, I quite like the grotesque faces, the twisted bodies of this Russia, the green, toothless addicts, the way your own character pants heavily and holds their head when at low health, as if going crazy with pain, or the way they vomit after they run out of Nekro. As far as pixellated art goes, I think it looks damn good. You can almost smell the stink of the streets and the train carriages. But the art seems to be taking centre stage, while the controls and design are relegated to being a shrugging rehash of the arcade era. It’s ultraviolence as the main ingredient, instead of a sauce.

And this illuminates a deepening problem for Devolver, who seem to love finding bits of brain and skull in their dinner. I understand that the developers for these games vary wildly, but as a publisher they have stocked up so dutifully on games with a violent theme that they risk becoming a parody of themselves.

I don’t want to be too damning about it, however. To the game’s credit, it does bring variety to each level. In one sequence you have to prevent enemies from picking up a walkie-talkie (so they don’t alert their superiors? I don’t know, I skipped the dialogue). And this forces you to become evasive and slippery, instead of laying into the bad guys as usual. Another boss fight takes place on a pair of train tracks, prompting you to dodge from one to the other anytime you see the tremors of an oncoming train. At the same time, you have to throw flashbangs at the boss in an effort to stun him before the train comes.

There’s a particularly chaotic riot sequence which sees you battling through two opposing forces – prisoners and guards – picking up whole toilets thrown from the cells above and using them to crush the bodies of those around you. Other weapons that come up later include chainsaws, telegraph poles, batons, glass bottles, AK-47s, pistols, tasers, poison syringes and countless others. It’s hectic, it’s well-presented and it’s bloodier than an abattoir. If it had been released in the arcades of the late-eighties, Mother Russia Bleeds would have been both a phenomenal beat-em-up and the subject of multiple TV news panics in the United States.

But it isn’t the late-eighties. It’s today. If you’re the kind of person who wishes it still was the eighties and likes the idea of revisiting a button-mashing romp, warts and all, you’ll find a lot to like about this one. But even so, you might find it wearing thin after a while. After all, even the Age of Nostalgia must come to an end.

Mother Russia Bleeds is out now for Windows, Mac and Linux, and is available on Steam, Humble Store and gog.

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54 Comments

  1. Stevostin says:

    “I had the same problem with Hotline Miami in that I wish the creators had just dispensed with the plot altogether.”

    I would never have played HM without the story. Overlooking it seems especially wrong for that game, which strongest assets is how intricate with what the player actually do and her/his motivations as a player are that story is.

    Replace the right writing (HL1) by the wrong one (HL2) and here’s a game I couldn’t play very long. Even so HL2’s gameplay is clearly improved over HL1.

  2. ButteringSundays says:

    Watching some gameplay the Nekro mechanic just seems to break the flow (stopping to harvest etc.) – how does that feel when actually playing the game? Seems like it could have been streamlined a tad, or even entirely automated to some extent.

    • blainestereo says:

      The way it works is you have a set amount of time to harvest your murder juice before the convulsing enemy expires and the rest of the baddies aren’t going anywhere. So you have to make yourself a little time, weigh risk vs reward etc. Flow wise it works all right, not that this game has such a wonderful sense of flow in the first place.

    • KevinLew says:

      Actually, the Nekro mechanic is designed to reward high-skill players. If you notice, there’s no food/medical kits in the game, just Nekro. It’s meant to be hard to obtain. The game wants to teach a skilled player that they will have to harvest it in mid-battle, when there’s enemies still on the screen.

      I’m not saying that I like it, but it is very clearly a core design principle of the game.

  3. Kefren says:

    “in order to illicit another handful of quarters”

    In my day they _elicited_ 10p coins, none of this “quarter” nonsense. Then Afterburner came along and it was £1 a go. Pah. Just to feel nauseous and bruised as the machine rocked you about.

  4. Wurzel says:

    I’m quite a fan of violent brawlers in the Devolver mould, but I read and it was a bit… much for me. Particularly this section: link to pbs.twimg.com

    “It’s part of the scenario of the game,” Cassar told me when I inquired about the setting. “All characters will have to travel different places because they’re searching for the man responsible for their experience. We choose different places like homo dark club, prison, dark streets because it’s about the ambience of the game.”

    As we approached the level’s end, new characters began to appear: heavyset figures with large, exposed breasts, dressed in tiny undergarments and animal masks. When I asked if they were transgender characters, Cassar replied, “That’s why they have tits.”

  5. HeavyStorm says:

    I get what you are saying: no need for such a game since we have Little Fighter 2.

    • cablechip says:

      Hah, I was thinking that exectly!

      So many lunch breaks in high school spent playing LF2…

    • Zankman says:

      +1, main reasons I even came to the comment section this time around.

      Excellent little (hm) game, always had loads of fun with it, be it alone or with friends.

  6. PikaBot says:

    The side-scrolling beat-em-up is a game design that should be retired for good. They’re designed to be unfair and shitty so as to squeeze more quarters out of you.

    • Sin Vega says:

      I disagree. The genre has loads of potential, and there’s a reason everyone loved Streets of Rage – it was FUN. But then it started getting bullshit because it just wanted to wring money out of you.

      There’s absolutely no reason they can’t be done today but with the shitty bits taken out. What you suggest is like shutting down racers or the FPS because light gun arcade games were a con.

      • PikaBot says:

        Was it really fun? Or was it just exciting having coins on the line?

        Beat-em-ups are coin eaters in their purest form (apart from Dragon’s Lair, I guess). They just don’t make sense outside of the arcade walls. If you were to remix the genre such that you removed all the shittyness, you will have created something so different that it’s in another genre entirely; much like how FPS games only bear a passing resemblance to arcade light gun titles.

        • Sin Vega says:

          Was it really fun? Or was it just exciting having coins on the line?

          No, it was really fun, which is why we played them on the Mega Drive more often than not. Also I can remember several occasions where a complete stranger put a huge pile of money into a four player machine and let me and some other random kids play all the way to the end with effectively unlimited continues. 80s/early 90s arcade culture was a strange and often lovely thing for a kid, and not unrelatedly the games were vastly cheaper than the frankly insulting ones that became the norm by the end of the decade.

          I was actually pretty savvy with my coins in the arcade. If something ate my money I wasn’t likely to get more, so steering well clear of the mercenary ones was second nature. Although apparently when we were on holiday when I was three I put a coin in a fruit machine and won 8000 pesetas. I’m not sure if that was the same holiday where some random guys I’d befriended had converted a pool table into a ping pong one by using me as the net and charging me with keeping the score, but yeah. Arcades were weird.

        • Sin Vega says:

          Also I’m baffled by the idea that the only appeal of beat ’em ups was … that they rinsed your wallet? What? Punching dudes in the face has been a cornerstone of human culture for tens of thousands of years. Are you drunk?

        • Zankman says:

          The only beat-em up I ever really, truly played was Little Fighter 2, TMNT: Turtles In Time and Castle Crashers.

          The first is a freeware game, the second I played in a SNES emulator and the final is a full, bought game.

          I have played all three numerous times, especially LF2, both alone and with friends…

          All were fun, due to the challenge, excitement and progression.

        • AyeBraine says:

          I think I’ve never played side scrolling beat em ups for coins, being from Mother Russia. I was acquainted with them via DIY home computers of programmer nerds, home consoles, and weirdly via pay-to-play PCs in some very early clubs (but there you paid for time, not continues). Arcades, during their short life here, were kinda out of my reach financial-wise.

          I’m not sure beat ’em ups deserve reviving that much, but I also remember enjoying Golden Axe. And the thing I enjoyed the most was the single fact: I controlled a moving dude who needed to maneuver in 2.5 dimensions and slice other dudes in a spectacular fashion (even cutscenes were there, in the form of short transition animations for bosses and such). I guess it worked fine. The point is, I disagree about putting away flat beat ’em ups for good. It’s a weird and fun approximation with a refreshing amount of detachment from confusing, auto-locking world of full 3D.

      • Beefsurgeon says:

        I think Rampage Knights does a great job of combining beat ’em up mechanics with a more contemporary design sensibility.

    • Turkey says:

      I dunno. If you combo brawlers with RPG mechanics it can be quite good.

    • MrUnimport says:

      I have no interest in beat ’em ups but I’d like to point out that the exact same could be said of that most venerable of arcade genres, the shoot ’em up.

  7. RaoulDuke says:

    “But it isn’t the late-eighties. It’s today. If you’re the kind of person who wishes it still was the eighties and likes the idea of revisiting a button-mashing romp, warts and all, you’ll find a lot to like about this one. But even so, you might find it wearing thin after a while. After all, even the Age of Nostalgia must come to an end.”

    I don’t really understand this sentiment, are you implying that ultimately people won’t gain entertainment from ultra-violence/exploitation in the future? Or 2D side-scrolling, beat’em ups [with the design flaws you attribute to the genre] won’t satisfy?

    I don’t know if it would be what it is if it did aspire to having better dialogue or less exploitative depictions of men/women, I don’t think I would like it more if it did either, it would just be an impediment to what its trying to do – shock/disgust you – that is.

  8. sicanshu says:

    Can I ask, and please don’t take this as criticism, but how do games writers decide which games to review? Because it seems like this one has attracted an awful lot of buzz for being, well, not all that interesting a concept. “Retro 2D fightscroller: now with bloodspray!” I mean, I get that Devolver is kind of a big deal in PC Gaming ever since Hotline Miami, and that 80s arcade nostalgia sells, but are those the only reasons this one seems to have attracted so much attention?

    • Sin Vega says:

      I can’t speak for RPS, but I’d have been curious just because it’s a side-scrolling facepuncher, a genre oddly neglected given how relatively simple and crowd-pleasing they are, and how fashionable nostalgia is in games lately. As for buzz, er, well, until yesterday I don’t think I even knew it existed, so.

      • Archonsod says:

        I don’t think they’re neglected, they just went 3D like everyone else. Quite a lot of what we today describe as ‘third person ARPG / Adventure’ are pretty much the same things, just a different perspective (most obviously the Dynasty Warriors series and associated spin offs, though you can also see similar sensibilities in Dark Souls, the modern Batman games et al).
        I suspect the main problem with resurrecting it is the same that tends to hit the gallery style shooters (though I wouldn’t be surprised if they see a renaissance on VR), even if it happens to be a well designed and otherwise good game once the nostalgia factor wears off one tends to have a niggling feeling that there’s something missing.

      • sicanshu says:

        I guess that’s fair enough. The genre doesn’t strike me as particularly neglected, but I’m willing to admit you know more about it than me. I just think it’s weird that this particular game has been reviewed by so many different places (hell, even the Onion’s AV Club posted a review), while other games that seem at least as interesting fly totally under the radar.

        • Sin Vega says:

          Oh I’m sure there are more interesting games out there. I think you can drive yourself mad trying to fathom what arcane forces are behind some games getting all the attention and other just as deserving ones going unnoticed. It’s just one of those things.

    • ButteringSundays says:

      “… Devolver is kind of a big deal in PC Gaming ever since Hotline Miami, and that 80s arcade nostalgia sells …”

  9. michael.neirinckx says:

    I can see what you’re saying on the limitations of the genre. But of all the retro genres that have been rehashed countless times over the past few years, side scrolling beat em ups remained dormant. These games are very few and far between, so for fans of the genre (like myself), a well made beat em up is music to my ears. And speaking of music, how is the music in the game? That is a critical factor for me – Streets of Rage 1 and 2 remain some of my all time favorite games and part of the reason is the groundbreaking (at the time) quasi techno and house tunes. These games are just mindless fun.

  10. noodlecake says:

    I started seeing some gameplay videos of this emerge on youtube recently and I really like melee combat games but this didn’t appear to build on the old Streets of Rage formula very much at all. In 2016 I think there needs to be something extra!

    Death Road to Canada has a even more stripped down combat system that is slightly similar to games like Streets of Rage but it feels deeper because it’s built into the Oregon Trail and your choices are directly reflected in the characters attributes in the mini games… And despite the simple mechanics it’s probably the only game I’ve ever played that gets zombies right. Slow, shambling and fairly easy to dispatch to the point where you forget they’re even a threat until you get too greedy and get yourself cornered by a giant mob trying to loot a room full of goodies.

    So yeah. I think in 2016 a game like this either needs to be much deeper and more complex, or be integrated into another type of game like Death Road to Canada (Beat em up + procedural text based road trip), or Hand of Fate (3D beat em up + roguelite/card game type thing?).

    I love melee combat in games and I wish more people would come along and reinvent old school beat em ups in some kind of way that would start some kind of beat em up Renaissance. There HAS to be a way to make the genre deep and engaging for the current generation.

    • michael.neirinckx says:

      I didn’t realize Death Road to Canada had beat em up elements. I was so tired of zombies that I never gave it a second look.

      I think Castle Crashers was a very fun game that introduced some light leveling, bonus modes, and different equipment into the equation. That seemed to be a slight step forward for the genre.

      The tricky thing to consider is, when trying to add depth, just how much can you add before you lose the rompy fun that’s the soul of the genre?

      • noodlecake says:

        The parts where you go scavenging feel kind of similar to an old beat em up, in that they are 2D and you hit things near you with weapons or fists. You get tired very quickly though unless you happen to have a character with very high fitness, but you will probably beat up a lot of zombies during a run out of necessity.

  11. Zankman says:

    The fact that you didn’t pay attention to the story and skipped the cut-scenes basically “triggers me”; how the hell can you do that?

    It just reeks of hipster-ish “I’m so special” behavior and it brings down this review in my eyes.

    • Akakabuto says:

      +1, though I thought that he must be only joking and making a point about how irrelevant the story is since nobody would mention that kinda thing seriously… Or would he…?

    • April March says:

      On RPS, I feel it’s safe to read “I ignored the story” as “The story is so bad it doesn’t even warrant the effort to say it’s bad”. Then again, he did say he didn’t pay attention to HL1’s story…

  12. Akakabuto says:

    I wouldn’t say this game is “nostalgic” for “nostalgia’s sake”. This is not to be mistaken to be one of “woo I learned game maker and here is my new pixelated retro (S)NES inspired thing”. It is a beat ’em up and it needs to look like this. What would be the alternative? Cartoony crap-hics like Castle Crashers and Rampage Knights? No, no, no. That feels just… Somehow childish and really wrong somehow. 3D? How would that work out? Like DD Neon? Would that be better? (although a proper beat ’em up done with good graphics in 3D would be awesome). There are very, very, VERY few proper beat ’em ups nowadays. I have played Streets of Rage Remake (2011) probably somewhere between 500-700 hours. That game has some “progression” (same as in SoR 3) in the form of accumulatable (funny word) cash and unlockable characters and cheats, but the reason one plays this kind of game (same goes for all arcade-style games) is the satisfaction you get out of each interaction with the game. Each successful punch, combo and wave of baddies you pulverize, your brain rewards you. On top of that, the greater goal in “these kind of” games is to master it, to complete it without dying, or “1CC’ing” it.

    I don’t either fully understand about complaining about the story. I think the lore with the setting and story and everything is really great and fits into this kinda game perfectly. Ofc the story isn’t really important, but it is good nevertheless. It doesn’t need to be any deeper (or anyhow different than it is?) to be better.

    I understand though that this is not what most people want, but I am slightly annoyed of the “misinteprations” of this particular game. This game is really clear about what it tries to be and what it is. Quote from devs: “Streets of Rage meets Hotline Miami”, and it really magnificently achieves that. Almost only thing that I would add to this game is some different signature moves to each of the characters, that seems to be missing and it would bring the much-shouted-about variety in the game. I guess you have to really be into beat ’em ups to fully “get” this game, and that makes it kinda niche. Declaring any genre to extinction is either trolling or someone so selfish that doesn’t understand that someone else might have different taste

    As conclusion I would say that for the majority, this might seem like postulated in the review. For us minority beat ’em up fans, this game was desperately needed and valued. This was my #1 expected game this year (and it claimed all expectations) and I am pretty sure nothing will top it (unless they get out that River City Ransom Underground and it is even awesomer than this).

  13. NailBombed says:

    Think I’ll stick to Streets Of Rage Remake. This just looks like a bit of a mess and gore for gore’s sake (uhoh, have I left myself open to Al Gore puns?)

  14. Rogerio Martins says:

    If they’re reviving a dead genre only for the sake of it or not is irrelevant. The game is fun and for me, that’s all that matters in a game like it, did I have fun? Yes.

    So pointless discussions aside regarding which genre should be revived or not. Great little game, tight controls, very very fun.

  15. haldolium says:

    While I don’t particular care about voilence, Devolvers image or anything else that seems to be a POI here on RPS I simply found this game rather mediocre and not much fun to play.

    It doesn’t flow very well, has quite a few bugs (at least in local coop) and feels rather unsatisfactory in general.

  16. geerad says:

    Are you a Badenov Dude to rescue President Gorbachev?

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