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.