There is nothing subtle about Mother Russia Bleeds. Heads explode into clouds of pulp, riots erupt in city squares, and prisons become Jackson Pollock paintings of blood, corpses, and human bile. In short, Mother Russia Bleeds is an exercise in frenzied combat and hyper-violent themes. The problem is, it doesn't always know what to do with them.
As a 2D brawler, Mother Russia Bleeds plays host to ideas dozens of years old, hearkening back to the days of beat 'em ups on arcade cabinets and early consoles. Mother Russia Bleeds allows you and up to three other players punch, kick, headbutt, and shoot your way through crowds of thugs in an alternate reality 80s Russia, with simple controls and a variety of weapons to use along the way.
Where so many brawlers succumb to repetitive encounters, Mother Russia Bleeds, on the other hand, is a shining example of how to extract complex scenarios from simple mechanics.
This is due in large part to the way its stages unfold. You not only grapple with a slew of multifarious fighters, but also wrestle attack dogs, leap away from speeding motorcycles, and evade clouds of poisonous gas. You'll learn how to control your fighter easily, but defeating a boss while trains barrel back and forth across the screen is another task entirely.
In fact, the boss battles are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to creative combat situations. Of the many present in Mother Russia Bleeds, a few stand out: luring helicopter turrets to shred your surrounding attackers; using flashbangs to stun opponents equipped with night-vision goggles; hurling enemies' grenades back at them as they advance behind a wall of riot shields. Mother Russia Bleeds is replete with brawls like this, and they upset the pacing of the beat em' up genre in exhilarating ways.
Mother Russia Bleeds exudes a gorgeous retro pixel-art style, reflecting the existing design traits of its early brawler influences. Blood pools in the corners of the stage, with rough edges making their way down to the rectangular limbs of rotting corpses. The grisly aesthetic at play is an homage to the past, but it's rooted in very adult themes and background compositions: some of the most shocking include sexual acts at an S&M club, or the deranged acts of drug addicts going through withdrawal.
This is where Mother Russia Bleeds both excels and falters. For every insight it has about oppression, violence, and the direct correlations between both, it makes missteps elsewhere. It examines the effects a dictatorship can have on the common person, and whether violent action is ever justified when the government has gone too far. But too much of this brawler seems present just for shock value. Just as intriguing ideas gain traction, Mother Russia Bleeds introduces prison rape tropes or sexual jokes that upset any profundity it almost found.
Mother Russia Bleeds is replete with creative brawls, and they upset the pacing of the beat em' up genre in exhilarating ways.
A common thread is drug addiction--how it sneaks up on people, introduces itself slowly into their lives, and takes hold when they least expect it. From a gameplay perspective, drugs actually help you through the brawler: you can use Nekkro, a substance the dictatorial government uses to control its lower class citizens, to heal yourself or grant increased damage for a short time. If you don't completely behead an enemy, you can siphon the Nekkro from their blood, giving you more to use in the event of a future emergency.
This creates a tense risk/reward factor throughout fistfights: should you drain that enemy's Nekkro now, and use the health to defeat the next mini-boss? Or should you destroy the crowd of enemies quickly and hope the Nekkro hasn't completely drained from their veins in the aftermath?
Then there's the matter of cooperative play, and here, Mother Russia Bleeds is it at its finest. The obvious thrill of fighting alongside a friend or two is present, but the Nekkro dynamic becomes tantamount in multiplayer situations, considering you can heal allies with your drug supply. In some cases, I kept my Nekkro to myself. In others, I valued my friend's revival over my own peril. Drug addiction becomes not just a storytelling theme, but a gameplay motif as well.
It's in its final moments that Mother Russia Bleeds approaches greatness, just before it stumbles. The final boss is one of the most abrasive difficulty spikes I've ever encountered in a game, let alone a difficult beat em' up. It took me 90 minutes to finally best. Compare that to about 20 minutes on the more difficult enemies I encountered throughout my playthrough. For all of the ways Mother Russia Bleeds paces itself so well over the course of 6 hours, its ending is drawn out to a fault.
But for all of my frustration with the encounter, the difficulty of this boss made thematic sense: I had eliminated many thugs along my journey through a war torn Russia, from army captains to sadistic drug lords. But as its story comes to a close, and without spoiling the resolution, Mother Russia Bleeds asks the more important, if not slightly clichéd, question: isn't your biggest enemy yourself?
This is Mother Russia Bleeds' greatest strength: it may appear to be a simple brawler with retro art reminiscent of the beat em' up golden age. But it goes much deeper. It alleviates the monotony of some of the best brawlers. It introduces wrinkles that make each level feel fresh. And it weaves complex themes into its gameplay in ways that, although not subtle, are nuanced. Mother Russia Bleeds knows how to upset many expectations of the genre--I just wish it wasn't always trying to shock me.