Please stop comparing Mother Russia Bleeds to Sega’s classic Streets of Rage; yes, they’re both technically beat ‘em ups, but that’s like saying a Ford Tempo is just like a Lamborghini Huracán because they both have wheels.
As Wikipedia tells it, the game came about when developers from Ubisoft left the profitable developer to be “free of the creative shackles of a larger company”, establishing independent developer Le Cartel Studio. Now, thanks to a creative crossover scheme with indie blockbuster Hotline Miami and publisher Devolver Digital, the expectations for their debut game, Mother Russia Bleeds, are sky high.
What a shame it’s a derivative, glitch-ridden, dull clone of better games like Streets of Rage, Renegade, and countless others.
We’ve seen this pattern before: talent leaves a big developer, wishes for creative freedom, gets to make just the game they want, etc. When the exodus is successful you’ve got legendary games like Treasure’s Gunstar Heroes (Konami’s Contra). When not, we’re left with sub-par efforts like Mighty No. 9 (Capcom’s Mega Man) and, now, Mother Russian Bleeds.
The problem is, Sega, Taito, Konami, and other purveyors of beat ‘em classics weren’t making nostalgia: they were just making, often for the first time ever. How funny that so many of today’s promising new developers cry havoc about the lack of creativity in the industry, only to spend their efforts shamelessly riffing older titles, often with inferior results. You’ll forgive me if I have no sympathy for such pandering, especially when the end results don’t justify the means.
There’s an actual story here, too. The setting is 1980s Russia, and things look bleak. Regardless which of the four generic characters you pick, the premise remains the same: a nefarious drug called Nekro is all the rage, and it seems like everyone is either hooked or in line to become a junkie. When a street fight gets you tossed into prison, a journey through a drug-infested hell leads you to unspeakable sights and visions, each getting worse the more you progress.
Let’s get one thing straight: Mother Russia Bleeds is violent. No, it’s SUPER violent, extremely gory, and designed to offend at – and on – every level imaginable. And yet… given its blocky sprites and tendency to overindulge said violence, the results are less shocking than you think a game that lets you splatter hordes of drug addicts, whores, and dogs would be.
Heads get mashed into mush, backgrounds are populated with drug addicts, leathered-up S&M gimps, crack whores, and all sorts of non-Disney delights. The dialogue is equally gauche, every other sentence peppered with clichéd swears and ‘extreme’ bad-ass phraseology. So intense! So mature! Chalk this up to a bad translation or the predictably awful state of videogame writing, it’s still pretty bad.
Most surprising is how shallow the combat is, often obnoxious so. Each character has an extremely limited moveset: punch, kick, jump kick, dash, and grab. Sure, you can mix these up somewhat, but that’s all you can do. There’s no button-combo attacks, no defenses, and no substantive combo attacks – just pummel, pummel, and pummel some more. Not only does this get tedious real fast, but having to replay entire sections over when losing quickly gets boring.
Frustratingly, your character often doesn’t line up correctly with baddies, who predictably swarm in the same pattern every time, meaning your hits and attacks will “hit” even when they shouldn’t. Single punches and kicks will connect with multiple baddies at once if they’re on the same attack plane; a better comparison to a classic game wouldn’t be Streets of Rage but the original Kung Fu Master…from 1984. This isn’t a compliment.
Even the powerups are shocking; you’re given a syringe that lets you either heal yourself or temporarily put your character in rage-mode for extra pulpy attacks. Each syringe has three shots of the greenish Nekro, each rechargeable by sucking power from select downed, twitching foes. Admittedly, blasting a wave of baddies apart when enraged is fun, but this doesn’t happen often enough.
Levels are entirely too long, filled with unexciting and prolonged battles against waves and waves of generic baddies who only sporadically change (their looks, not their tactics). You’ll inch forward as you beat each wave to a bloody pulp, only to move onto the next wave, repeat and rinse. The only change from this pattern are the boss battles, each different and varied, and almost all excruciatingly difficult at face value. You’ll die, and die often, until you learn the minute pattern or gimmick you’ll need to knock them off before proceeding to even more prolonged, boring wave battles.
Another throwback to a bygone era, the wildly successful reboot of DOOM, does exactly this, too. Only where DOOM accentuates its pockets of hell by allowing players to configure them as necessary, Mother Russia Bleeds completely miscalculates what makes these games “fun”, substituting what should have been smaller bits of restrained action for waves and waves of enemies. This wouldn’t be an issue if the actual wave battles offered more variety, but they don’t.
There’s also 4-player multiplayer, of course, but even this sucks as its relegated to local play only; if there were ever a genre that would benefit from online play, it’s a beat ‘em up (note: the PC isn’t well suited to local multiplayer and shockingly well suited to online play). Not that playing with a friend adds anything to the experience, minus making boss battles somewhat easier. There’s no coherence between players, no team moves or takedowns. Each player effectively battles alone, using the same move-sets and attacks, the only diversity coming with new weapons picked up along the way.
Barring any local friends, you can add a single CPU-controller second player to keep you company or even revive you when things get tough, but don’t expect miracles: the AI is dumber than bricks, constantly getting killed and completely ignoring your pleas for help and waiting until the current wave of baddies is beaten down.
I’m curious if the developers even have any concept of what made the original games they’re aping so enjoyable and fresh, because none of their original charm or nuance is exhibited here. I never thought I’d see the day when battling drug-addicted, rappelling hookers with chainsaws didn’t quite do it for me, but here we are.
Mother Russia Bleeds is also filled with a shocking number of glitches and game-ending bugs. Your character will – and often does – get stuck behind backgrounds or other sprites, sometimes even on top of other sprites. The only solution is to reset to a saved checkpoint, which are so hackneyed that you’ll often repeating the same boring mechanics and prolonged battles over and over.
I want to mention the visuals, because, if we’re being honest, they’re the only reason people are even taking this game seriously. Yes, they’re pixelated sprites – which are all the rage these days in the world of indies – but they’re not very good sprites. I get that indie games earn instant cred for showcasing pixelart like this, but that doesn’t mean you have to showcase uninspired, flat pixelart that gets lost in the mix. I’ll grant that some of the backgrounds showcase some creative designs, but even these bits are sidelined to the anterior in a game that so often confuses ‘edgy’ for artistic.
Because its “modern” the developers even tossed in screen-altering effects and other bits of techno flair to keep things interesting. This only further degrades the visuals as often you’ll lose track of where your character is in the mess of pixels. Perhaps excessive baddies onscreen weren’t issues older games had to worry about due to their lack of processing power, but just because you CAN doesn’t mean you should, especially when it deteriorates the very effect you’re shooting for.
If there’s any part of the game that’s worth mentioning, it’s the soundtrack by Vincent Cassar, whose clean tracks help drive the otherwise dull action forward better than the gameplay itself. And yet… even the OST isn’t anything particularly great on its own terms. It’s a decent techno-thump, I’ll grant you, but like so much of this game it’s so bereft of any personality I’d forgotten it minutes after I stopped playing. Go listen to tracks like Streets of Rage 2’s “Go Straight” or “Slow Moon” or Golden Axe’s “Turtle Village” or “Wilderness” and tell me again this is even comparable. Go on, I dare you.
Mother Russia Bleeds could have been a real contender; it’s got all the right ingredients for a quality beat-down, yet wastes them entirely on a dull imitation whose boring, repetitive gameplay is only accentuated by levels that are entirely too long. To those with the gall to compare this disappointment to classics like Streets of Rage, Double Dragon, or any one of its countless superiors, do yourself a favor and play those instead.