For The Revolution!
Reviewed on PS4
For six long and grueling years, Russia was at war with itself. Starting in November 1917 following the Russian Revolutions of 1917, the Red Army (fighting for socialism in Russia) and the White Army (fighting for other forms of government-allied in their shared belief that the traditional form of socialism was no good for the whole of Russia) battled against each other resulting in a staggering total of eight million lives lost during this turbulent period. Famine, starvation, and something known as the White Terror, organized violence carried out by the White Army during the war, ran rampant in the streets of Russia. Swelling civil unrest, compounded by persistent food shortages, erupted into open revolt, and the autocracy of Vladimir Lenin kickstarted the revolution, which didn’t end until the summer of 1923. This was a bloody period in Russian history, and French indie studio, Le Cartel Studio, accurately depicts the ghastly civil war with Mother Russia Bleeds.
Not directly related to the Russian Civil War — as the game is set in an alternate 1980s USSR and takes place nearly 80 years after the historic event — Mother Russia Bleeds mirrors a lot of the political turmoil and turbulence the country experienced. The game focuses on four specific people — Boris, Ivan, Natasha, and Sergei — who have been chosen because “they knew no one would mourn you,” as an important character to the game’s narrative, Vlad, says. After getting introduced to the controls of the game via a fighting ring set up by political lapdog and pretend hard ass, Mikhail, you are promptly captured and held in a government-funded lab underneath a prison cell, where you are feverishly injected with a newly developed drug, Nekro. (Think a more vicious form of heroine.) Not only is this drug addictive — as the protagonists are so quick to ardently posit — but it also replenishes vitality, which contradicts addictive behavior, especially of addictive drugs. When you shoot up a dose of Nekro, a portion of health is refilled with no consequence, no body or mind alteration whatsoever. Though innocuous in nature, this breaks the idea of Nekro being a drug, especially since there are three shots in a syringe; rather, as per game design, it feels like just another health pick up.
Puzzlingly, the physical manifestation of Nekro, a stoic, Tim Burtonesque designed figure sitting atop what is assumed to be the protagonists’ heart, frequently occurs in hallucinations, indicating that Nekro is having adverse mental effects. This doesn’t align with the game’s world: You are captured for what can only be inferred as months before regaining consciousness in that lab. Once having escaped to the surface, it is revealed that Nekro has tightly gripped Russia, plunging it into chaos because it’s “cheap to produce and highly profitable,” as a “politician, not a mobster” so brazenly puts it. (Maybe he’s on his Trump shit.) This embodiment of the dependence on Nekro (known simply as Nekro because of creativity) taunts and antagonizes you as you oscillate from reality to a drug-induced delirium. These enticing moments are only fleeting, lasting mere seconds before you’re jolted back to reality, in some instances eyeing the carnage you apparently created in that hysteria. The only time extensive use of Nekro proves ill-advised is at the end when you face, you guessed it, Nekro itself in a vain attempt to kick the drug: In order to get the “good ending,” you can’t use a drop of the drug, which is aggravating because Nekro is a cheap son-of-a-bitch, with unblockable attacks, unclear mechanics until trial and error forces you to understand, and multiple enemies alongside the boss as well. (Dammit, Dark Souls, get out of my games.) Perhaps this is a representation of what drug addiction is like: a cheap (not really) son-of-a-bitch with unblockable attacks, unclear mechanics until you get that first high, and multiple versions of yourself preventing you from kicking the drug.
Similar to classic 2D beat ‘em ups that preceded it, such as Battletoads, Double Dragon, River City Ransom, and the like, Mother Russia Bleeds’ controls are easy to pick up because it wears its influences on its sleeve. (If you’ve played any of the innumerable beat ‘em ups since video games’ inception, you’ll get a hang of the controls in no time.) While there is nothing wrong with this, and there’s no need to always attempt to reinvent the wheel, Mother Russia’s ostensible “don’t fix what ain’t broken” mentality reduces gameplay to feeling trite and insipid. This is unfortunate because Mother Russia is a fun game — a damn fun game, actually. Grabbing and tossing an enemy in the air, jumping to grab and slam them to the ground, and pummeling them to death is incredibly satisfying and fits the game’s theme of fervent revenge. Charging up an attack with either a punch or a weapon in hand and watching the enemy fly across the screen as if blown by an explosion is appeasing. What’s more satiating is visibly seeing enemies get bloodied up as they nonsensically rush right into your onslaught of punches, kicks, and whatever else in the immediate vicinity. Impressively, not all — though definitely most — AI are asinine. They gang up on you often, flank your position constantly, casually meander to your backside as you’re clobbering another enemy, and pick up and use weapons accurately (even though they have no regard for their fellow comrades’ life, deliberately shooting them in the head in an attempt to shoot you). They challenge you to think proactively, but once you figure out the best exploitative tactic, there’s never a reason to change, unless confronted by a boss. Each playable character is distinct in their fighting style and stats, making the choice feel more personal as these characters adhere to certain play styles; however, while this is welcomed, it is nothing commendable, it’s just par for the course with this genre.
Even though Mother Russia Bleeds simply checks the boxes required to classify it as a beat ’em up, this is an excellent thing: it’s a beat ’em up, does it well, and doesn’t try to be anything different. It’s simple and straightforward. As aforementioned, reinventing the wheel isn’t always a necessity in game design. Mother Russia Bleeds, despite its narrative inconsistencies and excruciatingly cheap boss encounters (especially Nekro), is emblematic of sticking to the vision. While ambition is always welcomed in games, games that latch onto one or two ideas and execute them well are exceptional games, and Mother Russia Bleeds is damn close to exceptional.
Many people claim Mother Russia Bleeds is an amalgam of the stylings of Streets of Rage and the ultra-violence of Hotline Miami. These comparisons, while understandable, are reductive, simplifying the game to purely a birth of two separate games, unable to exist in its own right, like a child first brought into the world. Mother Russia Bleeds is not a unique game in any sense of the word, but it’s bleak, relentless, and unforgiving world, coupled with its over-the-top violence and themes of revenge, smashed into a quasi-historical setting make this game enjoyable nonetheless. There is contention between the game’s narrative, real-world epidemics, and the game’s controls, sure, but the moment-to-moment gameplay pulls you through these blatantly contradictory occurrences.