Your hands are shaky. The soporific beat of psychedelic synth pulses in your ears. Your fingers tense, holding the punch button. With an almost euphoric release, your finger lets go of the button. On screen, your character drives their fists into the face of your victim. Their skull bursts. Brain and viscera spill onto the dirty ground. Level Complete.
Mother Russia Bleeds is a 2D brawler, inspired by classic games such as Double Dragon and Streets of Rage. You play as one of four street fighters from a gipsy camp. When you are captured and forcibly hooked on a new and mysterious drug “Nekro”, you escape and inflict your revenge.
Mother Russia Bleeds’ controls are easy to learn but the combat is hard to master. The attacks feel quick and responsive. You dash and jump around your opponents, mixing in slides and jump kicks to knock them down or isolate them from a group. Knocking them down allows you to finish them off with repeated attacks, but this takes time and can be difficult with multiple opponents on screen.
During fights, you will boost your character’s strength and speed with a drug called “Nekro”. The drug is a central part of the plot, as all the playable characters suffer hallucinations due to their addiction to it. Your stock of the drug is replenished by harvesting it from the corpses of your enemies. Like your characters, you are reliant on Nekro for both combat boosts and as your only way of healing. This theme of addiction ties to the gameplay in interesting ways. Due to frustrating difficulty spikes, Nekro is often essential to be able to progress. When playing in co-op, if you want to revive your friend you must expend some of your precious Nekro. Do you hoard your Nekro for the invaluable speed and strength boost? Or share it with your friend? As a result, Mother Russia Bleeds makes the player value Nekro just as much as its characters.
Mother Russia Bleeds features three difficulty levels, though playing in co-op with AI or friends makes things significantly easier. Aside from the difficulty spikes, the only other minor annoyance is that checkpoints are often in inconvenient places. Having to repeatedly re-watch sequences before getting to a boss fight gets incredibly tedious. That said the boss fights themselves are excellent. They can be very tough, but each one has a different solution and introduces a nice twist on present mechanics.
Mother Russia Bleeds can at times be an uncomfortable experience. Your fingers will ache from rapid action during intense fight sequences. The soundtrack (by Fixions) is similar to the synth tracks found in Hotline Miami, though have a slightly slower beat. Throughout the fights, the tracks pulse at a steady tempo. Hotline Miami‘s tracks would steadily gain pace, building to a frenetic tempo as the adrenalin-fueled violence unfolded. Mother Russia Bleeds is more psychedelic, the steady beat almost trance-like as you play. This can make moments in combat feel strenuous and exhausting as you struggle to finish off the final few opponents. That may sound like a criticism but it’s not. The soundtrack is one of the best things about the game. It gives moments a visceral weight and makes the violence that much more brutal. When you use Nekro to induce “Berserk” mode, rather than upping the tempo, the music distorts and slows, while the screen distorts and the colours blur. In doing this, Mother Russia Bleeds emphasizes the awful toll the drugs are taking on your character. Nekro is not some magic “Asterix-ian” strength potion, it is an unnerving experience for both character and player.
Set in an alternate Soviet Russia, Mother Russia Bleeds does an incredible job of eliciting the feeling of its grim and visceral tone in its players. Where some ultra-violent games try to encourage a feeling of power (Gears of War) in the player or take a light-hearted approach (Bulletstorm), Mother Russia Bleeds wallows in its dank and grotty setting. From the strung-out junkies and tattooed prison thugs you’ll fight, to the depravity of the villain’s lair. One sequence aside, the grime and decay of the world go hand in hand with the tension created by the soundtrack and gameplay.
Brief text conversations break up combat sequences to advance the plot. The story is simple enough but the writing is bland. The few attempts at humour in these moments fail to land. Mother Russia Bleeds introduces some heavy themes: drug addiction, state corruption, violence, and the treatment of the Roma people in the Soviet Union, to name a few. They all contribute to Mother Russia Bleeds’ tone, but the story does very little to question or engage with them. As a result, Mother Russia Bleeds lacks any overall message, the themes are exploited to create shock and appear edgy. One sequence, set in a sex club is particularly troubling. As patrons gawk at you from the background, you are tasked with fighting a series of large breasted people in tight pants and animal masks, that are supposedly transgender. Given the game is set in an alternative Russia, a country with a severe history of abuse and prejudice toward LGBT+ people, it is shocking then, that such a marginalised group are portrayed as nothing more than “bizarre” set dressing and as a target for violence.
Mother Russia Bleeds is a solid brawler with an excellent soundtrack and visual style, however, when it comes to the story, Mother Russia Bleeds exploits its themes for pure shock value and set dressing rather than actually engaging with them.