Ok, let’s try something here. Close your eyes for me. Figuratively, I mean. Otherwise, you won’t be able to see what else I’m saying. Now, picture Streets of Rage 2. Got it? Good, now imagine it made love to Hyper Light Drifter. Yeah, I know that’s weird and probably says some worrying things about my psyche, but bear with me. Lastly, I need you to imagine that they’re making love in the fever dream world of Hotline Miami.
Firstly…I apologise profusely. I…may need to speak to someone. But, secondly and more importantly, there’s a fair chance that you’ve just pictured Devolver Digital’s (by way of Le Cartel) latest, Mother Russia Bleeds, an ultraviolent side-scrolling beat-em-up that’s more Splatterhouse than roundhouse.
Set in an alternate timeline version of – surprise, surprise – the Motherland, this Russia is less Police Academy 7: Mission to Moscow and more Robocop. Well, Robocop 2, to be precise, as the main premise of the game is that you (and up to three mates for some four-player local co-op) play the member(s) of a gang which has essentially been tasked with tracking down and stopping the source of “Nekro”, a drug being distributed by the Russian Mafia with help from the Russian authorities. In order to do so, you have to bludgeon your way through level after level of Nekro addicts and government goons.
This bludgeoning takes the form of what – on the surface – appears to be fairly standard side-scrolling beat-em-up fare. As you begin the game, making your way from left to right, and battering anything that moves with fist, foot or blunt object, you might continue to imagine this to be the case, but Mother Russia Bleeds quickly sets itself apart with some clever twists on genre standards.
The most obvious of these is the use of Nekro, which – ironically enough – is your best friend, both for helping you survive the onslaught, whilst also allowing you to dish out a little onslaught of your own. Nekro is gained by literally drawing it out of dead enemies with a syringe, and delivered through use of the triggers – pressing the left trigger uses your limited supply of the drug as a health boost, whereas pressing the right trigger administers a dose of Nekro directly to your brain, triggering a temporary but deadly berserk mode.
This makes for a really intriguing risk-reward mechanic. Can you afford to use Nekro for a brief bout of bone-shattering insanity to clear a screen of thugs, knowing that the next screen might be even more insane and you have just a slither of health left? Likewise, you can use it to bump that health bar back up, but you might find yourself quickly overwhelmed, essentially – and literally in some cases – bringing only a knife to a gunfight. It’s an extra layer of strategy that you don’t often see in the genre, and means that you have to put a little more thought into your approach.
That’s not to say that the fighting itself isn’t also good. Each selectable character feels relatively unique, albeit in the fairly standard ways that genre predecessors did. There’s a nice variety of moves and, as enemies become more advanced, so does your approach to dealing with them.
So far, so good, but it’s once you get into the game proper, that you start to see the seams. For all of the good things that Mother Russia Bleeds does with the canvas it’s painted on, it’s still a side-scrolling beat-em-up with all the flaws that the genre has struggled to cover up. Play this game for long periods of time, and repetition becomes a real problem. This isn’t aided by just how difficult the game is at points, even on the lower difficulty settings, meaning that it can quickly become a real slog.
Presentation can also be an issue at times. Whilst the stylised violence and outstanding soundtrack that has become the staple of Devolver releases is present and arguably better than ever (seriously, the soundtrack is easily top 10 for the year), the trademark shock value seems to have been amplified even further for this title and, as such, frequently bumps up against what I consider to be my “line” for bad taste. Of course, this is entirely subjective, but I just found some of it to be excessive and essentially shocking for the sake of it, rather than to advance the story.
Overall, Mother Russia Bleeds represents another solid arrow in Devolver Digital’s rapidly expanding quiver of titles that – at the very least – get people talking. Whilst it may not have the legs of a Hotline Miami, it’s a welcome addition to a genre that’s been sorely neglected in recent years.