Developer: Le Cartel Studio
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Genre: Beat ’em up
Platforms: PC, PS4
Rating: M for Mature
If there is any genre in the gaming industry that would be considered an endangered species, it would be the Beat ’em up, and few mourn its passing more than I. Gamers my age will remember going to the arcade and popping coins into a seemingly endless number of these games, including Golden Axe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Captain America and the Avengers, The Simpsons, Alien vs. Predator, and of course, X-Men, which was played on an extra large cabinet containing two CRT monitors to fit all the on-screen action. And after all the quarters have been exhausted, there was always ports of Double Dragon, Final Fight, and the console-exclusive Streets of Rage franchises to play from the comfort of home. Games like Fighting Force tried to revive the genre in the 3D world, but they simply could not recapture the intimacy that 2D arenas provided. Besides, games like Ehrgeiz, MDK, and Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver would pave the way for a genre revolution as the beat ’em up would be fused with the fast and furious options that action and fighting games supplied, producing series such as Devil May Cry (PS2) and Ninja Gaiden (Xbox), and the industry rarely has looked back on the classic beat ’em up formula since.
Leave it to indie developers to excavate territory that AAA companies have abandoned. Devolver Digital, publisher of “mature” games such as the modern Shadow Warrior franchise and Hotline Miami series, brings forth Le Cartel Studio’s only project, Mother Russia Bleeds, a reprise of the classic formula whose absence that I lamented.
Mother Russia Bleeds is the one of the most macabre games that I have ever played. It is as if the Le Cartel Studio made a list of possibly offensive content and sought to include all of it.
One of the key designs of the game is that instead of enemy health bars, their on-screen sprite deteriorates into a lump of blood and viscera until it falls, oftentimes twitching as it struggles for its last gasp of breath; players can then opt to finish them or siphon the game’s prized drug, Necro, from the expiring soul, in a style similar to the extraction of ADAM from Little Sisters in Bioshock. These dead bodies do not disappear, so enemy remains…always remain. There will be times during the regular arcade mode, and certainly during survival mode, when so many cadavers litter the enclosed landscape that they become nuisances as one scavenges the carnage for possible dropped weapons or Necro.
Weapons almost always result in enemy OHKOs. Foes stop dead their tracks, arms limp, after being stabbed by broken glass bottle or knife. Headshots from handgun bullets or SMGs pop heads like grapes. The exotic, weirdly-placed katana dismembers while the appropriately-included chainsaw cuts enemies right down the middle of their bodies. Players can smash brains into mush from regular ground-and-pound attacks, and the game even takes the time during loading screens to discourage this. Necro can be used for OHKO super attacks. The animations and pixel art is unclear, but I believe Natasha bites her enemies, with her Necro-charged OHKO being the tearing of an enemy’s throat right out, while the male characters also perform an equally gruesome attack.
As mentioned, Necro is the choice drug in Mother Russia Bleeds, rendering the common presence of alcohol and cigarettes a seeming afterthought, or rather, unremarkable features in a game otherwise inundated with mature content. The consumption of Necro is both a gameplay mechanic and also a plot device, as the playable characters are empowered to perform their monstrous rampages through its influence, through the atrophy of their consciousness. Directly, self-injection of Necro is the only way to recover health or revive a fallen ally, or enter “beserk mode.”
Besides considering repentance for actually playing Mother Russia Bleeds, religious symbolism is rare. I saw possibly one cross in a background, though more shocking is a scene depicting a crucified torso, severed from the body from the waist down. This imagery is displayed seemingly arbitrarily.
In 2015, Polygon ran an article, “Mother Russia Bleeds Confuses Gross and Exploitative for Bizarre and Gritty,” with the principle topic being the depiction of transgender characters. My interest in this controversy begins and ends with the accusation that transgender characters are even in the game at all. The claim is that the characters are fat, pig mask-wearing enemies with breasts exposed, but they strike me simply as so obese as to appear to have breasts. The truly interested can click the link to see what the developers have to say.
As for exposed breasts belonging to cisgender women, Mother Russia Bleeds features that, too. Among the final stages of the game, at least two fully nude women will streak across the screen, covering themselves in shame as they run for their lives in the opposite direction of where the action is heading. Eventually, players will walk in on the boss allegedly responsible for all the Necro-infused chaos while he is having sex with a member of his harem. He flees, and is encountered shortly thereafter seated on a throne in the background with nude women fawning over him.
Cisgender males are treated no differently. There is one enemy type known as the “rapist, who, if Natasha is present, will make violent threats against her womanhood (here I should mention that there is no limit to the obcenities communicated in this game); as one fights to reach deeper parts of the stage where this enemy type dwells, they will begin to appear without clothes. I did not notice this during my playthrough, thinking them to be deformed mutants —perhaps they are deformed, but as I prepared to write this review, I could detect exposed unmentionables in my screenshots.
I might be able to entertain an exceedingly pedantic argument in defense of all this heinous material, but in the backgrounds of the stage where the “transgender” enemies are found, a gimp can be seen wildly flinging his genitalia in the air with reckless abandon. Like, what? Why? Nevermind, I do not really want to know.
For all of this, Mother Russia Bleeds is only rated M for Mature. If I were part of the ESRB I would have given it the retail kiss of death known as an “AO” for adults only. It is also the first game that I have reviewed in my three-year tenure at Geeks Under Grace that I would outright recommend against playing because of its content. There is nothing edifying about this game as it is developed with a visceral hunger for carnage in mind. Simply telling kids to stay away from drugs would suffice
Yes, there is an actual video game hidden somewhere among all the vulgarity, and it is surprisingly not terrible. Players can choose between four characters, Sergi, Ivan, Natasha, and Boris, all of whom can be summarized as “balanced option 1” “slow but strong,” “weak but nimble,” and “balanced option 2.” I would say that the object of the game is to travel from the left side of the screen to the right while hitting enemies until their lifebars are depleted, but as addressed in the Content Warning section, enemies are beaten until they are literally bloody pulps that can hardly be distinguished from any other discoloration on the ground.
Of course, the difficulty scales as one advances into the late stages of the game. In the beginning, enemy attacks are simple and impotent; much later, an enemy walking on the screen with a shotgun is a force to be reckoned with, and will deplete up to 80% of a player’s health bar with one shot. Foes chucking grenades on the screen are oblivious to friendly fire as his allies are blown into a haze of gibs, but these blasts are also deadly to player characters. Enemy types gradually become varied in their approach and attack patterns, requiring players to adjust accordingly.
Bosses are the highlight of all the carnage as they require solving a small puzzle to defeat. The first memorable boss is the warden of the prison from which the player-characters escape. Gamers must dodge the laser scope of an off-screen sniper while dodging shots from the warden’s revolver and returning fire. Another boss cannot be beaten by physical means alone, and has to be subdued via hit-by-train. My personal favorite is a…something…who at the end of the infamous nightclub stage. He uses a hook and cleaver combination like Pudge from DotA (2), catching and pulling players into a massive blade strike. If he misses, which is ideal, he will hook instead a hog-headed enemy or a one of the gimps watching on the sidelines, and cut them asunder. Brutal, but…fun.
Mother Russia Bleeds is a game that I wanted to hate when I began playing. I managed to more than tolerate its penchant for carnage as I was impressed by how much can happen on-screen at once. In the Sega Genesis days, fifty sprites would render a game unplayable; I would like to think that this game would herald a revival of the beat ‘em up, but even in its efforts pushing toward shock value, the abilities of the playable characters are limited, and beating up 1,000 similar-looking bad dudes does eventually get old. For a more authentic dose of nostalgia that is actually SFW, I recommend finding a copy of BomberGames. Streets of Rage Remake 5.0 instead.
EnriqueNL is the artist responsible for the background image used in this review.
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