Final Fight + Hotline Miami
HIGH Reliving my childhood arcade memories.
LOW Getting bored every 30 minutes or so.
WTF Watching my AI partner wander aimlessly while I needed to be revived.
Among my friends, I can’t think of anyone that doesn’t have fond memories of feeding quarters into beat-‘em-ups at the local arcade. Thanks to levels full of traversing cities, moving trains, suplexing thugs, and breaking trash cans open to find whole roast chickens for health, beat-’em-ups always seemed more exciting and story-driven than fighting games or high score titles.
The genre faded into obscurity along with the arcades they called home, but the decades of pent-up nostalgia made me all the more thrilled when I learned that Devolver Digital was helping bring the beat-’em-up back with Mother Russia Bleeds, a pixelated mash-up of Final fight and Hotline Miami. Unfortunately, the years have not been kind to the genre.
Like the best beat-’em-ups of yore, Mother Russia Bleeds starts its story off with a bang, going from zero to thirsting for vengeance in sixty seconds. It starts as just another day of strolling in to an underground fight club to bludgeon an endless horde of bums into submission when a truck full of riot police shows up. The cops whisk the main character away to a gulag somewhere, where they awaken strung out on an experimental drug, wanting to stick it to the party responsible.
The story doesn’t take many unexpected twists or turns from there, but the aforementioned experimental drug changes up the “mash the punch button for success” gameplay just enough to keep things interesting. From the start of Mother Russia Bleeds, players have the choice of injecting the drug in two different ways, represented by the two triggers on a controller: either to regain health or to enter a killing frenzy.
The killing frenzy speeds player movement while slowing enemies down, and renders most grunts one button press away from a gruesome death. Players start with three uses of the syringe, and can refill it by sucking the drug-infected blood out of enemies that twitch on the ground after death (tonally, a bit different from eating a hamburger left on the street).
This management of blood creates an interesting risk-versus-reward when battling the occasionally frustrating bosses, or taking on a large crowd of enemies. Where I may have mindlessly mashed the attack buttons in other beat-’em-ups, I found myself maneuvering around the screen to make sure I was killing enemies in the open, and not using environmental kills that made their bodies disappear when I needed health. In addition, players can unlock different effects for the drugs on multiple playthroughs and by doing challenges in the endless arena modes.
Beyond that, Mother Russia Bleeds plays exactly like beat-em-ups from my youth… to a fault.
A nifty (but not well-explained) combo system makes combat a little deeper than the average on paper, but my play sessions with still boiled down to mashing punch, kick, and occasionally grab to defeat hordes of mindless enemies. I would then get frustrated with a boss battle, call down partner AI after my first few unsuccessful solo tries, and move on to the next level where I would rinse and repeat.
Because co-op is bizarrely limited to local players with no online options, I did (unfortunately) complete the entire game by myself. I imagine playing with a friend on the couch would be a bit more entertaining, but it wouldn’t change the fact that the staleness inherent to beat-’em-ups quickly sets in, exacerbated by the fact that playtime is no longer limited by the amount of quarters in my pocket.
Ultimately, while Mother Russia Bleeds does an admirable job of evoking beat-’em-up nostalgia, it did little to hold my interest beyond a handful of sessions. I found no reason to return to the story mode after completing it, and the endless arena mode only further highlights my problems with the game since it lacks the modest progression of the campaign.
Gamers with a special place in their hearts for beat-’em-ups may get several sessions’ worth of enjoyment out of it (and I’d still recommend it to folks who really enjoyed arcade beat-’em-ups back in the day) but Mother Russia Bleeds is not the shot in the arm the genre needed to remain relevant in 2016.
Disclosures: This game was developed by Le Cartel Studio and published by Devolver Digital. This review code was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 4 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. No time was spent in multiplayer mode because multi is local only, although AI bots are able to be called in for assistance.
Parents: As an independent release, Mother Russia Bleeds did not receive a rating from the ESRB, but I would fully expect a rating of M. As the title suggests, blood abounds as players wallop on their enemies. Weapon pickups and environmental kills available on most levels definitely cross the line into exceedingly gruesome territory.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: No audio cues are necessary to defeat any of the enemies or bosses, and all dialog is shown as text.
Remappable Controls: Keyboard controls are fully remappable, Controller inputs cannot be changed. Iy you plug a Dualshock 4 in directly without third-party software, the correct PlayStation inputs are displayed.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind settings in this game.