“The following is a guest post by The Evergreen Sage Mage.”
“It will have blood, they say. Blood will have blood. Stones have been known to move, and trees to speak. Augurs and understood relations have By magot pies and choughs and rooks brought forth The secret’st man of blood.—What is the night?”
Hi! My bloggey name is Wakalapi, but in my debut review at the Well-Red blog, call me The Evergreen Sage Mage. 😉 I’m excited and thankful for the opportunity bring you a review of Mother Russia Bleeds, a game that has inspired me artistically and provided hours and hours of madcap marital fun! If you are interested in the story behind the making of this game and you happen to be a Francophone (or can tolerate Google translate), check out the nine-part saga by K. Mizol at Factorynews right here!
Alright, here we go!
Mother Russia Bleeds is a fast-paced beat ’em up with a level of gore rivaling the Mortal Kombat series. Its gorgeously raw pixel art style, its consciously chosen, grimy, pulsating, industrial, dance club sound, its over-the-top violence and its genre could all be a turn-off for many players whose aesthetic tastes are a bit less bold. But, for those of us whose variously disparate and morbid tastes could only dream of being married into a single piece of media, this game hits a bull’s eye we didn’t really know existed. Mother Russia Bleeds is a strange marvel, a dark and twisted passion project by the four-person Le Cartel Studio based out of France and published by Devolver Digital. Play this even if you only love beat ‘em ups, because despite some of its rough edges, the play quality and uniqueness of it earns a place alongside classic hits such as Double Dragon, Final Fight, and Streets of Rage.So how did I come across this game?
Every so often my wife gets a rare inkling to look at what games are out there. This is an exciting and special time for me, as we get to traipse together through the catalogs of games in hopes there might be a game out there we can both enjoy playing together. We’ve found that in order for this to happen it has have a local co-op option and it has to be action-oriented. Last September just happened to be the time she got that inkling and Mother Russia Bleeds hit the Steam store. From just watching the trailer and seeing some of the screenshots, we knew our search was over. Hours later, in marital bliss, we beat the game into a bloody wretched pulp. And then we beat it again, because it was still twitching.
Animated launch trailer of awesomeness
The game’s story takes place in Soviet Russia sometime in the 80’s. The characters wake up in a nightmarish reality where they have been the subjects of drug experiments by the government. The drug that has been used on them is called Nekro. It sends your player character into a rage where you can smash through baddies like a jagged rock shooting out of a canon. After you escape the prison you soon realize the entire country is going through an anarchic blood-drenched downward spiral into self-destruction. You must pummel your way, level by level, through the seedy underground enclaves of this dystopian world, in order to come face-to-face with the ultimate evil.
The gameplay is what we come to expect from a great beat-em-up. The bread and butter of the genre are responsive controls for the hand-to-hand brawling, a variety of moves including punches, kicks, jump attacks, throws and combos and plenty of levels, baddies and bosses to take down. It has a story mode and an arena mode where you can test your true button mashing mettle against waves of increasingly difficult baddies and earn access to different power-ups. This game has all that, plus you can also pick up a joyously varied amount of weapons to use including toilets, toilet paper (?!) guns and my personal favorite, the telephone pole.
As I mentioned, it does have some rough edges. Plot-wise, the using of Nekro was absolutely spot-on, but it seems like it could have been fleshed out more mechanics-wise. We understand the “positive effects” of the drug, but not really the negative effects. The negative effects of the drug could have introduced more gameplay depth or perhaps an opportunity to simplify the Nekro mechanic that began to feel a bit feature-creepy.There is also one particular boss battle that was incredibly frustrating, requiring the use of guns. In my book, using guns in beat ’em ups should be pretty sparing and not necessary. Still, the issues are far from game-breaking and a flaw here or there only gives it character anyhow.
Minor issues aside, it is a one of the more unique and unforgettably wild rides I’ve had in gaming. Fueled by some of the most intense hallucinatory and thematically complimentary music I’ve ever heard in a video game, it even rivals the insanely popular indie hit Hotline Miami for its intensity. Notably though, unlike Hotline Miami, the entire game soundtrack itself was created in-house!! This fact should be enough to have it stand apart. For some gamers Mother Russia Bleeds might appear niche or something from a bygone era, but if you find someone to play it with and are ready for things to get weird, you will open yourself to a new experience you will not have the luxury of forgetting.
The 8-bit Review
Pixel art aesthetics seem to be a divisive and slightly controversial choice these days, but because the game is a nostalgic throwback to an era of gaming where the brawler genre reigned supreme, it works quite well. So, if you’re the kind of person who can appreciate pixel art, 9/10 is the score. The only reason I won’t give it 10 is because I want more! I absolutely have to know where 10/10 looks like at the hand of the game’s artist, Alexandre “Opreem” Muttoni, as he continues to mature his talents. That is my (relatively) tempered way of saying that the skill and style he has, is absolutely brilliant. The game oozes (bleeds?) environmental storytelling and is a showcase of what appears to be a borderline out-of-control madman who can’t get enough of designing intricate and harrowing nightmare scenes that Nemesis would wake up screaming from.
Throughout the entire game I was trying to point out to my wife every interesting detail we came across and trying to explain how painstakingly difficult it is to make pixel art. This is not your indie dev who is hiding a lack of skill behind a veil of 8-16 bit graphics , this is the product of someone who has dipped their soul into the acid bath of melted down pixels and came out seeing the world in purely-rendered, isometric, technicolor precision.
When I first loaded up this game it was the soundtrack that cued me in that this gaming experience is going to be bonkers. There is nothing like a good soundtrack to set the mood of a game and as soon as the beat dropped for the title theme I could immediately feel the adrenaline kick in and my heart begin to pound uncontrollably. Perhaps it’s just me with musical tastes rooted in dark industrial techno from when I was a moody hormone-filled teenager of the 90’s, having listening to and loving the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Lords of Acid, KMFDM and ilk.
The herculean task of sound design and creating the 32-track soundtrack in its entirety was done by composer Vincent “Slo” Cassar. He goes by the name Fixions, and he has a ton of music that you should look up, starting with his rugged synth EP Invisible Walls.
If 32 tracks weren’t enough, he’s now released the Mother Russia Bleeds – Lost Tapes, a collection of alternate versions and mixes of the original soundtrack. This gives you another 30 tracks of adrenaline!
Like any classic beat ‘em up, the story mode starts by having you choose your character out of a few choices. There are a total of four characters to choose from, each with different strengths and weaknesses. There are four stats to think about when choosing: force, speed, range and jump. But we all choose who we want anyhow, amirite? After you made your decision, you then choose your poison, in the form of a syringe. If you haven’t beaten any arenas you can only choose Nekro, but there are others locked away to choose from that have various effects on either you or your enemies. In case you were wondering, Boris is my main. I mean, a maniac that can do frickin air-throws, how can you not pass that up!
Nekro has three functions, one is to heal (yourself or a teammate), go into a temporary berserk mode, or you can use it to revive a teammate. There is a Nekro gauge on the top of the screen near your health bar that lets you know how much you have in your vial and you can get more by sucking it out of downed, twitching enemies. Honestly, at first, it feels a little unintuitive, but after a while it becomes natural.
For a team of four, this game has amazing quality and I don’t want to downplay that. That being said, it might seem to be a little harsh in my grade of 7/10, but I’ve played me a ton of brawlers, from Golden Axe to Final Fight, to Alien vs Predator to Castle Crashers, and among other things, I expect pixel perfect collision boxes and a bit more fairness. You’re not trying to take all my quarters are you?The character sprites seem a little small for being a game about hand-fighting, so for example it’s a little hard at times to gauge the distance of my attacks. I also expect to be able to have some way to get myself out of a tough situation, but sometimes I’m just completely overwhelmed by the enemies and have no option but to take a ton of damage. That doesn’t seem quite fair. Although you can go into berserk mode and hulk smash the crud outta them, a classic AOE attack feels like a sorely needed addition in those cases because if you’re out of Nekro no amount of skilled acrobatics can save you.
The introduction of guns in the game for the most part work as they are a refreshing novelty to use, but as I mentioned before there is one boss battle that requires guns and it is a pain to suffer through. You are getting shot at from a variety of angles by snipers and baddies and each hit does extremely high amounts of damage to you. You are expected to do the shooting as well to beat the boss. My wife and I were too busy reviving each other to actually deal hardly any damage to the boss on our first few attempts.
Overall though, I’d say 7/10 is still pretty solid and the game does not have any game-breaking issues. Despite some flaws, it still delivers a ton of fun
Some people love narrative in games, others think that it has little if any place in them. For me, as they say, the spice of life (or at least for video games) is variety. I am not in any sense a game purist …but this game doesn’t really challenge our views on narratology-ludology debate, so what am I talking about? Mother Russia Bleeds sets up a vague premise and then sets you loose. And for this genre, that’s all I really want. Give me a reason to fight, and let me at ‘em! I don’t want cut scenes, or much dialogue. I certainly don’t want any tear-jerking melodrama, I want to kick some butt! And shower you, it does, with butt-kicking opportunities.
The premise itself is quite unconventionally themed, I will say, being set in a drug-filled dystopian Soviet Russia during the 80’s. The inspiration for the drug use mechanic, according to K. Milol’s article, says that the devs researched and found statistics that said up to 20% of people in Soviet Russia during the 80’s were addicted to a drug with the street name “Krokodil” (apparently abuse of the drug causes the skin to resemble crocodile skin). That is some dark s***!
Again, your players have been secretly kidnapped by the government to be used as test subjects for human/drug experimentation. Clearly the case is of hubris on the government’s part because all hell is let loose. You are tasked to fight through an increasingly brutal set of scenes, each one trumping the next in its insanity, as the country descends into a violent and delirious madness, en mass.
If you are familiar with beat ’em ups, the controls are going to be mostly intuitive, but there’s some depth and complexity there as well.
The variety and stylization of the hand-fighting is definitely another one of the places where the game shines. As for your options concerning fisticuffs, you have dedicated kick, punch, throw, dash, and jump buttons. You also have a button for taunting, but I’ll let you find out what that does. As I mentioned earlier, there are some higher level moves that you can pull off such as air-throws. You can do jump kicks, and with some practice you will learn how to chain attacks with the right combination of punches and kicks. There are also dashing moves, such as the slide kick and clothes-lining, ground attacks to finish off downed enemies, and there are even charge attacks where you hold down the attack button and release it for a devastating wallop. Try combining berserk mode with charge attacks and see what happens. *wink nudge* Have fun experimenting!
The only issue that I have as far as accessibility goes is the use of Nekro. It can be a bit unintuitive, and it happens to be its unique mechanic. It took me longer than it should have to get used to using its various functions. Nekro does so much that for a good while my wife and I were healing ourselves when trying to go into berserk mode, or healing other people when we were trying to heal ourselves. For a short while we were getting mildly fussy about it, but if you push through like a trooper, like with any new skill, it’ll eventually become natural as a well-timed slide kick.
For such a small team, the game has an amazingly large amount of challenge customization. As for the story mode, you can choose between easy, normal and hardcore modes, depending on how dangerous you feel. You can also toggle ‘friendly fire’ on or off. Friendly fire just means that you can hurt your teammates, adding another level of challenge (or comedy) if you desire. I always found it pretty hilarious to have friendly fire on in other beat ‘em ups when playing with friends. If there was, for example, a health item on the ground, we’d always fight to get it first, killing each other instead of beating the game. Or in Spelunky, half the fun of the multiplayer for us is wondering how and when we would inevitably and accidentally kill each other and ruin our playthrough.The game also times and records how fast you progress through a level and how many points you got. In the level select menu there are global leaderboards (pictured above) that you can use to size yourself up against the rest of the puny world. This affords a score-based challenge, speed-running options, or both, if that’s your thing. Oh, one last thing for the story mode, there are two endings, but I won’t tell you how they differ or what you need in order to get the super extra special one.
In addition to the story mode there’s an arena mode where you can choose from nine different locales. I’m not gonna lie, it’s really hard. Each level you beat in story mode gives you a new arena. Each arena you beat gets you a new syringe power-up unlock (switching out Nekro for a different one). Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of the arena mode because rather than giving us a chance to just enjoy crushing enemies sans story, it just feels a bit unfair as we get quickly overwhelmed without recourse to many crowd-control tools, some of them with unavoidable attacks. I’m looking at you knife flailing runners!The last thing I will mention is that it also has a list of achievements to unlock. Some of them are pretty arbitrary and funny, and most are really difficult. Isn’t that why they call them achievements? Anyways, I only have a pathetic 6 out of 33.
On some levels this game is quite unique; in others it is quite conventional. Being conventional though isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and being unique isn’t necessary a good thing either. Being a pretty darn good game though, it’s mostly the good kind of unique and the good kind of conventional. Striking that balance is definitely a challenge for any game, but especially those that are trying to draw on nostalgia and genre to keep their audience gripped.
Just as a good user designer does their best to create a product that doesn’t confound their customers, a game designer that is drawing on genre shouldn’t confound their audience too much either. I felt quite at home in the easy to use fighting mechanics of the game. I wanted throws, kicks and punches and if these were absent for some unique reason, it would be like ordering a hamburger and getting a sandwich with no burger. Or expecting to hear the piano in John Cage’s infamous 4’33. On the other hand, although the unique mechanic of Nekro did feel a little odd, it worked, …in slightly limping, but still manageable way.The theme, art style and sound design were absolutely wonderful and one-of-a-kind. I loved every aspect of these both, but as I said, some aspects of this can be a bit divisive. I happen to love pixel art and can recognize the difference between someone with talent and those who are just using pixel art to cover up for a lack of skill in the art department. Yet, there are generations of gamers now who didn’t have the gaming history that I’ve had, where I learned to be happy with rather simple graphics as long as the game had interesting gameplay.
The same goes for the music and the over-the-top brutality of the game. Compared to mainstream games, the game is incredibly unorthodox in its tastes. I just happen to be a kid who grew up playing Mortal Kombat, Primal Rage, Killer Instinct and other bloody arcade fighting games and I went though a dark industrial tencho phase. It’s like this game was made for me. Are there enough people like me out there to appreciate it? I suppose that’s the double-sided sword of standing out.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
I have such a hard time scoring games. Why must I quantitate the qualitative!? Okay, with that out of my system, this game just worked for me. It’s the soul of punk; a game made by four crazy dudes who went all out on a project fueled by what can only seem like the raw and messy spirit of art.
After doing this review and giving this game more of a thorough treatment I’ve come to realize that I am probably the perfect audience for this game so I suppose you have to take my review with a grain or two of salt. This is a game that surprisingly happened to hit on my nostalgia for beat ‘em ups, bloody 90’s games and my teenage love for dark techno while providing a fun opportunity for my wife and I to bond over. If that weren’t enough, it hit on my some of my darker tastes in story theme and my utter and profound love for creatively stylized pixel art. The game has its blemishes; however for me they are more like beauty marks.
I commend Le Cartel for having the audacity and courage to make something so unabashedly niche, and for having the follow-through to see it to the end.
Aggregated Score: 8.3