Mother Russia Bleeds

A game by Le Cartel Studio for PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, and Switch, originally released in 2016.
Mother Russia Bleeds is an extremely violent beat ‘em up set in an alternate 1986 USSR. The balance of power is shifting, and the lower levels of society are taking the first hit, with people being kidnapped by an unknown organization, and a highly addictive drug spreading through the streets. You take on the role of a street fighter – or a group of them in 4P local co-op – who is kidnapped and given forced injections of this new mind-altering drug, called nekro.

When you finally wake up, you find yourself on the floor of a grimy laboratory -slash- dungeon. Weeks have passed, and you are now hopelessly addicted to the sweet embrace of the glowing green narcotic. You fight your way out of the lab, murdering everyone in sight as you pass by glassed cells filled with failed experiments and horribly disfigured people.

Mother Russia Bleeds revels in its violence, starring a street tough antihero with nothing to lose, as he travels through gritty environments laying waste to bad guys, mutants, attack dogs, and even corrupt government officials. Unlike other beat ‘em ups, the game offers no life bar for enemies; rather, you can tell how much damage they’ve taken by the amount of blood covering their wrecked bodies.

The narcotic drug featured in the game’s introductory sequence features heavily into gameplay, as the player carries a syringe of the stuff with him at all times. With the press of a button, the player character gives himself an injection to restore a bit of health, while a separate button press allows the dose to cause a violent rampage, temporarily amping up the character’s speed and strength, and allowing for a violent 1-hit kill where an enemy may be punched so hard that his head is separated from his body. In cooperative play, syringes may also be used to revive a fallen partner.

The syringe may be refilled by extracting more of the drug from the corpses of your fallen enemies, as indicated by a small percentage of enemies that convulse on the ground after defeat. However, the player has a limited time to extract the drug before the body goes limp, and it takes a long time to fill the syringe, creating a balance of risk and reward as the player fights back enemies to give himself a few precious seconds with a body. Some enemies are so overloaded with nekro that they glow green, offering a larger dose during extraction… unless you punch their heads off, in which case their bodies yield nothing.

The game is divided into a linear story mode and an arena mode, with the story mode representing the main campaign. As is typical of the beat ‘em up genre, the story simply acts as a basis for your continued murderous exploits, but with a greater emphasis on drugs and depravity than the genre entries of the 16-bit era that inspired it. The arena mode allows the player to fight wave after wave of enemies, with new environments becoming unlocked as the player makes progress in the story mode, and this mode is entirely optional. However, there are additional drugs to unlock – which may be selected before entering a new stage – and these only become available by faring well in arena battles.

The game begins with an optional tutorial outlining each of the player’s moves. The player may walk, double tap to run, and jump, as well as perform a basic punch combo and a heavier attack that pushes enemies back. By mixing weak and strong attacks, different combos may be performed, with characters giving enemies a kick or a knee. Holding down the basic attack button also allows for a strong charged punch that does a ton of damage, but it leaves the player open to attack for a couple of seconds afterward.

In addition, players may jump kick enemies to cause a bit of damage and push them back, which is useful for crowd control, and dashing toward an enemy and punching or kicking allows the player to knock down several enemies in succession. Players may also grab enemies and punch them, or toss them into other foes as a crowd control measure. And of course, the player can jump onto any downed foe and bash him in the face until he dies… although even weaker enemies take a lot of hits to kill.

In fact, just about every enemy in the game requires a large amount of damage before finally being killed, resulting in a lot of situations where you’re facing off against a group of six or eight enemies and trying to push back a crowd of them so that you can dole out enough damage to actually kill one or two of them. Or worse, you may become swarmed by so many foes that it becomes impossible to see your character, and your health bar can be worn down quickly by a few well-placed strikes by heavy-hitters or baddies with weapons.

Dropped weapons can help with this, allowing the player to smash through enemies with bats, clubs, and even the occasional firearm. There are also some insta-kill weapons like knives and broken bottles that can be jammed into the guts of your foes to drop to their knees, barfing up blood as they slump over. But most of the time, you’ll be making due with just your fists.

The game offers an easy difficulty setting for players who are having difficulty working their way through the baddie-filled streets, as well as a normal difficulty setting, and a hardcore mode for punch-fisting purists. Players also have some control over how they engage their enemies based on the character they select, with Sergeï and the crazy-looking Boris offering the most balanced stats, while Ivan is strong but slow, and Natasha is fast but weak. Characters can be swapped out between levels by exiting to the menu.

Players opting in for 2P-4P co-op can also toggle friendly fire off to prolong their friendships, and even single players can get some of the cooperative experience by adding a bot to the mix to fight alongside them. Even without these bots, players occasionally gain support characters that fight on their side, including a guy in a gimp suit and a trio of women who hurl Molotov cocktails at guys in riot gear while players run around picking up tossed grenades and tear gas to throw back at them.

Interestingly, it is possible for many enemies to harm one another, such as rifle wielding bad guys who don’t wait until they have a clear shot before blasting away, potentially blowing the heads off of guys on their own side. There are also numerous characters who are natural enemies, such as prison guards and inmates. They will each try to fight you if you’re close, but they’ll also have a go at one another as the situation allows, doing some of your dirty work for you.

Despite the enemies’ long life bars, the game’s varied locales, enemy types, and level gimmicks help to alleviate some of the repetitive action that is typical of the beat ‘em up genre. New elements are introduced here and there, including some forced-scrolling areas, some firearm-focused blastfests, and fights that take place on train tracks where passing trains zoom across the screen, taking out most enemies and dropping your health by a good chunk if you don’t get out of the way.

One interesting sequence sees the player trying to keep a walkie talkie out of the hands of the enemy. The walkie is held like a weapon, which means that it can be dropped if the player gets knocked down, and it automatically falls to the floor whenever the player pulls out a syringe. This requires much more careful play, as the player must avoid taking too much damage and must run for the walkie whenever it is dropped. If an enemy grabs it before you do, you only have a few seconds to get it back before they radio for reinforcements, resulting in an immediate game over.

Checkpoints are frequent, and respawning always starts the player with a full health meter and a fully-filled syringe. Unfortunately, numerous checkpoints are placed immediately before dialogue-heavy cutscenes.

Most beat ‘em ups are content to simply give the player a reason to fight, and maybe offer a short bit of reinforcement along the way, but the NPC’s here offer loads of uninteresting dialogue that just serves to delay your next opportunity to make someone swallow your fist. Fortunately, dialogue can be skipped, although you do sometimes have to bypass several exchanges before moving forward, which can be painful when trying to return to the boss that just turned your brains into a tray of Bagel Bites a few seconds before.

Each of the eight themed areas ends in a boss battle. Some of these are typical beat ‘em up fare, with considerably stronger single enemies occasionally surrounded by support characters, requiring that you dole out as much damage to them as possible before they can do the same to you. Other battles are pattern-based affairs, requiring players to perform a specific set of actions in order to lure the boss into taking environmental damage. For example, one battle takes place on the railroad tracks, and it is possible to stun the boss and cause him to get hit by the train – or sacrifice some of your own health by holding him in front of the train – and the boss dies after three train collisions.

Completing each level results in a short sequence where the player character temporarily succumbs to the full effects of the nekro drug, wigging out and seeing giant pulsing organs and demonic creatures, not unlike those featured in Until I Have You. Following each of these sequences, the player character questions the reality of what he is seeing, before vomiting on the ground as everything returns to normal.

Each completed level displays the player’s stats for the level, including the number of kills, highest combo, time taken, and score, which is then tallied up for the online leaderboards. Combo numbers in particular are very forgiving, allowing players to rack up numbers into the hundreds with ease, as the meter takes several seconds to reset and does not reset when the player takes damage.

Mother Russia Bleeds was developed by Le Cartel Studio, which is based in Paris, France, and was founded in 2013 by Frédéric Coispeau and Alexandre Muttoni. The game was developed by designer Frédéric Coispeau, artist Alexandre Muttoni, programmer Florian Reneau and composer Vincent “Sloman/Slo” Cassar from Fixions.

The game was published by Devolver Digital, which has published a number of 2D indie games including Serious Sam: Double D XXL, Luftrausers, Broforce, Foul Play, Fork Parker's Holiday Profit Hike, Hotline Miami, Hotline Miami 2, Titan Souls, Not a Hero, Ronin, Downwell, Enter the Gungeon, The Swords of Ditto, Minit, The Messenger, Crossing Souls, Gato Roboto, Katana ZERO, Carrion, GRIS, and Witcheye.