One of the little things that make Final Fight and Streets Of Rage 2 stand head and shoulders above their peers is their throw animation. Observe how the hold and subsequent release unfold in something like slow motion, every frame deliberately pronounced; how the body of an enemy launched into the fray momentarily stops at every contact with another. These brief sequences of temporal stuttering come with a twofold purpose: They deliver a frame-by-frame lesson in brawling trigonometry, and punctuate the success of taking out a whole group of foes with a single move, the side-scrolling beat ’em up equivalent of a bowling strike.
Mother Russia Bleeds is an attempt to recapture the magic of this largely dormant genre, but it falls short, neglecting such finer points in favor of broad strokes. It stacks the screen with as many vicious skinheads and pumped-up bouncers as it can muster, making sure that dispatching them is as bloodily gruesome a process as its 16-bit aesthetic can possibly convey.
There’s a story behind all the punching and katana-wielding, and it is, of course, an entirely nonsensical one. Four friends are kidnapped by the local mafia, imprisoned, and injected with the experimental Nekro drug, which causes them to experience nightmarish hallucinations. After escaping from the lab, they take to the streets of a retro-dystopian Soviet Union to track down the mafia boss and exact their revenge. Ridiculous narrative choices have been a genre hallmark ever since twin brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee decided punching each other’s lights out for love was an advisable course of action at the end of Double Dragon and, in this respect, Mother Russia Bleeds delivers.
Le Cartel’s game starts off pleasantly enough. There’s a simple joy to repeatedly elbowing a frenzied hobo in the face, rendered in Mother Russia Bleeds’ titillating visual detail and accompanied by a brooding synth soundtrack that evokes Blade Runner slums and Rocky IV villains. The backgrounds are exceptionally crafted, capturing the contrast between the squalor of the streets and the opulence of the clubs and penthouses where corrupt oligarchs ply their trade, a juxtaposition of inequality brought level through the creative violence visited upon them by our vengeful foursome. It all fuses into a fascinating spectacle for a while, but soon enough, the brutal stabbings and decapitations are revealed as little more than sensationalist attempts to distract from shallow, repetitive combat.
To describe the violence of Mother Russia Bleeds as hollow and impersonal is not to criticize it as much on an ethical level as an aesthetic one. The slow stutter of Final Fight’s throw, apart from being educational and celebratory, also had a third function: It served to acknowledge every enemy as an individual presence in the game, an entity with a distinct name underlined by a little yellow health bar that appeared every time you landed a hit. More than individuating your opponents, these names and yellow bars imbued your efforts with a sense of progress and encouraged tactical decision-making: This guy is healthy; that one will be dropped with a well-placed kick.
There are no names or health bars in Mother Russia Bleeds and, with the game throwing ludicrous numbers of enemies at you in later levels, there comes a point when it seems that you’re not targeting the individual security guard or skinhead any more. Instead, the impact of each strike is drowned within a tirelessly advancing, faceless mass of humanity. It feels unexciting and repetitive, and the problem is compounded by an assortment of dubious design choices. Your opponents become increasingly resistant to damage as you progress, soaking up hit after hit and turning encounters into prolonged bouts of button mashing. The action extends beyond the visible area of the screen resulting in your character having to attack unseen enemies outside its borders in order to retain their combo meter progress. And, statistical differences aside, all the playable characters share a mostly identical moveset.
Le Cartel’s attempt to turn its game into a score-chasing endeavor helps, but it’s not entirely successful, since the rules that define how scoring works are never elucidated. There are extra points to be gained from varying your attacks, completing a level as quickly as possible, and achieving a high number of total kills, but how these factors weigh against each other remains unclear. A cavalcade of bugs and technical issues—which include random freezes, ability-enhancing drugs refusing to unlock even after all requirements have been met, and characters getting stuck in the environments or simply vanishing after a checkpoint—further undermine the legitimacy of Mother Russia Bleeds as a serious competitive title.
Other than the detailed (if irritatingly faux-transgressive) visuals, the most memorable aspect of the game is its inventive boss fights that pit you against mutated humanoid beasts in all sorts of precarious environments: the half-darkness of a dimly lit slaughterhouse; in front of the rotating blades of a modified combine harvester; inside an apartment razed by helicopter fire. The spark of creativity displayed by these short sections hints at a promise unfulfilled, but overall, it fails to compensate for a mostly joyless affair. For all of its retro-flavored razzle-dazzle, Mother Russia Bleeds remains as two-dimensional as its meticulously crafted character models, demonstrating little depth in either the combat that defines the experience or the narrative trappings that accompany it.