What's a down-on-his-luck street fighter to do when The Man rolls in, rounds up his buddies and force feeds them experimental drugs? Go on a bloody violent rampage through the streets of an alternate history U.S.S.R., of course. Mother Russia Bleeds is a classically-styled sidescrolling beat 'em up that focuses on one thing: combat. Also drugs, but the drugs are related to combat, so we'll count it as one thing.
Four fighters offer a bit of variety right from the start. Ivan's got the range and the muscle, making him a great choice for anyone who just wants to hurt people. Natasha is light on her feet but has the shortest range. Sergei and Boris are a little more balanced, with the former slightly favoring speed and the latter range. Combos and general play styles remain the same no matter who you side with, so it basically comes down to choice.
As was the case with old school brawlers like Final Fight, Streets of Rage and Double Dragon, Mother Russia Bleeds gives you a few stock moves you can elaborate upon in the heat of battle. There's a basic punch that's easy to chain into a three hit knockdown combo. You can also charge your punch for a power hit, great for groups of low-level baddies. Kicks deliver more power at the cost of some speed. Throws, dashes and sidesteps let you control battlefield positioning. You can also pick up weapons knocked out of enemy hands and use it against them. Bats, police batons, even guns are all fair game. Combining these moves and experimenting with directional presses is the key to causing maximum damage.
Layered on top of the standard set of attacks is Mother Russia Bleeds's Nekro syringe system, a.k.a. drugs are maybe good for you. Use Nekro to recover health, revive your co-op partners, or even go berserk. You get three injections per syringe, and to refill you have to topple an enemy and draw more from their twitching corpse. Yes, bad guys are filled with drugs. They probably dropped out of school to steal food from orphanages, too. There are about a dozen unlockable drugs in the game, each with their own affect on combat. Pick your poison at the start of the game, then let the fun begin.
Brawlers have had great co-op experiences since the ancient arcade days, and Mother Russia Bleeds doesn't mess with that formula. Up to four local players can join in the fight at the same time, each selecting their own character and favorite drug. Anyone can drop in at anytime just by pressing start on the gamepad. Reviving fallen players is a big part of the cooperative experience, and since Nekro is required to bring them back to life, frequent deaths can really put a dent in the flow of the game. Both story mode and arena battles support local multiplayer, and if you're feeling especially frisky, switch on friendly fire and see who yells at who first.
Mother Russia Bleeds goes for this grungy, over the top pseudo-80s aesthetic, and for the most part, it works. The visuals are top-notch. Gorgeous pixel art decorates each and every scene, and we're not talking chunky Mario graphics. The backgrounds are filled with detail, stuffing corners with graffiti and grime to really nail that vintage look and feel. Enemies even show cuts and bruises as you pound them to a pulp. The writing invites a cringe or two with its labored attempts at sounding edgy and grim. You could argue it's going for intentional cheese, but it doesn't quite hit the mark either way.
Mother Russia Bleeds focuses a lot on combat, but the unfortunate fact is the fighting isn't that interesting. Combos feel short and isolated. Sure, you can chain a couple of punches into a few finishers, but try to sprinkle in some other moves and it grinds to a screeching halt, forcing you to start the chain all over again. This makes each section feel like a "press buttons until enemies go away" affair. Not much strategy, not much variety, just pound the baddies until you can move on.
Gamepads are pretty much a requirement to fully enjoy the Mother Russia Bleeds experience. All co-op players will need one to join in, but even if you're going solo, you won't want to touch the keyboard. It's just awful. Call it a quirk of the genre, perhaps, but unless you've got a decent controller laying around, Mother Russia Bleeds should probably stay on your wishlist.
Overall, Mother Russia Bleeds is a solid game that banks on brawler nostalgia to reel players in. It looks good and it's easy to get into, but once you scratch the surface you start running into all sorts of shortcomings and glitches. Boss battles are uneven, dodging is flat out broken, progress isn't saved very often, and so on. Local co-op is a smooth enough experience, but you'll pine for online support, especially when the game starts to get tough. A good beat 'em up that falls just short of greatness, though it's not a bad time waster when you're in the mood for mega violence.