Like most things from the late '80s and early '90s, the 2D side-scrolling beat 'em up is no longer particularly cool or relevant. Sure, a certain type of ageing nostalgist (guilty as charged) will get excited about Capcom Beat 'Em Up Bundle or Streets of Rage 4, but the kids have long since moved on to something else. And let's face it, the kids were probably right to. To genre outsiders, your average side-scrolling beat 'em up is shallow, repetitive and deeply dumb – and Mother Russia Bleeds is nothing if not an average side-scrolling beat 'em up, with an extra side order of unpleasantness.
You could always rely on the beat 'em up greats to insert a brief splash of colourful cartoon violence into a drab afternoon. Your muscle-bound hero may have been laying into a group of goons with a length of pipe, but the likes of Final Fight and Streets of Rage had all the grit and cynicism of an '80s cartoon. Mother Russia Bleeds takes a rather different approach. It's self-consciously dark and 'Mature'. That's 'Mature' as in the old cinematic rating, rather than the non-capitalised sense of the word, with the kind of hyper-violent flavour and obsession with grimy dystopia that only a mopey teenager would view as 'adult'.
You play the role of one of four drug-addled thugs breaking out of a Russian cell. Using the neon-green experimental drug Nekro to bolster your attacks and periodically heal your wounds, you must kick, punch, and maim your way ever rightwards.
It's always a little disheartening to find a modern reinvention of a genre that doesn't do anything to drag that genre forwards. Mother Russia Bleeds plays its repetitive action by the book, with a dull selection of characters (a fast one, a strong one and two middle-of-the-road ones) and a limited array of ground and air attacks. There are basic combos and special moves, but nothing even approaches the sophistication of something like Warriors of Fate or Captain Commando from the aforementioned Capcom Beat 'Em Up Bundle – and those games are going on 25 years old now.
You can pick up weapons to either temporarily augment your blows or fling at your opponents, but that's not a new trick, either. The most interesting addition to the combat engine is the aforementioned Nekro mechanic, and that's essentially just a secondary bar that fuels health top ups or a brief overpowered window of mayhem. Having to harvest that Nekro from certain downed enemies is a neat touch, though.
This being a fairly by-the-books beat 'em up, Mother Russia Bleeds is of course way more fun in local co-op. You can drag three more players into the fray, and the ability to use Nekro to revive downed comrades certainly adds a measure of strategic interest. But it still all feels like a bit of a button-mashing slog that struggles to maintain your interest. The developer has worked hard to mix the levels and boss fights up, but the core action is pretty one-note.
Ultimately, we found that there were only so many junkies, bums and zombie pigs that we could pummel before it all grew rather wearisome. Mother Russia Bleeds plays by the rules set 30 years ago by Final Fight and company, but it then sucks out all of the charm, colour and knock-about joy of that golden period by trying to be as edgy and 'Mature' as possible, without presenting a cohesive or appealing premise.
As tribute acts go, Mother Russia Bleeds is perfectly proficient. If you're someone who's genuinely aching for a classically-styled scrolling beat 'em up and you dig the whole grim aesthetic thing, then there's plenty to enjoy here. But in all honesty, you'd be much better off with a copy of Capcom Beat 'Em Up Bundle, which provides both a purer and a more sophisticated reminder of why us '80s and '90s kids dug this genre so much back in the day. More recently, titles like Bud Spencer & Terence Hill - Slaps and Beans have shown that there's still room for a little creativity in what is admittedly a rather stale genre. It's a shame that Mother Russia Bleeds doesn't offer the same sense of innovation.
Mother Russia Bleeds is a proficiently-made side-scrolling beat 'em up that ultimately fails to drag this already limited genre forwards with any great new ideas of its own. Add in a wearyingly mature aesthetic and you're left with an oddly downbeat button-mashing action game; fans of the genre should wait for the forthcoming Streets of Rage 4 or download Capcom's superb Beat 'Em Up Bundle.