Streets of Rage 2, or Bare Knuckle 2: The Requiem of the Deadly Battle as it’s known in Japan, is amongst my favourite games of all time.
Released over 20 years ago, it astonishes me that even to this day no side-scrolling beat’em up has managed to surpass it. Sure, every once in a while a game comes along that has a good try, but for some reason or another they always end up paling in comparison. The latest is to do so is Le Cartel Studio’s Mother Russia Bleeds, finally available on PS4 after its PC release earlier this year.
Ultraviolent, bloody, and featuring a suitably thumping soundtrack that will evoke memories of the excellent Hotline Miami, Mother Russia Bleeds doesn’t pull any punches. Waking up in a lab after being arrested, seemingly addicted to a drug called Nekro, its story mode takes you through eight levels of gruelling fisticuffs as to try to discover why you were targeted and put an end to the sordid operation. You don’t have to do it all alone though; there are four characters to choose from – each with their own stats – and those you choose to leave on the bench can be controlled by up to three other players via local couch co-op or A.I. bots if you wish.
As the most important aspect of the game, it’s good that Mother Russia Bleeds’ combat is for the most part very enjoyable. Offering just standard and strong attacks which can be combined with dashes, jumps and grabs to further expand the repertoire of moves available, it’s simple yet engaging, allowing new players to easily pick up a controller and play whilst offering some degree of depth for advanced players. Over time, you’ll learn to make use of combos and charged attacks to dispatch your foes more effectively and create breathing space. You’ll develop a keen eye for weapons that can be picked up and put to good use too, ranging from syringes to swords to shotguns, all useful for making short work of those who oppose you.
Separating Mother Russia Bleeds from its peers is its unique drug system, which adds a welcome element of strategy to the game. With the default drug selected, you start with three doses available which can be used at any time to heal yourself or your comrades, or activate berserk mode in which you do more damage and can perform fatalities. By engaging in the game’s wave-based arena mode and performing well, you can also unlock more drugs for selection which offer enhanced effects, though often at the expense of a reduced number of available doses. To replenish your doses during play, you need to drain them from the twitching bodies of those that have been defeated. As you can imagine, in the heat of battle this can be tricky, especially when you factor in that bodies only twitch for a limited amount of time.
Unfortunately, bringing the gameplay of Mother Russia Bleeds down a peg or two is the weightless movement of your character and the accuracy with which you need to align with enemies to interact with them. Together they lead to moments where you’ll think you’re lined up for a successful attack but end up just gesticulating in the air, opening yourself up for a counter-attack. You learn to adjust somewhat, making it less of an issue, but due to Mother Russia Bleeds’ relentless and chaotic nature you often don’t have the time or even visibility to do so, leading to unnecessary frustration.
There are occasions in Mother Russia Bleeds where the screen is literally just a mess of bodies as enemies pile in from both sides, eager to smash in your face. It’s somewhat impressive and really gets the adrenaline flowing, but not clearly being able to see just where you are and what you’re doing will mean you’re often left being beaten to a pulp on the floor. Even worse, late in the game, it’s not uncommon for a sneaky shotgunner to sneak in whilst you’re preoccupied, making short work of you and your companions with just a couple of shots that you had little chance to avoid. You walk away with the feeling that if Mother Russia Bleeds’ madness had been toned down just a little, it would still be a riot, but just more of an enjoyable one.
Despite its issues though, Mother Russia Bleeds still manages leave you with more happy thoughts than bad, especially when played with friends in local co-op. The violent action does a great job of holding your attention as the story unfolds, with each level book-ended by a memorable boss fight. And whilst you’ll encounter the odd unfair death along the way, you’ll jump right back in, eager to see things through to the very end. Mother Russia Bleeds doesn’t come anywhere near to toppling Streets of Rage 2 as the best scrolling beat’em up, but it has a decent stab at it, making it a recommended purchase for fans of the genre.