In case this preview becomes admissible in a court of a law, let me state for the record: I've never inflicted blunt force trauma on anyone using an uprooted toilet. But if I did, I imagine it would sound exactly like it does in Mother Russia Bleeds, the latest game published by the keen indie curators at Devolver Digital. This absolutely brutal beat-'em-up for 1-4 players is best understood as Streets of Rage by way of Hotline Miami, where buckets of blood, hyper-violent executions, and drug-induced frenzies are all commonplace. MRB's presentation, from the gore-stained pixelated visuals to the guttural thumps of the sound effects, left me feeling rattled and overstimulated - but in a (mostly) good way.
You and any of your co-op cohorts play as prisoners in a fictionalized take on the USSR in the 1980s, acting as the guinea pigs for a new drug called Necro that's backed by the mafia and corrupt authorities alike. On top of choosing a character - selecting from a cast with cliche names like Sergei, Ivan, Natasha, and Boris - you also get to pick out which drug you want to take with you in your trusty syringe (though I only got to try out the neon green variety). From there, this is a straightforward, left-to-right-scrolling brawler where you beat the intestines out of anyone and anything that stands in your way.
Those potent drugs are the core of Mother Russia Bleeds' light narrative and combat systems. As you savagely smash heads trying to deduce why you've been taken captive and experimented on, you'll intermittently have hallucinations of a viscera-covered otherworld, with visions of a grotesque throne that resembles a giant human heart, before snapping back to your already surreal reality and losing your lunch. And when it comes to gameplay, you can inject your stash of drugs to either heal yourself or enter a Berserk mode, where your movements become an extremely cool blur, and grabbing any enemy results in a vicious instant kill. Sergei (the everyman of the group, and my go-to) will uppercut the skull clean off his opponent, which can then be picked up and used as a weapon (or juggled), while Boris takes his poor target and breaks their spine over his knee.
Your limited supply of drugs also creates an interesting mechanic, especially in co-op: you need to keep yourself topped off by extracting that sweet, sweet drug syrup from the twitching bodies of defeated enemies (or unfortunate bystanders, including some bloated, sickly-looking pigs). It's essentially a new twist on trying to divvy up health pick-ups like roasted turkeys found in trash cans to whoever needs it most, only here, you have to protect the extractor as if you were BioShock's Big Daddy guarding a Little Sister while she collects ADAM. Having to make yourself briefly vulnerable in order to replenish a resource that makes you all-powerful is a neat addition to the standard brawler formula.
It's hard to go wrong with the classic fun of a beat-'em-up in a full party of four players, though there are a few things about Mother Russia Bleeds that give me pause. The hit detection felt unsatisfying at times, with vertical planes that offer very little leeway; I'd constantly whiff attacks that really felt like they should've connected, or would often fumble in place trying to grab an enemy. It also feels like the game might be trying a little too hard to be xXxEDGYxXx in places, like a taunt animation where Boris poops into his own hand before flinging it like a projectile.
If you loved the arcade beat-'em-ups of old, you'll likely dig how Mother Russia Bleeds blends the chaotic action of Turtles in Time or The Simpsons with the over-the-top violence of Narc. Just make sure you've got a strong stomach, for both extreme retro gore and occasionally spotty fistfighting. Mother Russia Bleeds will debut on PC later this month, and PS4 later this year.