Them’s Fightin’ Herds

Them’s Fightin’ Herds has an interesting backstory to it, one that drew me to the game even though it’s outside of a genre that I frequently play. Originally it started as a fan game for My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, titled, I believe, “Fighting is Magic” or something along those lines. It took the characters from the television show and reimagined them as 2D fighting characters, giving them move sets and actions that matched their personalities.

Hasbro and the other creators of the show weren’t exactly thrilled to see their friendship spreading, happy characters fighting one another, and called for a cease and desist. That might have left a bit of a pall over the situation, except Lauren Faust, lead animator and one of the main creators, was impressed enough with what they did to offer to help design new characters to fit in for the game.

The end result is a 2D fighting game with vibrantly designed characters that bare more than a passing resemblance to the main (or mane) cast of a popular animated television show.

This gives the game this wonderfully charming look and feel, not to mention a vibrancy that goes so well with games of the genre. It naturally appealed to me, as a fan of the aforementioned My Little Pony show, and it’s likely to reach out to other similar fans.

The game seems to be aware that it’s casting a wide audience. The actual fighting mechanics appear to be amazingly intricate in the way that often feels insurmountable for the more casual player. There’s air dashes, cancels, combos, resets, chip damage, and a slue of other terms that are likely to daunt those who are mostly here to play as charming animals fighting one another.

The game addresses that by having one of the most user friendly and exhaustive tutorials I’ve ever seen in a game. It goes out of its way to explain concepts that fighting game fans and developers have been aware of for a while, which is why I, as someone who mostly spends their time playing RPGs and metroidvanias, am able to use all those terms with some degree of knowledge. I played through the entire tutorial with the dark magic wielding unicorn Oleander (who also serves as the narrator for the tutorial, providing some charm, as seen above). It took the better part of an hour, but I discovered bits and pieces I never knew about fighting games in general and this game in particular.

See, being the story loving fiend that I am, I started with the game’s story mode. That follows a surprisingly intricate and well-told tale of the land the game takes place in. Here various herbivores have lived in peace for generations, each adapting to their environment and living their own lives. However, a group of shadowy predators has started attacking settlements on the fringes, with a nervous youngling informing the Council of Elders of the impending threat.

The Council calls upon each biome to send a champion forth, to find a key that would unlock knowledge and help seal away the predator threat. What follows is a surprisingly in depth epic that sees the various playable characters rising to the occasion, with beats of the story being told from varying perspectives.

Again, this is a game about cute, brightly colored animals fighting one another.

Unfortunately, here is where the game is noticeably incomplete. The only available story is Arizona’s, who, as you can see from the image, is the Champion (or Champeen as she introduces herself) of the Prairie. In a wonderful it of casting, Tara Strong, voice of Twilight Sparkle (the main character of MLP) voices Arizona for a good chunk of her story. It’s another sign of this project’s unique origins, and how willing those involved in MLP were to help it succeed.

The story is remarkably engaging and pretty lengthy; it took me the better part of 5-6 hours to get through Arizona’s tale. There are the expected fights with various predators, which take place in the same sort of screen and setup as you’d expect for a 2-D fighting game.

These play out more or less like you’d expect. Except that instead of being a chain of them, you are given the opportunity to control a sprite based version of Arizona and move around a map. There you can encounter the fights, but also explore the world. Exploration is rewarded with cosmetics, various scenes, and salt, which is used as currency.

This is way more than I was expecting out of a fighting game, showing the sort of depth I’d expect out of an RPG. Again, Arizona’s story took me something like 5-6 hours, and I was pretty actively engaged through all of it. When you consider that each of the six current characters is going to have her own chapter, with a seventh to tie the story all together, that means the total length of the story mode could be something like 35-40 hours , which rivals some RPGs.

On top of that, there’s this overarching sense of charm and wit. The characters all have their personalities, and they show in quips and interactions. Even the moves speak to the way characters think and act: snobby Velvet strikes poses to send her ice, while Arizona loves throwing herself into battle, and the strange llama Paprika zips and twirls around the battle.

I loved reading the various bits of dialogue and the fun nods here and there. It feels like care and time went into this, and the end product is just wonderfully crafted.

However, as of the posting of this review, only Arizona’s story is actually complete. It feels like a huge chunk of the game is just outright missing. That leaves me in this awkward position. I well and truly loved my time playing through the story and mastering how the controls work (more or less), but right now, I’m stuck here waiting while something like 30 hours of content is still being made. That is a huge chunk of game that’s just not out yet.

It also seems to show in the Arcade mode, which is another of the single-player modes (there’s also some more open training areas, your standard select a computer opponent and fight, and various multiplayer affairs). In this, you pick a character, and before you even get to confirm or hear a witty line, you’re whisked away to a fight.

You’ll fight each currently complete character in the standard best two out of three matches. Your character’s on the left; the opponent’s on the right. There are some basic lines of dialogue between characters, and again some are very well done, but this still feels stripped down. Even Street Fighter II had you zipping around a map in an airplane and some fun exchanges between characters. It just feels like something’s missing.

Even the ending reward feels a bit lacking, as you get a cute images of whomever you were playing as… and then the admittedly very well done credits.

So I’m a bit confused on how I should rate this. I absolutely love my time with the game, and I’ve been actively trying to learn to play Oleander, who I love as a character, and Vixen, who turned out to be my favorite playstyle of the bunch (and who I’m hoping sees some development in her story). The fighting is engaging, it feels like it’s been well balanced, and my only complaint there is that it often feels like my opponents are “turtling” too much: simply blocking their way through fights (I figured out how to surmount that through the tutorial, which covers throws and that aforementioned chip damage).

The story also feels just so amazingly well done. The game radiates wit and charm to such a degree that it makes me smile just thinking about it. I really want to go back and play it so I can see these characters and enjoy the fun gameplay. I’ll even likely replay the story mode, particularly now that I’ve finished the tutorials.

But the game is just unfinished. I can understand wanting to get the product out there, but this feels almost like playing an alpha or a game still in the works. I bought the deluxe version, which comes with the Season Pass. That should give me something like 4 more characters, stages, and the like, which I anticipated wanting. However, it also meant I spent $40 on a game that’s noticeably missing content.

I’m willing to say that the game’s a safe bet for being great when that content finishes, and I’m stuck here crossing my fingers, praying, and contemplating getting a whip and heading to the studio to get these developers moving. This game has a great chance of being one of my top of the year, and I really hope it continues to excel.

9 It’s a bit tentative; the remaining story and possible polishes to the arcade mode could bump it up or drag it down (the game is so close to perfect though; just a few minor irritations like the AI blocking like crazy and a few rough edges that may get sanded off as future development is made)

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