Some say Friendship is Magic others say Fighting is Magic. I’m sure we can all agree that eventually Friendship is Fighting and magically leave it at that.
Type: Single-player, Multiplayer
Genre: Action, Brawler/Fighter
Developer: Mane6, Inc.
Publisher: Humble Games (Homepage)
Release date: 30 Apr, 2020
Salt, a real life ingredient that is found in almost everything, is a currency in this game. The Salt Mines are a location you can visit and I can definitely say that this game made me very salty at times. This is actually a revised version of what I initially wrote as my first review reflected my saltiness quite a bit, however just before publishing it, the Developer, Mane6, announced an upcoming patch that was going to fix a lot of my complaints I had. About a week later the patch came out and it actually did magically fix many of the problems. It’s still a bit rough around the edges and it definitely could use some more patching but I think Them’s Fightin’ Herds is going to shape up into a very enjoyable fighting game.
You may not know it but Them’s Fightin’ Herds started its life as a different game. It was a fan game based on a cartoon that was quite popular at the time. Unfortunately like a lot of fan projects that show promise, the game was shut down by the legal team of the studio that produced that diminutive equine cartoon. Fortunately, unlike most fan projects, getting shut down didn’t stop the Developer from continuing the project with its own characters. These new creations just pay homage to the source characters rather than also looking like them.
There are only six playable characters to choose from at the time of writing this which is quite a bit less than your typical fighting game, but that doesn’t really detract anything from the game. Each character has a number of skins to change their appearance and each one has its own unique abilities that complement the standard set of moves each character has. I actually think breaking away from being a fan game to being its own game was probably the best thing that could have happened to this game. Each of the six characters is unique. Had it remained true to the original, they would have been simply a different genus of the same species. Instead, other than all being quadrupeds, there is nothing really in common as they are all their own species.
Fight Fair? Buck No!
The gameplay is broken into two different styles. The styles are the combat the game is built around and the Role-Playing Game style explorable map. Let’s talk about the latter first. The RPG elements kind of remind me of the Super Nintendo style RPGs I grew up with. Moving around the 2.5D map allows your character to explore either the lobby or the story depending on which you are currently visiting. Once you find something to interact with that goes beyond just talking you are taken to a side view that is similar to when you are in combat. This allows you to navigate the terrain in different ways than the 2.5D perspective would have allowed. I have more to say about that, but I will leave that for later. Exploring the map in both the side view and 2.5D allows you to find somewhat hidden collectibles, solve puzzles, find battles to gain experience or collect salt to purchase things you may want. It’s actually for the most part an enjoyable part of the game on its own and it isn’t even the main focus of the game. The fighting is.
Fighting is your typical four primary buttons fighting style. The standard attacks are bound the same for all characters. However, each character is fairly unique once you get past those four basic buttons so calling it a “4-Button Fighting” game is a bit deceptive. There may only be four standard attack styles you can perform but there are countless combos you can pull off and various abilities that use those four buttons as their foundation. Regular, high and low attacks combined with various magical abilities keeps the fighting interesting and varied. The computer controlled characters when I first started writing this review basically would spam the block button, counter any move you made and unleash their fury on you as soon as you made a mistake. After the 1.0.3 patch, this seems to have been toned down a bit to the point where fighting against the CPU no longer seems like an exercise in futility. Sure, I did beat the CPU even when it was blocking constantly but it felt more like I got lucky than actually fighting it properly. Fighting against real players was far more interesting although they tended to be more skilled than I was. If you practice enough I am sure you could have a lot of fun online if the lobbies become fuller.
Controls and User Interface
I’m going to move this section up from its usual position near the end simply because it ties into the combat and exploration so very well that it feels warranted. The controls are very simple in this game. Direction buttons and the four attack buttons are really all you need to worry about… well not really, but it sounds nice. The controls, or as I was corrected by my friend, the timing, in this game is very unforgiving. While you might be able to easily pull off the move you are trying to make, you might not be able to pull it off fast enough (or perhaps slow enough) for the game to recognize what you are trying to do. When doing the tutorial, the game shows you what inputs it is receiving as well as tells you what it wants. You can pull off exactly what it asks you for but it will often fail to recognize that you pulled it off even though your character performed all the actions. This leads to a bit of frustration because it forces you to get the timing exactly perfect for it to register properly rather than be forgiving enough to be an enjoyable challenge. This actually made me change my controller as I thought perhaps my trusty old, with the operative word being old, XBox 360 pad had finally started showing its age. I switched to a brand new, never before used XBox One controller (which was always meant to replace the 360 pad when it eventually broke) and I learned two things. The first is that the XBox 360 pad is far more comfortable in my hands than the XBox One controller and two, it wasn’t my controller’s fault! I even tried using the keyboard and mouse (not recommended really) and didn’t have any luck there. I broke out my back up PlayStation 3 controller (also new) and had similar results. I even tried playing it on a different (and superior) computer and had the same issue and tried it on an inferior slower computer and still had no luck. After trying all of that I took to the forums and it turns out it is an issue a number players have mentioned.
When in fighting mode, these challenges are not really an issue. That is because you are no longer trying to pull the challenge off to gain credit for completion in the tutorial. Even if you don’t pull off the move you wanted odds are you still pulled off something thanks to the combat being tied to the four buttons. When in the Story mode exploring the world in the side view, it makes doing things such as long jumps a bit of a challenge as well. Often times I would pull off the move it asked me for and my character would simply do a basic hop instead of the intended long jump. Trying various controllers again, the PlayStation 3 pad seemed to have the easiest time of it (although it still failed a fair number of times) and the XBox One pad could pull it off if I used both the D-pad and the left stick almost in tandem in order to get the timing right.
A friend of mine who also owns the game did a little experiment for me. One which if they played online would be cheating and likely get a well-deserved ban, but playing in offline mode in the tutorial I am sure they can be forgiven since it was for science! They programmed a script to fire off the various moves they wanted it to pull off based on the tutorial prompts. The funny thing is the script on loop, with no modification to the timing between loops, could not pull off the tutorial combo’s reliability. It wasn’t until they refined it at the millisecond level that it managed to make it become consistent and even then it only worked about 95% of the time. They also tried testing for tolerances (margin of error) in the input of the controls and found that it is very unforgiving here too to the point of being a mere few degrees off the precise input it is looking for was sufficient for it to fail. Do I believe my friend’s tests are fair to the game? Perhaps not as the script itself might be introducing issues that are skewing the results but it does still reinforce the experience I had myself. The basic idea I am trying to get across is the game is likely to be very unforgiving to new players of the genre or people with well enjoyed controllers. The game is likely even more unforgiving for individuals with physical disabilities that may prevent them from reacting with the lightning fast reflexes and impeccable timing required to pull it off successfully each time. Is that to say the game is bad? No not all, its flaw the Developer can fix in time by reexamining the timing and adding a larger margin for error. It might even be able to be introduced as a difficulty tweak. The harder the game settings the tighter the timing or lower margin of error, and the easier the settings the more forgiving it can be. I’m not suggesting it should be simplified down to being press one button to win the game, merely just having it recognize that I am pressing the requisite button combination would suffice.
The user interface, ignoring both the aforementioned combat and side view platforming element issues, is quite well done. The ability to walk around the lobby looking for treasure, customizing your look and scrapping with other players is an interesting way to handle the Player versus Player elements. They even have an interesting way to handle two players attempting to claim the same chest. They fight over it with the victor taking the spoils! It’s easy to see the Developer has put a lot of thought and care in to even the lobby of this game which is why I think this game does have a bright future ahead of it once the current annoyances are dealt with. The main menu is broken down into various easy to understand categories. It can be a bit awkward to navigate using a keyboard at times because I have a habit of using the enter key as a confirmation button (standard in many games) rather than the Z key the game wants, but that is more on me likely than the game.
Overall, the controls for this game are quite simple and very easy to pick up and understand. The basic combat moves should be easy for anyone to get in to. The game even goes so far as to mention that if you are on the opposite side of the screen that your directional controls will be basically reversed. If it wasn’t for the extreme frustration I had trying to consistently pull off the longer combo chains or even pulling off a simple long jump multiple times in a row, I likely would have enjoyed the game even more.
Can’t We All Not Get along?
Breaking away from the Controls and User Interface and back in to the review proper we will pick up where we left off. There are multiple modes available for you to enjoy. If you want to battle against local friends you can do that all on one computer. If you want to take it to the online world and find others to play with you can via the Pixel Lobby system. There doesn’t appear to be a way for you to play online with just friends which is disappointing. You can’t even join a server with zero people in it as the game will redirect you to another server that has more people in it. It’s likely deliberately programmed that way rather than an oversight though as it prevents people from easily grinding out salt/unlockables without effort. Hidden in the Pixel Lobby is another mode besides just bashing the various players around you. The Salt Mines. It has multiple levels of difficulty and is actually quite a bit of fun. The top player actually gets to hunt the other players and unlocks a rather nice new skin too. The Salt Mines are also obviously a great source of salt in order to buy all the upgrades you may want for your character’s wardrobe.
The Story mode I mentioned earlier is interesting. The most recent update at the time of writing this, 1.0.3, revises the recently released story mode to act as more of training to prepare the player for the rest of the game. It’s still unfinished and only has one character, but the other characters will apparently get their time to shine in future updates. The Story Mode is where I would likely spend most of my time once it is polished and complete. There are even fairly grand scale bosses with multiple phases to deal with besides just the regular computer controlled enemies. While playing online is fun and I do enjoy the Salt Mines, I have to face facts and that it’s very likely I will lose the fights more often than not when playing against other people. Them’s Fightin’ Herds is played competitively by people who are far more practiced and skilled at brawlers than I am. That is perfectly fine too, you don’t have to win them all! It just makes it even more enjoyable when you do win in comparison going in to it expecting yet another fail. A friend of mine is someone who has countless fighting games in their library that they quite enjoy and while they did identify that there were problems with the timing and user input recognition in Them’s Fightin’ Herds they did manage to compensate for them better than I could. So if you consider yourself a professional fighting game player then don’t let the cute looks of this game fool you as it can be rather unforgivingly hard. For people who are not skilled with these sorts of games, you might find it a bit too challenging at first. Practice (and some Developer patching) makes perfect they say!
As mentioned, don’t be fooled by the cartoonish nature of the characters, this game actually looks good. A lot of care and detail went in to almost every element of this game. From the pixel art to the hand drawn cartoon style combat, I can’t imagine Them’s Fightin’ Herds looking much better than it does already. The expressions on the characters faces as they duke it out just seals the deal. Almost seamlessly changing between 2.5D pixel style to side view cartoon style as you progress through the story helped keep it feeling fresh and interesting. During battle the characters move through a range of poses, some of which can be quite bizarre (I’m looking at you Paprika the Alpake!) Oleander’s character was the most interesting to me. She acts the part of the teacher during the tutorial which seems like a very suitable role for her based on her probable origin character. In combat she is supported by a dark magic book, the Unicornomicon (which has a demon inside it). The fact she gets cocky and whips the book out and reads it mid-combat (she can even do it in the air!) to restore her magic power was a real visual treat. I won’t spoil any of the other characters for you though, if you want to know more about them you will have to play the game. Each of them has their own charms.
Speaking of charms, there is even a decent amount of customization you can do to your character in all aspects of the game. From simple recolours to wearing costumes there is plenty you can do to make yourself stand out. The only sad part about the costumes is that they don’t show up while in combat, just when you are in the Pixel Lobby or wandering around in Story mode. I’m sure as the game grows there will be even more ways to dress up your character and maybe they will eventually show up in combat too!
Usually I’m always a bit on the generic side when it comes to sound. That’s partly because I tend to tune the sound out while I focus on the gameplay and then have to come back to it as an afterthought. That definitely wasn’t the case here. Considering this is an Indie game I think it has to have some of the best music I have heard as backtracks. From the main menu to the individualized tracks for each character in the character menu, this game spared no effort when trying to make this into a great sounding game. The music is even more magical during the boss battles. The music changes its tone and begins to amp you up as the tempo increases and then proceeds to build on that momentum as the battle progresses. Each of the characters are voiced although so far the story dialogue is text based. It is a nice little treat to hear them say various lines of dialogue both on the character selection screen and while in combat. Arizona the Cattlekind (Tara Strong) shouting Got Milk? amused my friend greatly. Even the generally repeated sound effects in game are hard to call generic. If this game has any element that is particularly strong it’s definitely the audio!
So, should you pick up Them’s Fightin’ Herds? This was an incredibly difficult game for me to pin a review score on. I have to admit when I first wrote this review I gave it a Pause, the reason being three fold. The first and foremost being that the timing of user inputs required or the recognition of user inputs seemed to be poorly implemented. It almost felt random if the game would respond how you were asking it to. Simple things like long jumps turned into a frustrating affair when the game made you do two of them in a row without fail otherwise your progress would reset. The tutorial which is meant to show you how to play the game would have your character performing each action you requested it to, however, the game failed to recognize that you pulled it off. Even something as simple as just pushing three buttons in a row was a great challenge. Yes, different moves have different timings and animations and you need to factor that in to a degree, but the game does tell you that you can press the next button in advance of the previous one completing. The next complaint came from the fact that even on the easiest difficulty setting the computer would just spam the block button, counter your every move and pull cheap shots off at you when in practice mode. This wasn’t that fun for a new player trying to learn the ropes (especially when combined with the input timing issue) and was equally frustrating even for more seasoned players if the various forum posts are any indicator. Thankfully this has been mostly resolved. The last point of contention was a minor one. There are currently only six characters. Most of the time these games have a ton (almost silly amounts) of characters to choose from. People coming to this game expecting similar may be disappointed. I think six is sufficient since each one feels unique from the others and odds are if you inflate the cast too much you will basically start getting hybrid units. It does get a little stale at times playing against the same few characters but the reskins do help a little. I don’t really hold that against the game, but I don’t give it any bonus points for it either.
If you have followed the development of Fighting is Magic and its evolution into Them’s Fightin’ Herds like I have, you will likely still be pleased with the end result. If you are a fan of the show Fighting is Magic was based on, you will still find the charms of your favourite characters here although they will look and behave a little different. It’s kind of fun actually figuring out who used to be who and then seeing how the character evolved to become its own unique thing and not just an imitation. Because I feel this game still needs some refinement so that people of all skill levels can enjoy it and since the Story mode is far from being complete, I will give this game a Save for Later. I’m hoping to revisit the game in the future to see how its development unfolds.