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Sometimes there is a fighting game that releases as a bit of a surprise. It may be somewhat unconventional, like Tobal No. 1, or it could be something quirky and full of character, like ClayFighter. In a game space filled with very similar styles of character types, themes, and mechanics, it can be quite refreshing when something a bit off the grid releases in the same space as other competent fighting games. But, while it may be quite refreshing to play such a game, there is no guarantee of its quality. Regardless of how different a fighting game may be, it still needs certain mainstays, such as quality mechanics, tight controls, systems with depth, and, of course, fun factor.
When a new fighting game releases touting its barnyard animals that battle each other for farmland supremacy, the immediate assumption may not be that the game will include any of the aforementioned mainstays. There is no denying the inevitable charm of pitting bovine beat downs against llama lickings, however, especially with the appealing art style permeating the title. If the game is not fundamentally sound, however, no amount of charisma can save it. So what is the fate for Them’s Fightin’ Herds? Let’s dive in.
The first thing you’ll notice with Them’s Fightin’ Herds, a new fighting game developed by Mane6, Inc., and published by Modus Games, is the art style. The style commands attention in the best way, and every piece of art is impressive. From the detail and whimsy of each stage to every frame of animation, this game is an absolute feast for the eyes. The art team did an exceptional job, embracing the challenge of making animals not only have heaps of character, but also feel relatable.
Another exceptional aspect is the music, which somehow manages to match all of the charm found in the art. The music fits the mood of each match, and what a welcome treasure it is! From each stage to the various venues throughout the story mode, each track is a joy to discover.
Adding to the list of welcome surprises is the impressive story mode. Starting up the story mode, I had no idea what I was in for. What I found was a pseudo-RPG-inspired mode that pits your character in a top-down pixel world, speaking with townsfolk and encountering enemies, just like the retro RPGs so many of us grew up with. While you do not level up stats and such, you do find treasure chests filled with items that you can use to customize your character’s overworld appearance. Sadly, the character’s appearance during fighting sequences remains unaltered, but it’s still fun to search for these treasures as they can also be used to customize your character in the online lobbies, which we’ll get to momentarily.
Beyond treasure hunting, the story mode weaves an interesting tale about mysterious foes that are a threat to all of the various animal kingdoms in the game. In order to thwart the impending doom, a council of various animal leaders decides to send a call throughout the lands for champions that may fulfill the prophecy to save the world, and those champions make up the roster of Them’s Fightin’ Herds.
At present, only one story chapter is finished, however, with the rest coming in the future. The initial chapter, which lasts a nice 4 to 7 hours, or more if you search for everything, does a fine job setting the scene, introducing many characters, along with a fine helping of Easter eggs which I will not spoil here. Suffice it to say that pop cultural and folk lore references abound, and it adds to the incredible charm already oozing from this title. Chapter one has a lot to it as you travel across many towns, conversing with several interesting sorts as you solve a number of mysteries, and, naturally, fighting them herds.
When you do engage in the fights, you’ll face a portion of the game’s fighting systems. Most of the enemies you face have an altered AI logic than the base game, making them easier than the “normal” AI that you face in the other modes. This is because you often fight many opponents in a row, usually in sequence, but sometimes simultaneously as well. In the case of the bosses, they bring their own brand of maddening challenge, but they usually work as more of a twisted puzzle to figure out while also fighting an upgraded version of the story AI. The bosses mean business and are sure to test your patience, however, as I was usually left feeling mentally bruised and battered whenever I finally succeeded in beating one on my journey through the intermediate difficulty.
Stepping out of the whimsical story mode, you are left with several other modes of play. Local allows you to challenge a friend or CPU for a quick match, or take on the Arcade mode to face a series of foes in typical arcade action. Online offers Casual Match to quickly find a match, Classic Lobby to search and create lobbies in order to face online friends or cross hooves with strangers, and then there are the Pixel lobbies which, while engaging with others and awaiting matches, allow you to dress your adorable animal avatars in an assortment of customization options that you can either discover or purchase at a store in the lobby with your winnings from online victories. I wish I could sing the praises of the fine net code which uses GGPO rollback net code, but, despite spending several hours in online queues, I couldn’t find matches during the review portion during the times that I searched. Once the game releases, I am hopeful that finding smooth matches will be a simple affair, based on the PC build of the game that has been in the wild since before the console release.
Something that I can absolutely sing praises about is the Practice mode, which, along with housing any saved replays and featuring a fully-stacked Training mode, has one of the best Tutorials I’ve ever experienced in a fighting game, and that’s saying something! I would place it right alongside the fantastic tutorials found in ArcSystemWorks fighters, such as Guilty Gear Xrd, Strive, and the BlazBlue games, as well as the semi-recent Killer Instinct, which all represent the pinnacle of fighting game tutorials. Above even those, I believe the explanations and illustrations of hit boxes and frame data found in Them’s Fightin’ Herds are the finest across any fighting game. If anyone had any confusion regarding such things, they will not after playing this amazing tutorial.
So all of that brings us to the core of the game, itself. How is the actual fighting? Could a game that features four-legged farm friends actually house a competent fighting system? You bet your sweet bippy, it does! This was the biggest surprise for me, and I suspect it will be a fine surprise for many in the fighting game community that have yet to play it as well. From meter usage, hitstun, blockstun, tech rolls, tech escapes, dashes, air dashes, overheads, combos, supers, armor, and all of the other fancy fighting terms, to tools that span from cancels and push blocks to negative edge techniques, Them’s Fightin’ Herds came to play!
Just playing a quick match before diving into the tutorial, I was stunned by each of the systems I was noticing. This is a competent fighter! It feels tight, and combos make sense, seeming to take a page from Guilty Gear’s gatling combo system (combo-ing from A, to B, to C). The move set isn’t very large for the characters, but what they have feels very good, and there is a surprising amount of versatility in their abilities.
Each character has a light, medium, and heavy attack, and each has a unique special button that utilizes a magic meter in various ways to perform actions completely apart from other characters. There is also a special meter that builds throughout the match with up to three levels of growth, allowing for some flashy specials that not only devastate opponents, but they look cool, too.
With all of these incredible surprises in this package, there are a few needles in the haystack. The first is that the game is clearly not finished. The fact that only one chapter of the Story Mode is ready at launch attests to this, along with a Gallery option that is merely a placeholder at present. There is also a rather small amount of fighters at launch, with only a total of seven making the cut. While they are all interesting and unique, including a fiery dragon and magical unicorn mixed among the farmland friends, more variety is sorely missed. And while there is a DLC season pass that will add four more flea flickers to the mix, along with a unique stage for each of them, that is still off in the future and will add to the package cost.
Finally, the balance is a bit skewed in a couple of ways. First, the arcade balance between difficulties seems very odd. The easiest option is an absolute cakewalk, but the next difficulty up is akin to playing Dark Souls with only a drum peripheral, especially when first learning how to play. The opponents on that difficulty block nearly everything and love to show off combos that would make Killer Instinct blush. You will eventually “git gud” enough to do well on that option, but it is baffling to me that there isn’t something between those two, especially when there are three other more difficult options beyond that one.
Equally head scratching is the balance between certain characters. While the balance is actually pretty decent overall, Them’s Fightin’ Herds takes the “make everyone broken so that it’s balanced” approach. Some characters, as a result, can struggle greatly against certain others if both players are of equal skill. For instance, Tianhuo, for all of her movement options, can have a tough time getting the upper hand on Paprika. Actually, Paprika is a nightmare to pretty much every other character. I actually hate Paprika and all other alpacas just because of her. Pom has a chance as she can play like a created counter to Paprika, and that’s a good thing. Paprika deserves to lose. A lot. She should have that enchanted fleece shaven off of her because she doesn’t deserve to have it warming her maniacal, manipulative, conniving, good-for-nothing, smelly, louse-ridden body. I don’t like Paprika, except in stews and casseroles, with a bit of the spice, too.
…Ahem! With that understood, I genuinely had a fantastic time with Them’s Fightin’ Herds, and it was the best kind of surprise. It is a surprisingly competent fighting game with surprisingly good mechanics, art, music, characters (who’s Paprika?), and modes like Story and the Tutorial. I’m certainly not done with the game by any means, and I’m looking forward to the new characters and seeing how they can punish Papri…I mean, seeing how they fit in with the rest of the cast of characters.
Them’s Fightin’ Herds is a fine surprise, and, more importantly, it is a fine game. It reminds me a lot of the original BlazBlue, which had a relatively small cast, but it kept building on it’s core design and amazing potential. There is a lot to like with the game, and the biggest criticism I have (Paprika aside) is that I want more. I want more story and more characters, and I want to keep being surprised by it. And I’d love to see it grow to the point that its success is no longer a surprise, but instead becomes a welcome and standard affair that has us fightin’ them herds ’til the cows come home (I had to do it!).