Of all genres that could do with more entries in this industry, fighting games is one of them. I blame Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat for this of course, the big issue being that when those games came out, you were either one of those two or part of the rest. If you were part of that latter group, then you would be quickly overlooked in the arcades or at home. Only a few have managed to scrape past that stigma, such as Blazblue, Tekken or Virtua Fighter. However, the examples of those that do succeed have only really started to emerge thanks to lackluster performance from Street Fighter in the modern age with SFV and the longer development times from Netherealm as they get stuck under WB’s notorious culture of red tape and budget cuts.
You’d think that we would have seen more fighting games emerge from the indie scene to capitalise on this, but this doesn’t happen nearly as much. Certainly not to the quality of more AAA efforts. This is not ignoring darlings such as Skullgirls and Lethal League which are undeniably great, just not championed nearly as much as their high-profile competition. I believe the main problem here is in the level of seriousness that the development scene tends to aim at the genre. Most of the indie space fighting games that are talked about are those that are either a parody or a glorified fan fiction variant of one of the bigger titles, often with a lackluster sense of balance or budget that betrays the overall vision, ultimately leading to a promising idea or concept that cannot be followed through to its potential.
Admittedly, when I first approached Them’s Fighting Herds, I thought the same would happen here. This was once an effort by Mane6 created in a bid to create a My Little Pony fighting game, subtitled ‘Fighting is Magic’. On first glance, who could blame me? Who would look at this a quaint brawler with this legally distinct-just art style and think that this could step up to the likes of Dragonball FighterZ in terms of design, approachability and mastery of everything that fighting game players want, such as rollback net code and a good, balanced roster of varied fighters?
Well consider me wrong. After playing TFH, I not only found all the above but was utterly floored at just how comprehensive the approach from Mode 6 is. The key here is the accessibility angle. Right out of the gate there are multiple local modes such as training, arcade, and story to sink into, each capable of bringing a new or veteran player up to speed with the mechanics quickly. Thanks in no small part to combo tutorials, low pressure CPU battles or in the narrative section that provides both a reason for why these quadruped critters are facing off, while dotting nonfighting challenges into the mix that cleverly disguise tutorials on how to perform super jumps, movement based dodges and blocks while throwing enemies at the player that hone around a particular discipline of fighting games, such as zoning or overhead attacks.
If you are interested in the story, then here is a quick summary. You start out as Arizona, a cow and soon to be champion of the prairie. Predators have returned to the land of Foenum in search of a key that would bring ache and ruin to the world. If is her and the roster’s task to search for this key before the toothed animas get access to it to save the day. It’s light on detail from an exposition point of view, but surprisingly in-depth when you dig into the world building that is handled through the filter of a 16-bit RPG. This sees Arizona venture through various regions of Foenum, encountering challenges or predator creatures in equal measure, while providing a look into the region-specific local life and of course, the various other playable characters from the game. Each brilliantly summarised in a souped up, three phase battle that perfectly captures their character and abilities.
Speaking of characters, while there is only a limited roster containing seven characters at this stage, they are all well defined and come with their own flavour, despite having a similar starting moveset to give players a chance to feel them out. For veteran fighting game players, the familiar movements of quarter circle inputs will immediately be felt with characters like Arizona and Tianhuo. While charge characters like Pom are also thrown into the mix for those veteran Chun-Li players. Where things get deep is in the magic system which is all handled by the fourth button on your controller or arcade stick. While not special moves, these are attacks that do not fit the light, medium, heavy buttons and contain the main character flavour, from Paprika’s food throwing ability to Pom’s command over a small army of dogs to do her main damage. Each character is made different through this, and mastery of the magic is key to success. Particular with characters like Velvet who start with zero magic meter when a round starts, so players must work around this to unleash the truly devastating stuff.
It’s worthy of note also that each character was penned and fleshed out by one of the lead artists on My Little Pony, which adds a touch of authenticity. As previously mentioned, TFH is the spiritual successor to a fan game that was released and later kaiboshed by Hasbro. So to have the talent of Lauren Faust on board is a major boon to the characterisation of this game, It feels as close as you could humanly get to a MLP Fighting game and is legally distinct enough to not cause any upset amongst the men in suits that sell toys for a living.
The storyline benefits from this and combined with the gameplay, is good as a result and does a great job of introducing players to the game. However, there is a drawback for those looking to dig in proper. That being that the story is not finished yet. Currently you only play as Arizona and this gets you up to meeting half of the character roster before cutting off. More is coming through updates in the future, so this is something to take into consideration if you are solely an offline player. Arcade mode is like this as well, with a general incomplete feeling where the final boss is just a survival match against story mode NPC’s that you encounter throughout, nothing special. Otherwise though, the direction of this is to be commended partially owing to the devotion that the dev team have in packing in these features when they absolutely do not need to. It’s a far more consumer-friendly approach than we saw with the launch of Street Fighter V, that’s for sure.
Moving into online territory, things look up. Owing in no small part to the morish, repeatable nature of the genre. Them’s Fighting Herds delivers in spades due to the brilliant lobby system. Instead of being a simple list of players that must wait their turn, players find themselves once again in that 16-bit RPG aesthetic, venturing around the story overworld, but this time with every other player in the lobby. Approach someone else and you can challenge them to a fight or alternatively, you can explore the world to seek out NPC battles to earn salt, which is used to customise your avatar with trinkets and costume parts. This itself being a brilliant idea as it gives you something to do if everyone else is busy or if you just fancy doing something else.
When I did jump into online matches, I was enthralled at not only how good the game felt to play, but also how well the net code handled up to scrutiny. This is a tough egg to crack for any fighting game and through stubbornness or incapability, roll back netcode is not available in all games of this ilk. So, to see an indie effort adopt this as a major bulletpoint in the features list is an automatic tick. It helps make each match feel fluid and lag free, no matter to which side of the world you are connected to. It also helps demonstrate just how polished this game is as a fighter, with some of the most satisfying combat, impact and inputs that I have felt from the genre in years.
It’s a shame then that so few have picked it up ever since the game was released for early access on PC in 2020. However, you can kind of understand why, what with the general look of the game being that of a twee tribute to a show that people either love or find cringeworthy. The biggest part of that shame goes to the latter, as the game is fantastic with brilliant balance, characters and depth that most AAA fighting games could only dream of. It’s entirely possible that this is the best fighting game to be released this year for console, we just need a few more people to believe it so that Mane 6 can get the praise they deserve and the justification to keep supporting a project that they so clearly love.
+ Simple to get into and the devs have done a great job of providing training material for newcomers
+ Genuinely great animation and characterisation that fits the charm of MLP Brilliantly
+ One of the most impressive indie fighting games in terms of programming, design and ethics.
- Static backgrounds that betray the otherwise well realised design direction
- The storyline is incomplete at this stage, with more coming in updates
- Only 7 characters to pick from, with more coming as part of a season pass