I didn’t catch Them’s Fightin’ Herds when it came out on PC back in April of 2020, and I’m a little surprised. Though after some legal mayhem it’s not exactly a pony fighting game, it’s pretty darn close to a franchise I adored growing up. And, let’s face it, I’m a sucker for cute games, and Lauren Faust, who’s the main artist behind Them’s Fightin’ Herds AND My Little Pony produces some fantastically adorable and amazing art.
That said, I’m not much of a fighting game aficionado and approach most fighters with the “hit all the buttons you can until something works, then keep doing that” strategy. I can usually tell if it’s a “serious” fighting game by how hard I fail with that approach. I can’t say I went into Them’s Fightin’ Herds expecting anything serious at all – and perhaps that’s why I was drawn to it at first, and a little put off by it shortly after.
See, Them’s Fightin’ Herds, for all its unicorn, reindeer, calf, puppy cuteness – is a very serious fighting game. It employs a 4 button fighting strategy in which you’ve got light, medium and heavy attacks, plus a magic/unique, and gets increasingly more complex from there. The tutorial alone takes quite a while to get through, and if you decide to skip it and just hit the floor, you’re likely to be smeared all over it, even in single player mode.
Them’s Fightin’ Herds has a robust selection of ways to play, both online and local with 1v1 matches, arcade mode, online matchmaking and lobbies, as well as in the single player story mode. But, as mentioned previously, you won’t be able to mash your way through, no matter what you choose. Because in case you hadn’t heard, this herd plays hard ball.
What initially had me rage quitting kept me coming back after a while though, once I’d gone through the tutorial in some detail and started to really train. One thing I found pretty great about Them’s Fightin’ Herds after spending some time with it is that it IS a great entry point for those of us who maybe haven’t done too much with fighting games in the past, precisely because the tutorial is so detailed with an equally comprehensive training mode.
Add to that a dark humor that sort of plays into some of the rumors about the fandom, the fact that all six playable character are not only female but ungulates (hoof-havers, so you don’t have to look it up later) and they added some truly nostalgic retro charm to the overworld, and it’s one of those situations where despite the issues, and despite the frustration if you’re not real great at the game even on the lower difficulties, you can tell it’s actually pretty good.
That said, I did experience some issues on Xbox One with lag. This would be a fatal flaw if it happened during combat, but I only experienced it when moving around in the overworld or in cut scenes, so it mostly just ruined some truly great animations on Faust’s part. I also noticed some rather long load times and a little bit of a lack of signposting when it came to moving about in single player mode, which led to the constant struggle to find where the next place you have to go is.
As far as gameplay issues, the two biggest things I ran into were difficulty spikes and sameyness. This was primarily the issue with single player, which I turned to after beating arcade mode entirely and tiring of random battles. Most of the time, in each level, the enemies you’re fighting aren’t particularly varied so what should be the most interesting part takes on a sort of monotony. This isn’t totally unbearable, and they do change things up here and there, but I did find myself fatigued of levels well before I would reach the next, not wanting to explore enough to find the collectibles I could’ve sought.
Coupled with this, for those of us who haven’t developed the twitch reflexes regular fighter game folk have, difficulty can spike in serious ways. I’m no total novice to combat – I made it through Dark Souls on NG+7 – but boss fights can be crushingly unfair, especially early on, and that can really cut down your enjoyment. It isn’t just that a boss can take you down to a third of your health in one fell swoop – it’s also that the skills you need to have honed by the second boss are some that have eluded me for years in other fighters.
While I can’t speak with total authority, it did feel like controls were so tight that if you couldn’t perform a combo with lightning speed it wouldn’t work, and for things like quarter turns, which I only learned about, I constantly found myself hitting a wall where the input display would show I’d done the right thing, but I was unable to pull off my character’s supers. That didn’t prevent me from pulling off some other crazy things, but I can tell when I’m out of my depth or when there’s control issues, and the more complex combos in Them’s Fightin’ Herds felt like a little bit of both.
Overall though, Them’s Fightin’ Herds won me over and made me want to hit the dojo and train until I could really throw down. Why? An unusual combination of cute, cuddly characters with a weird dark underbelly and the serious combat it promised cooks up an udderly unique experience that I can’t say I’ve found anywhere else.