Proton Reviews: Them’s Fightin’ Herds

Ever thought of four-legged, talking female animals duking it out in a fanciful fantasy realm? Think nothing more than Them’s Fightin’ Herds.

Now, I know, the idea sounds really corny, but I’ve been hooked. It’s a fighting game that’s fantastically designed, and the combat mechanics are very complex, yet polished to make the sure every character is balanced.

Today (or yesterday, depending on what time zone you’re in right now) the Mane 6 dev team has brought to us the official 1.0 release. Being a fan of fighting games, as well as the game working exceptionally well with Proton, I thought I’d leave my thoughts on the game here. There’s a native Linux version planned sometime in the future (more on that later).

Note: most screenshots/recorded GIFs and videos were made just a few days prior to the official release. With the addition of Arizona’s story and a few other additions/bug fixes in version 1.0, these would be almost no different had they been made after.

History

Believe it or not, this project started way back in 2011. A group of individuals started watching My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and were intrigued with the cast of characters and the struggle that they had. They asked themselves, “Why not create a game — a fighting game — with these characters?” Thus, Fighting is Magic was born.

After a few years of development, just when the team (Mane 6) were close to making an official release, they received a cease and desist order from Hasbro, the owner of the My Little Pony franchise. Heartbroken from all the hard work they put they voluntarily put forth into the game, Mane 6 dropped the project. But that didn’t stop them from making the game of their dreams.

Lauren Faust, creator of the My Little Pony series, noticed the shutdown of the project and tweeted Mane 6 if they wanted original characters. Not only did the team take up on her offer, they also migrated their engine to Mike Zaimont’s Z-Engine — the engine that powers Skullgirls. Now that the team is using original assets and no longer under the threat of copyright protection, and then launched a successful crowdfunded campaign on Indiegogo, work began on what Mane 6 would call Them’s Fightin’ Herds.

Plot

There exists a world by the name of Foenum, a world in which four-legged animals roam about. Specifically, we’re talking about talking cows, reindeer, llamas, dragons, sheep, and unicorns — each with their own flamboyant personalities.

Long ago, this once peaceful realm was invaded by predators — carnivorous beasts that seek to harm anyone in their path. These predators include bears, snakes, wolves, and tigers. Oh my. However, these predators were banished into a magical realm. Who did that? Well, I don’t really know.

Over time, these creatures managed to find ways to get themselves out of their prison gates, once again disturbing the peace of the land. Now it’s up to the bravest member of each clan in Foenum to step up to the plate and confront the leader of the pack. This will involve getting an enchanted key to the portal which contains the monsters and banishing them forever with it.

But there’s six different animals who are going to try and obtain that key. So, not only will they have to face the leader of the predators, but will also have to face each other. Who will be the key master? Who will save Foenum? That’s up to you, the player.

The Cast

There are currently six different ungulates to choose from — a proud cow named Arizona; a study-obsessive unicorn by the name of Oleander; a non-talking alpaca called Paprika; a scared, agoraphobic lamb named Pom; a festive reindeer dubbed Velvet; and a flame-riddled longma (I added a Wikipedia link for those curious what that is) by the name of Tianhuo. A goat character is planned as a post-launch DLC option. These characters are created and animated in Adobe Flash; therefore the game is presented in a (mostly) two-dimensional manner with three-dimensional backgrounds. While some might see this as a downside in contrast to hand-drawn characters, more than likely the team wouldn’t have the budget for that.

The characters have a ton of palette colors that you can choose from. Here’s Oleander’s, for example:

Each character is vastly different from the next, from their moveset, from their abilities, from their health stats, among other things. Some might think six is a mediocre number for a cast, but the variety that they possess allows endless possibilities.

What makes these characters (and the game in general) unique is that they’re talking animals that are all female and are voiced by the following actresses:

  • Arizona — Tara Strong
  • Oleander — Alexa Kahn
  • Paprika — Marieve Herington
  • Pom — Allie Moreno
  • Velvet — Tia Ballard
  • Tianhuo — Kay Bess

Gameplay

It doesn’t take much to figure out why fighting games are a niche genre. They require a good investment in time, learning, and patience. Frankly, Them’s Fightin’ Herds is no exception. Though not quite as complex as Skullgirls, getting used to the way each character works will still take some effort.

Here’s what the HUD looks like in-game. I’ve labeled the gauges and will be going over Juggle Decay (JD), Magic, and Supers.

Attacks are categorized as Light, Medium, and Heavy (or Hard) — described in the game as A, B, and C respectively. In addition to this, each character has a unique magic button — D — that allows the character to perform a special action, such as teleporting across the stage, launching an additional attack without leaving themselves vulnerable, or throwing a snowball. Think of the game like Marvel vs. Capcom — it’s very combo-heavy (I’m talking 20+ hits) and fast-paced, with launchers, pushblocks, crossups, mixups, resets, grabs, specials, supers, teching, overhead attacks, low attacks. A bunch of fighting jargon terms that you don’t necessarily need to worry about until you actually start taking the game seriously.

Beware, though. The longer the combo you dish out to the enemy, the less damage they’ll take over time. This is why it’s good practice to start the combo off with a Light attack to get it going, then stick to Medium and Heavy attacks afterwards to keep the damage to a maximum.

Long combinations will also build up the opponent’s JD. When their JD is full, they will become “heavier”; they’ll fall to the ground more quickly, thus preventing the player from infinitely attacking without giving the enemy a break. Repeating attacks of the same pattern will fill the gauge up more quickly than using a wider variety of attacks. This therefore encourages the player to utilize all of their character’s abilities, to find out a combination that works best for them busting out the maximum damage possible while keeping the opponent in the air.

Each character has a magic bar. The length of their bars vary and are filled in different ways. Arizona, for instance, gets one bar for every successful rope she casts. Using magic will allow her to extend her combos, counter opponents’ attacks, or cause a massive earthquake with her hooves. Other characters might get their magic over time or by reading their books. Think of magic as Street Fighter’s EX attacks — they’re a way of extending combos and increasing the amount of damage dealt.

Here’s a demonstration of Oleander’s magic abilities. She gains magic by studying her book and by throwing the opponent, then use that magic to her advantage with shadow spark, shadow flare, or teleportation.

In addition to the magic bar, characters have at their disposal Level 1 and Level 2 super attacks, which deal a decent amount of damage. They require a bar to execute, and up to three bars can be stored. These bars are gradually built up by landing or receiving attacks. Supers can be made at any time during a combo, and can be followed up with a Level 2. Level 2 supers can often lead to an even higher combo. The easiest way to explain supers is by demonstration:

Now here’s an example of a combo showing JD, Level 1 and Level 2 supers, and magic capabilities (JD is shown by the sparks that appear on Velvet after some time):

Pretty complex, huh? Being that effective took almost half Velvet’s health! Notice that after doing the Level 2 super, Velvet’s JD (the tiny green bar under Velvet’s health) partially reset. This allows the player to keep juggling the opponent until the bar fills back up.

Unfortunately Level 3 supers haven’t made it into the 1.0 release, but they will be incorporated soon. In the meantime here’s a beta preview of what they look like:

The game features a dynamic music system. In the versus mode screen, certain beats will be added to the base music depending on which character is selected. When in battle, the music will change to the character’s theme if they’re winning. It’s a nifty little thing that can change the mood of the battle!

With SkullMod, mods are actually possible. This is because the game is using the Z-Engine. This example allows the player to control the predators:

Modes

Story

Retro fans are going to like this. Explore the world of Foenum in 16-bit style. Meet and greet new characters along the way. Fight viscous predators. Discover each character’s backstory and how they stepped up to the plate to save Foenum.

This isn’t something where a cutscene plays and then the characters fight. There’s actually a little backbone to the story, where battles are gradual, not instant. Not everyone is going to be an enemy. It’s a great sight to see, from the cheesy story plots that you’ll find in a lot of other fighting games.

Now, even if you don’t like fighting games, I encourage you to at least try the story. It’s been an awesome story so far during my playtime, and the difficulty can be chosen before starting it.

Not everything here is fighting related. There are maps to explore, and occasionally there will be platforming elements to jump from one platform to the next in order to proceed. Even if you’ve played the game before, there will be new elements to the enemies. There’s also some great music here that you won’t find elsewhere, and using the dynamic music system, some retro-style beats may be added to the base music depending on the situation.

The 1.0 release only has brought Arizona’s story to the fore. Without spoiling it too much, you might enjoy the southern slang that the characters (most of which are cows) utter when they’re talking. And throughout the story, there will be decisions Arizona will have to make, including what you want her to say at certain points when talking to someone. And finally, there will be treasure chests that she can obtain, which allow her to change her appearance.

Each character will get their chapter in soon. According to an interview with Aaron Stavely, production manager of Mane 6, a new story for the next character should take a couple months’ time.

Arcade Mode

Like a lot of fighting games, Them’s Fightin’ Herds includes an Arcade mode. Select the AI difficulty (and believe me, even I have got a hard time on the highest difficulty), pick your character and palette, then fight your way through all six characters. When that’s said and done, you’ll have to fight all four predators in one match. You will then unlock portrait art of the character you used.

Tutorial/Training

The tutorial mode in the game provides a more than excellent way to learn the general mechanics involved in attacking, defending, teching, etc. and will walk you every step of the way, including an explanation of those jargon terms I mentioned earlier. You will then need to figure out how the individual characters behave.

Your head may explode if you try to learn all six characters at once. Instead, pick one that you like, learn their moves, and stick with them. While you’re learning to play a specific character, try practicing their combos in Training mode. Start from the Beginner’s combos and gradually move your way up. Once you’re comfortable using that character, then you can learn another to vary your battle strategy.

A bunch of different options can be set in training: how much health/magic/super meter the characters have, the AI behavior, whether visible hitboxes are enabled, input lag to simulate online play, and too many other things to list. Its complex coverage will ensure you’re prepared for the worst.

Break The Targets!

Remember breaking the targets in Smash Brothers? There’s a mode that’s very similar here. Each character has their own set of targets to break, each uniquely placed to utilize the character’s abilities. Try to see if you can break your records whilst trying to perform the objectives!

Multiplayer

Players can verse each other locally or online. There are a few different ways to play online: Casual Match, Ranked Match, and Pixel Lobbies.

Pixel Lobbies

Similar to the story mode’s SNES-style graphics, your character drops into an online map with other players. Currently, there’s three different maps — one with a winterized theme, another with a south-western theme, the third with a prairie theme. From here, you can customize your character with various cosmetics — from different hats to headbands to necklaces. Additional cosmetics can be either unlocked from treasure chests or bought from the in-game store using a currency called “salt.” The lobbies also allow players to chat (both voice and text), roam around the map, enter the salt mines (more on that later), and verse each other.

The online networking is powered by Good Game Peace Out (GGPO). The great thing about this, is that the SDK is freely available on GitHub and is essential to use for a game like this, where precise timing with button presses are critical.

Salt Mines

Each map has a secret area that can be accessed by anyone — an underground cave where predators lurk. So long as you’re willing to put up with them, you can mine salt with an ax or by detonating a group of pillars. Collecting salt will allow you to buy cosmetics from the in-game store. Be careful, though — you’re allowed fifteen minutes and the predators will increase in number and difficulty the more you defeat them. Your health isn’t restored — it has to be filled by specially-marked treasure chests, which cost 100 salt each.

Some rooms in the mines contain special treasure chests that contain uncommon cosmetics. Opening them will cost salt — more so the rarer the item is — and takes ten seconds to claim. If another player is there and also wants the chest while you’re claiming it, you’ll verse each other. Of course, the winner takes the spoil.

Survived the fifteen minute ordeal? Someone in those mines — a fellow player, if you will, or maybe even you — will become a bear. This is where things legitimately get scary and your heart starts racing. The music changes to a horror-like theme, the light from the mines is all but gone except a small circle surrounding your character, and your character’s health gradually depletes. All of this happens while you try to run away from the bear. The bear that you won’t be able to see until the last second.

Thump, thump, thump…you hear that? Did you hear that growl too? That means the bear is in the same room as you. Run. Freaking, run. Avoid that thing at all costs until the timer runs out, because trying to face the bear is going to be difficult. It has a ridiculous amount of health, and with a plethora of moves it can defeat you fairly quickly if you don’t know what you’re doing. If you managed to stay away from it for a while, you might have a chance though, because the bear’s health depletes over time.

Regardless of whether you survive or not, you keep all the salt you collected. But you’ll get a bonus if you defeat the bear.

Evolution Through Early Access

Imagine the game going from this:

To this:

From two characters to six, updated sprites and sound effects, animated backgrounds, voice acting, enhanced animations, it’s come a long way. Them’s Fightin’ Herds entered Steam Early Access on February 22, 2018 with all six characters included and the bulk of their movesets done. 25 major patches have been released since, and it has seen a lot more polish. This is an example of an Early Access game done right.

Proton Compatibility + Linux Plans

Them’s Fightin’ Herds should, in most cases, work out of the box with Proton. You might need to force a specific version to get the best results; on the latest (5.0 right now), the game was a bit laggy on my end when trying to attack an enemy. Using 4.2-9 fixed this. Other than that, the game runs flawlessly. My DualShock 4 was immediately recognized — even the in-game menus automatically detected that it’s a PS4 controller and changed the icons accordingly. The framerate remained at a solid 60 FPS, and for the most part, online gameplay had no hiccups. No additional configuration was needed.

There’s a lot of different graphics options that users can toggle to get the best performance: shadows, high quality supers, texture filtering, weather effects, you name it. There’s also an option to give the player a warning if there isn’t enough memory available on their system. With a game like this, though, nobody should need anything more than 4 GB.

Right now the game is only available for Windows. The first stretch goal that Mane 6 reached for the Indiegogo campaign is Mac and Linux compatibility — they’re asking for an extra $50k for that. If the bulk-work has been already done for the Z-Engine, which was ported prior to Mane 6 working on this game, I’m not really sure why they need that extra cash. I suppose there’s other middleware that needs to get ported. These ports will come post-launch.

Earlier this month the developers mentioned that both the Mac and Linux ports are “a decent way through”. I am, of course, looking forward to the Linux release, and based on this information we shouldn’t have to wait too much longer.

Now, you can judge me all you want for getting into a game like this, but as a fighter it’s fantastic. It’s one of those games where you get hooked and constantly learn from your mistakes, trying to learn your opponents playstyle to figure out how to best him. If you ever hope to play on a competitive level, however (or even play against most of the players online, for that matter), be prepared to get some serious carpel tunnel — your fingers will hurt from curling them around your DualShock 4 so hard. As of the time of writing I’ve put about ninety hours into the game but I still can’t even get my bearings with the more seasoned veterans out there.

I have some footage that I recorded of online gameplay. Take a look if you dare.

Feel like you’re up to the challenge? Them’s Fightin’ Herds is available on Steam and Humble Bundle. Who knows — maybe I’ll see you in the world of Foenum!

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Dogman15

Not dragons, they’re longma. Half dragon, half horse. And no tigers, at least not yet. The cats you fight are panthers.