Fan games can be a a tricky thing, no matter which side of the table you’re on. If you’re an eager enthusiast excited for unofficial SSX dating sim (JP is the best boy, don’t @ me), you’ll most likely wake up one day to find that the project either hasn’t been updated in 3 years, or has been shut down entirely. If you’re a developer of a fan-game, these shut downs and silences are almost par for the course.
The biggest reason for an ambitious fan-made project to be shut down, of course, is that the owners of the IP being adapted aren’t very happy with somebody else using their property. For most teams, the copyright notice is all it takes for them to pack everything up and never touch the project again. If you’re Mane 6, however, that copyright notice spurs you to scrap all of your infringing assets, remake your entire engine, and spend the next six years turning your ambitious My Little Pony fighting game into one of the most impressive, original indie fighting games to drop onto Steam Early Access.
Them’s Fightin’ Herds – originally known as Fighting Is Magic – was a fighting game based on the most recent My Little Pony cartoon that cropped up during the height of the show’s internet popularity. The game featured playable versions of the six main characters from the show, and it was an impressively responsive and flashy fighter that even made the rounds with tournaments at a few notable fighting game gatherings. Eventually, though, IP holders Hasbro decided that this project couldn’t move forward. Developers Mane 6, rather than giving up on the game entirely, chose an entirely harder option; they would scrub everything infringing from the game, and reshape it into an entirely original fighting game.
After getting the takedown notice from Hasbro for Fighting Is Magic, Mane 6 took the harder option to effectively start from scratch, but they did so with help from a few big names. The fresh character designs are done by Lauren Faust, the cartoon legend behind Powerpuff Girls, Foster’s Home, and the latest My Little Pony series. Her work lays the groundwork for a bright, vivid art direction in the game that really encapsulates that bubbly cartoon aesthetic. While the character designs are meant to mimic the personalities of the copyrighted characters who once inhabited their roles, Mane 6 still manage to create a unique cast of quadrupeds. A few of the characters could use a little extra something to make them more than just “a dragon” or “a lamb”.
The real visual treat, though, is when these animals start moving. The action in Them’s Fightin’ Herds is flashy, fluid and oh so responsive. Every hand-drawn frame flows together perfectly, with hit sparks and attack recovery that makes you feel every hit you dish out. The crunchy, satisfying gameplay might remind you of another indie hand-drawn cartoony fighting game by the name of Skullgirls. The reason for that is the use of the Z-Engine, the very same game engine developed my Mike Z of Lab Zero Games that fuels Skullgirls.
Mane 6 use this engine brilliantly, crafting a frenetic combat system that never feels like a simple Skullgirls re-skin. In fact, Them’s Fightin’ Herds is as much of a love letter to Guilty Gear and Blazblue as Skullgirls is to Marvel vs Capcom. Each character has a unique and shockingly intricate style of play that is sure to overwhelm anyone new to the genre. Combat uses three buttons for light, medium and heavy attacks, and a fourth button for character-specific actions and abilities. One character summons and controls additional allies, while another lays traps and regenerates health. The game may only have six characters as of now, but each character has so much to do and think about that the roster never felt shallow or limited.
It’s a shame that the game has such a strong combat system, because the rest of the package is almost embarrassingly barebones right now. Though it’s in Early Access, the store page for this game insists multiple times that the only thing left to add before this game is complete is a full-length story mode, which they plan to release in parts. There are a lot of other things missing from this game, or just not working properly and as much as I love the art and visuals, there’s a bevy of issues on that front as well. Characters speak before battle, but their lips either move incorrectly or not at all; multiple characters have attacks or even crouching idle-stances that simply aren’t animated at all; two characters in the game have a taunt, while the others don’t. There are a dozen of tiny issues that all pile up into something seriously amiss.
They say the only mode missing is Story mode, but there are actually a few missing modes. You currently have no option to have a standalone battle against the CPU, so your only choice is to hop into Arcade. This is a basic seven battle ladder with no dialogue, unique intros, or ending illustrations. Online play functions great thanks to GGPO functionality, but quick matches and ranked matches are entirely missing. There are still traditional lobbies, though, as well as a Blazblue style pixel-lobby that lets you roam around open environments, pick fights, and customize your own personal avatar with hats and accessories. There are hidden dungeon-crawling levels in these pixel lobbies you can access using tokens you earn via online victories, which also provide a nice distraction from the lack of base-level game modes.
Them’s Fightin’ Herds has been a long time coming, and it’s incredible to actually see it on Steam. It’s even more incredible to see how polished the fighting and visuals are. Still, for as well-crafted as the gameplay and art is, there’s still a lot missing from this game beyond the Story mode. Them’s Fightin’ Herds has a lot of promise, and could shape up to be a formidable part of the fighting game community, but it needs a bit more polish and a lot more content before it can get there. For now, Mane 6 are cantering along to a great start.