Ever since Fantasy Strike taught me the language of fighting games I’ve been eager to try out other members of the genre. As such, I decided on a whim to pick up indie fighter Them’s Fightin’ Herds following its massive 2.0 update. I was expecting to have fun, but what I wasn’t expecting was to discover one of the best games I’d play all year.

Developer: Mane6
Publisher: Humble Games
Release Date: April 30th, 2020
Available on: PC (Windows & Linux)

Them’s Fighin’ Herds is a 2D fighter that originally started life as a My Little Pony fan game. It’s come a long way since those early days, but the original inspiration for the game still shines through in its art-style. Despite these interesting beginnings, Herds offers one of the most feature complete 2D fighting game experiences on the market and does so at budget price. It is frankly astonishing what this game accomplishes that so many premium titles falter on while also being fiercely enjoyable to play.

At it’s core Herds is a four button fighter. Your first three buttons are dedicated to light, medium, and heavy attacks, while the fourth is used for magic abilities. While the former are self explanatory, magic is a secondary resource that players accumulate and manage throughout a round to unleash powerful special abilities. It’s akin to having a secondary super meter, but you’re able to use these attacks far more frequently so they play a more active role in second to second decision making.

The final aspect of note with regard to Herds‘ gameplay is juggle decay. Herds has free flowing combos that are less strict allowing players to mix and match moves into their attack strings. This could lead to infinite (endless) combos, which is where juggle decay comes in. As you attack your opponent each move will add or subtract from a running juggle total and upon crossing a set threshold your opponent will recover more quickly. This system helps prevent wholly one sided confrontations where a player is subjected to long stretches of inactivity by forcing resets while also addressing a pitfall that accompanies this kind of expressive combo system.

Chances are if you’re a fan of 2D fighters you’ll enjoy Herds as it follows in the footsteps of the greats while offering more active resource management thanks to its unique magic system.

None of this would matter, however, if Herds didn’t have good netcode. As such, I’m happy to report that Them’s Fighin’ Herds not only has rollback netcode, but it has one of the best implementations of it that I’ve ever experienced. I’ve been comfortably playing with folks at up to 250ms ping and even at 300ms matches were still serviceable. This meant that the majority of my games felt great to play while also allowing me to play with most of the game’s population from across the globe. For someone who almost exclusively plays fighting games online this is a huge boon and Herds masterfully delivers.

Herds also has a number of smart features, chief among them being the combo trainer I wrote about last month. Where other games only have static trials that allow players to practice a selection of developer approved combos, Herds lets players create and share their own combo trials. This is an invaluable tool for practicing combo setups, different routes, and for teaching within the community.

The story mode also acts as an additional learning resource for new players. In its current implementation it is split into several sub-sections which focus on teaching players the basics of the game. This includes the different mobility options like short hops and dashes, how to block, and countering different types of attack approaches. While there is no substitute for fighting a living person, story mode offers a nice alternative to simply playing through the drier tutorials.

Speaking of, Herds has a well fleshed out tutorial. I shouldn’t have to praise a tutorial for being noteworthy, but with so many fighting games struggling to include meaningful ones, or outright removing them, I was pleased with how well they are handled here. Everything from the basics to advanced information is covered and it is divided such that players can quickly navigate to relevant sections for the information they want to know. Character specific information is also included for the available fighters, which makes learning each of them a lot more straight forward. In combination with the story mode and combo trials, these features help to make Herds quite approachable to newcomers and genre veterans alike.

Next up, I wanted to touch on Herds‘ lobby system known as pixel lobbies. These are lobbies where up to twenty six players can gather to chat and play with one another. While you can just use matchmaking, lobbies allow players to approach and challenge anyone on the spot. What’s especially nice is this is done with two button presses and accepting a challenge only takes a single button press. Again, it doesn’t feel like I should be praising something so basic, but streamlined methods for challenging other players are a notorious rarity across the genre and thus the frictionless system in Herds feels fantastic.

While in lobbies you also have the ability to participate in a PvPvE mode called the salt mines. Salt mines makes use of the same enemies as story mode, but they’re placed around a dungeon. In said dungeon players will mine salt while beating the tar out of AI baddies. As more of them are defeated the AI gradually ramps up in complexity until fifteen minutes have passed at which point the remaining players are pitted against whomever is the saltiest in a fight to the death. The chosen player will be turned into a giant bear with extra health and powerful specials and whichever team wins is awarded a salt bonus. Afterward, your spoils can be used to purchase cosmetic items for your lobby avatar.

I’m a big fan of pixel lobbies and it isn’t just because I can buy hats. This feature allows the community to interact with one another directly through the game, which can mitigate some of the inherent loneliness that comes with playing a one on one multiplayer game. You’re able to chat with folks after a match and find out what you did well, or what you can improve on without needing to rely on third party apps like Discord. Plus, challenging players is frictionless and there is a mode you can engage with when you need a change of pace. Similar to Herds‘ combo trials, other games in the genre could benefit from following the example put forward by pixel lobbies.

The final aspects of Herds I wanted to touch on is the score and art. I love the score in this game. The soundtrack has some absolute bangers that really stick in your mind after play sessions, but the music is never overbearing. There is also an elemental of dynamism in the tracks as they shift to include different instrumentation depending on which fighter currently has momentum. This is wholly unnecessary, but a nice extra flourish on an already great soundtrack.

The art is the only thing in Herds that I took umbrage with. It’s a little too My Little Pony for my tastes, however the character animations are so good that I grew to appreciate the art direction over time. The characters are expressive and their different attacks are so creative and interesting to look at that its hard to not appreciate how Herds looks when its in motion. I’m inclined to believe that others will find the art grows on them with time provided they give the game a fair shake.

Them’s Fightin’ Herds is a phenomenal game. It has an intensely fun core with some additional active elements the help to keep engagements from becoming too one sided. In addition, it is quite possibly one of the most feature rich fighting games on the market. The rollback netcode and combo trials are among some of the best in the genre while the story, arcade, and pixel lobbies all provide players with exactly what they need instead of unintuitive or half-hearted attempts. I know the art-style can be a bit of a turn-off, but if you enjoy 2D fighters you owe it to yourself to play Them’s Fightin’ Herds.