A farm dog is dependable. A farm dog is swift. A farm dog can take the initiative. A farm dog herds animals with ease. A farm dog steals coconuts from crabs. A farm dog watches in despair as cows fly into the sky.
Herding Dog gives players the opportunity to experience the life of a working dog as it herds livestock, protects the farm and collects items. After the farmer is struck with sickness it is up to the herding dog to take up the slack. Players direct the dog as it corrals pigs, sheep and cows, as well as keeps away predators like foxes and wolves. There is even some time to chase birds, collect items and steal coconuts from skittish, unsuspecting crabs. Because dogs love coconuts.
Oh, and occasionally, a flying saucer will show up and zap cows.
Moving the herding dog is straightforward. Left click and hold the mouse button, and drag the cursor around. The herding dog will follow. Pull the cursor further away from the dog and it will run faster. Bring it closer and it slows down. Right click and the dog barks. It’s a nice simple control scheme that makes a lot of sense.
As the dog moves towards animals, either livestock or predators, they move away. Livestock will flee in the same direction you are moving, allowing you to follow behind to send them in a straight line or arc around to push them in another direction. Predators will move away and then try to run around you, headed for the closest livestock animal. If a predator is allowed to get to livestock too often, the animal perishes.
Each level players are tasked with a number of objectives. Livestock need to be herded to a designated area. Predators need to be kept away, by chasing them off or herding them to their own particular area. Items, like apples or grain, are scattered about and need to be collected. Some levels contain extra challenges, like catching speedy coconut carrying crabs or leading chickens to a zone.
The basic game play is really well conceived. It is just a shame that it has been executed so poorly. Levels can vary in size. When a level starts you have no idea how large it is, nor where any of the zones are that you are taking animals too. There are arrows that radiate from the herding dog which indicate directions of livestock and predators, which can be helpful. But with no overall knowledge of the area, and no other feedback on where anything is, their effectiveness is diminished.
Annoying pop up boxes regularly assault the screen. These are initially part of the tutorial, and while helpful, they tend to get in the way. They don’t pause the game to provide the information; the game continues to run as you attempt to read the pop ups and then remove them. Leaving them up means you lose a large chunk of screen real estate.
Levels can be incredibly buggy, too. One level saw me running around for an eternity, searching for the last item to collect. It turns out the item had been placed inside the terrain geometry, and therefore there was no way to collect it. I just had to abandon the level, and all the work I had done, which was demoralising. Something similar happened in another level, but instead of an inaccessible item, this was a cow that simply ran into the sky never to return. Probably off after those flying saucers.
There is an overworld map, which is used to select levels. Players can click the arrows on screen, or press the left and right arrows on the keyboard, to send the herding dog from level node to level node. There is no way to skip to a particular level, which is annoying when you are in the 20’s and decide to go back down to the single digits. This is compounded by the fact that the overworld map is insanely large, with the nodes so far apart that it takes completely too long for the dog to run from one to another.
Then there are the menus themselves, which are largely nonsensical. They are all icon based, but some of them are so obtuse that I still don’t know exactly what they are for. Coming into the main menu allows you to enter the world map. But there appears to be no way to return to the world map when you are in, or have finished, a level. You have to exit all the way out to the main menu and then return that way. There is a nice feature, where a jukebox is displayed and allows you to skip or cycle songs. But that hardly makes up for all the trouble.
From the way the menu is designed, and the simplistic way the controls are handled, Herding Dog seems like it was intended as a mobile or tablet app. The large pop up dialogue boxes, the iconic menu and the click-and-drag game play are all hallmarks of touch device games. That isn’t to say that games like this don’t have a place on PCs, but it seems like little thought has been put into the presentation and how it will operate on a traditional desktop setup.
The saving grace of Herding Dog is the visuals. Everything is created in an angular style that obviously embraces the polygons everything is built from. The animals look fantastic, fitting into the world created, while also being bright and alive enough to stand out. Everything has a slightly textured look to it, and goes a long way to making sure the graphics aren’t too sterile or clinical.
However, beautiful visuals does not a good game make. Younger children may find some enjoyment in this game, especially if you can deliver it to them on a touch screen or tablet. But even then, they will still run into the game halting bugs which are likely to confuse them just as much as, if not more than, adult players.
SUMMARY: If this were an early access game then there may be some hope. As it is, Herding Dog is a nice idea that just doesn’t deliver. The only reason to purchase this would be if you have an uncontrollable urge to play games about dogs. And even then, you aren’t likely to get a lot of joy out of this.
Herding Dog was developed by xixgames and is available now on Steam.