Every now and then a game comes along that is so original that it defies easy categorisation. Herdy Gerdy, developed by Tomb Raider creators Core design, is one such game. You have to make controlled jumps like a platform game; likewise you need to collect items to progress to the next areas, again like a platform game. But the actual meat of the game is much more similar to that of a puzzle game. In fact at its heart, this plays very much like a glorified version of that early nineties classic, Lemmings.
You see the aim of Herdy Gerdy is to round up various animals and herd them into their own special pens scattered around the level. These creatures are at risk from the terrain and from other predatory creatures that you also need to pen. As the levels become more complex, your task is to juggle the various creatures so the more vicious ones can be penned up before you can take the larger groups of more docile creatures through to safety.
It sounds a dubious premise for a modern game but Herdy Gerdy manages to mix a unique visual style with deep and challenging gameplay all set in one of the most solid and beautifully realised gameworlds ever created. The story is delightfully silly. You take on the role of a young boy called Gerdy. You awake one morning to find your father, who is a champion herder has fallen into a deep coma-like sleep. This is the dark work of the evil Sadorf; he wants to win the national Herding tournament so he can claim the magical Acorn of power. Ahem.
So your task is to take Gerdy on a voyage of discovery and adventure, working your way across the land from Gerdy’s humble village, through meadows, marshes and mountains to the metropolitan Foxtown and across to Tournament Island. As you go you will learn to herd more and more types of creatures and collect various “power-up” items that will allow you to progress. These include herding tools such as the stick, horn and flute, which are vital for controlling the creatures, and Gerdy items such as the swimming costume, magic boots and gloves which allow Gerdy to swim, run faster and move heavy blocks.
Each level also has 100 bells on it to be collected. These simply open up secrets at the end of the game such as the concept art, abandoned levels etc. From these is its genuinely interesting to see how animation sequences progress from a flick book of line drawings to a full-fledged FMV. Each level also has a certain percentage you must herd to move on. This is represented by a line at the bottom of the screen with Gerdy at one end and a Gromp (the main predator) at the other. As you herd creatures, Gerdy will chomp down the line, as creatures get killed or eaten, the Gromp will chew down line. If Gerdy reaches the locks on the line first, that means he has herded enough to move on, although you can replay to try and get 100% once a level has been completed.
The real joy of Herdy Gerdy comes with the various species of creatures you have to herd. You’ll start off with herds of darling little Doops to round up. These are funny little pink critters who stroll around quite amiably. They have a tendency to scatter when frightened and die if they fall from high places. They can however be floated down stream to climb out safely at a different point in the level. Doops are found on pretty much every level, and can be the trickiest to herd. Like herding a flock of sheep you must run or walk behind them to direct them towards the pen. Steer them into an obstacle or wall and they will scatter leaving you to chase after stragglers. Luckily they can be kept in one spot with the magical herding stick (!), but one certain timed levels getting those final few Doops into the pen before the time runs out can be a nail biting experience.
There are plenty of other creatures as well. Almost every level has a bad-tempered Gromp or two. These giant pink bears look cute but have a nasty temper. They will step on or eat Doops and Bleeps, and will chase you around if they see you. You must lure them into special Gromp traps by having them chase you over them, this results in a hilarious sequence as you run pell-mell from the Gromp while comedy “dun-dah, dun-dah” type music plays! If he catches you, you don’t die, but you will get walloped across the level. Often as the levels progress you cannot pen the Gromps before you can pen the Doops or Bleeps. You must use all your cunning to lure the grouchy Gromp into a dead end area, or poison him temporarily with a Blurp while you sneak your gentler creatures past him.
Then there are the creatures you herd using your flute. The teddy bear like Bleeps, the duck-like Honks and Honklings, the warrior ants, the ratty Glooters and best of all the awesome Grimps. Grimps are basically a big black blob with spindly arms and legs and a massive fanged mouth. Whip out your flute and they will follow you in a partying rabble. Stop playing before you pen them and they chew you up (this only resets you to where you were before you came across them). The wonderful way they jump up and down in rage when they find themselves in the pen is just one of the many ways you really feel the humour of the game come across.
The level themselves are beautifully designed, as the gentle rolling meadows give way to snowy mountains, dark woods and marshes you feel a real sense of progression through Gerdy’s land. There is also an element of platform game style exploration. As you collect items you must return to previous areas to open up new ones. In one level set in a Temple, it almost feels like being in one the N64 Zelda games (and that’s a compliment) as you puzzle your way through pushing blocks and whacking switches (oh and doing some herding on the way). The Temple is probably my favourite level, ending as it does with an awesome, dizzyingly tall multi-level structure you must climb up and down to do the final bits of herding. PS2 game graphics have never looked so good!
Graphically the game overall has one of the most distinctive looks of any game I have ever played. Imagine a cel-shaded character, only remove the black outline and render it in soft pastel colours. That’s how the characters and creatures look. The levels are rendered in realistic fashion, but the soft colours and lighting ensure the overall feel is maintained. Musically its very pleasing. Orchestral “Disney” style music accompanies each level, and the speech is well performed with a genuinely amusing script (although the sometimes cutesy American accents may grate for some).
So why didn’t this wonderful game do better? Well two things let down Herdy Gerdy badly. First of all the loading times are obscene, over a minute in some cases to access a level (no loading needed once it’s accessed though). And if you are on one of the tougher levels and need to reset it several times to have another go that can become frustrating. Secondly, many gamers have reviled the in-game camera. This I found less of a problem. There is a map in the top right-hand corner and to be honest, if you plan on being a champion herder you need to use that to steer Gerdy in some of the high-speed chases anyway. However, that said you have three views on offer plus a stationary first person view. You manually switch between the views which pan further out, using the R3 button. Unfortunately the game will arbitrarily choose to change camera views for you, and in some of the cramped levels later in the game this will suddenly result in you steering Gerdy into wall or over a cliff as the perspective lurches round.
Personally I have played games with far worse in-game cameras (it’s nowhere near as bad as Sonic Adventure!) and the loading times though irritating at least gave me time to make a cup of tea between tries! These problems for me in no way detract from the wonderful concept and atmosphere of the game overall. As I said at the start, in many ways this reminded me of the ancient Amiga game Lemmings. Steering a group of dim creatures to safety while avoiding or disabling the hazards that lie across the level. This is like a huge 3D version of that concept stuffed full of gorgeous visuals, a daft storyline and challenging gameplay.
It’s sad that a few technical limitations seem to have ruined any chance this superb game has of getting a sequel. In an age of tired rehashed licenses and tediously violent macho gunfests, Herdy Gerdy is a breath of fresh air. I played this game at a time I was beginning to become disillusioned with the increasingly cynical, exploitative and violent nature of many games on the market. This game made me remember why I started playing videogames in the first places. It challenged me, sometimes frustrated me, always amused me and when I started playing, I didn’t touch another game until I was finished. And I can’t think of a stronger recommendation than that.