Telltale Games continues its interactive interpretation of Jeff Smith's beloved Bone comics with this second release in the series. Bone: The Great Cow Race follows the adventures of the three Bone cousins -- Fone, Phoney, and Smiley -- who are peculiar guests in a mythical, medieval countryside. Picking up where the first episode leaves off, the cousins have found sanctuary at a simple farmhouse, whose owners may not be the simple farmers that they seem to be.
The game features colorful 3D graphics, and the menus and dialog boxes are presented in the style of the comic series. Exploration of the game world is accomplished mostly through a traditional point-and-click interface, but occasional mini-games provide more action-oriented play. Much of the story's charm relies on the interaction between the three cousins and their disparate reactions to the people they meet on their journey, and the game allows players to take control of different lead characters in different situations.
For me, the pleasure in reading lies in the ability to live entirely inside my own head. That is why I've never been particularly attracted to comic books or graphic novels; I prefer to paint my own mental pictures instead of having everything drawn out for me. So I've never really paid much attention to those areas of my local bookstores and had never seen, or even heard of, Jeff Smith's Bone series until the first Bone game was announced.
I played that first game, Out from Boneville, when it was released, on the strength of Telltale Games' staff pedigrees: many of them had worked at LucasArts during its adventure game glory days. I found it to be short and sweet. And short. And it was my impression it is primarily aimed at children and that is why it is entirely too linear and not at all difficult.
I played The Great Cow Race with my younger son, who had read the first three Bone books just before I started the game. He gave me a running compare-and-contrast throughout; based on his observations and my own, later, ones, the only new elements introduced into the games are for the sake of the puzzles. For instance, there is one puzzle that involves getting honey from a monster bee; the getting of the honey is in the book but the game introduces the mechanism by which to do so.
The Bone series chronicles the doings of the three Bone cousins: Fone Bone, the good-hearted one, Phoney Bone, always looking out for number one, and Smiley Bone, the happy-go-lucky one. The series begins with the three of them recently run out of Boneville due to one of Phoney Bone's schemes gone awry. In the first game, the three become separated and eventually (almost) reunite at Gran'ma Ben's house in the woods. At the end of Out from Boneville, Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, Gran'ma Ben, and her granddaughter Thorn set out for the fair where the Great Cow Race is to be held; Gran'ma Ben, though not a cow, has entered the race, as she has done for many years past. And she has won all of the races she's run.
Throughout Out from Boneville, the three Bones are pursued by a giant rat creature named Kingdok, who sends two not-very-smart hench-rat creatures to do his dirty work and who in turn is controlled by a shadowy wizard-looking dude. As well, they have a sort of guardian dragon who sometimes gives a little aid, if he can bother his lazy self to do so. These characters all figure prominently in the plot, although most of what we see of them is in the cutscenes.
All this by way of background; these games are meant to be played in serial form.
Bone 2, this one, The Great Cow Race, opens with the three Bones reuniting at the regional fair where the Cow Race is to be run. Fone Bone is in unrequited love with Thorn, Phoney Bone is looking to get rich quick in a betting scheme, and Smiley Bone is, well, just is. The gameplay part of the game takes place almost entirely on the fairgrounds and at a nearby tavern. The ancillary characters from the first game put in appearances here, and a few new ones are introduced as well.
You switch at will between the three Bones by clicking on their respective heads at the top right of the screen. When I played, I went as far as I could playing as Fone Bone; I found that I could not complete all of Fone Bone's tasks without first taking a turn as Smiley and Phoney; the actions of the three intertwine and affect each others' progress down their respective paths. Anyone who's ever read my reviews knows this type of multiple-playable-character interaction is one of my all-time favorite game devices, and it was well implemented here, much to my delight.
Game mechanics are purely point-and-click. The options include an in-game tutorial; hints on how to use inventory, how to converse with the other characters, and suchlike pop up from time to time as these issues are encountered. This would be useful for kids as well as adult point-and-click first-timers, but I found it more bothersome than anything. I had left it on during Bone 1 just to see what it was like; first thing I did on starting Bone 2 was look at the options screen and turn that particular feature off.
The options also include something called "Laptop Mode"; I don't know what this means. I played the game on my desktop computer and found I had to enable "Laptop Mode" or the first cutscene flew by lickety-split, so I guess "Laptop Mode" really means "Slow Down." (This was the only technical difficulty I encountered.) There is also an option for subtitles; even though the voice actors always speak clearly and are easy to understand, I left the subtitles on. Sometimes the spoken words did not match up with the printed text, but the deviations were all quite minor.
Out from Boneville, the first game, includes two arcade sequences, one that involves running away from angry locusts and another that involves running away from angry rat creatures. As you might imagine, these engendered plenty loud pissing and moaning from the point-and-click purists; I thought them not all that difficult to beat after some pattern observation, and if the player fails, she is put back at the beginning of the sequence with no loss of game progress. The Great Cow Race also includes some arcade sequences, one a sort of shooting gallery game with wonky controls that must be overcome to win a prize and another race sequence where the time is apparently limitless and you must instead focus on strategy. As with Bone 1, I did not find these segments troublesome; your mileage may vary.
Aside from these "action" interludes, gameplay is a mix of classic inventory puzzling and classic conversation puzzling. Bone 1 was particularly easy; The Great Cow Race is a good deal more challenging but still not walkthrough-worthy and still easy enough (I think) that children would be able to complete it with little or no adult help. The Great Cow Race also lasts about twice as long as Out from Boneville.
The Bone games are available as downloads from the Telltale website. You can try before you buy; the way this works is you download the full game but may play only to a certain point, after which you will need to fork over some dough for a code that unlocks the rest of the game. The Bone 1 download, I seem to recall, is around 75 MB; Bone 2 weighs in at 100 MB. For you dial-up users, Telltale has made the games available on CD as well, for a higher cost.
With both games, I was mightily impressed by the quality of the graphics and voice acting, especially for two such relatively small installation files. Music too is quite well-done, which is to say not irksome. The characters are charming, the artwork pleasing, the plot engaging, and the games are just plain fun to play.
Telltale has given us not one but two good things that come in small packages, and I'd recommend this series to anyone who yearns for those glory days of adventure gaming. These won't quite fulfill your old-school needs, but they are about as close as you can get in these times when cookie-cutter games reign supreme in the adventure world.
A final note: Last night I read the first three books (the only ones we have, or I would've read more) in the Bone series. There were actually quite a few liberties taken with the plot by Telltale in creating the games, but the overall flavor is the same. I imagine that's because Jeff Smith, the books' author/artist, is overseeing the games' development.
People who downloaded Bone: The Great Cow Race have also downloaded:
Bone: Out from Boneville, Blue Force, Blade Runner, Blue Ice, Broken Sword 2: The Smoking Mirror, Celtica, Barrow Hill: Curse of the Ancient Circle, Big Red Adventure
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