Bone: Out from Boneville review
The Bone comics are one of those success stories that could only have happened in the openness of the independent comic scene of the late 80s and early 90s. Self-published in 1991 by writer and artist Jeff Smith, the first book alone (and the one this chapter of the game is based on) has gone on to sell over 100,000 copies since its initial publication.
The story behind Bone is a deceptively simple one, but like most great stories, quickly builds into something far more than expected. Three cousins -- Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, and Smiley Bone -- have been thrown out of their village as our tale starts out. It seems that a self-congratulatory party thrown by Phoney to celebrate his run for mayor has gone horribly wrong, and the trio has been chased out and forced to fend for themselves. And from this simple beginning grew a story that now spans nine books and over 1300 pages of twists and turns.
A large part of the whimsy and humor in the comics comes from the wonderful interactions between the characters -- likeable hero Fone, who's just trying to get home and take care of everyone; scammer Phoney, who's always out to make a quick buck from anyone; and dopey Smiley, who just sits back and watches it all unfold while playing his banjo.
I've been a fan of the Bone series since I first started reading it around 1994, and from the very beginning you could see how perfect the comics would be for the adventure game genre. From the charm of the main characters to the witty dialogue to the simple premise of three lost cousins turning into a wonderful adventure, this is a series that has been ripe for the picking. And who better to transform it than someone like Telltale Games?
Out from Boneville is the first in a planned episodic series of games intended to cover the entire Bone saga from beginning to end. In this opening chapter, the cousins are quickly separated while wandering the desert, and will need to be reunited if they are going to eventually find their way back to Boneville. Along the way, playing as both Fone and Phoney, you will be introduced to the imaginative cast of supporting characters that will help make up the rest of the story.
If you've already read Out from Boneville, then you'll be right at home here from the beginning. Telltale worked closely with Jeff Smith to adapt the story, which has paid off wonderfully, as the game is essentially the comic -- in some places, word for word. While some dialogue and elements have been padded in order to facilitate puzzles and gameplay, for the most part this is the closest you'll ever come to playing a comic book.
One area of concern when I first heard about the plans to adapt the Bone series was the look of the game, because while the three cousins are rather simply drawn (the artist once described them as "Mickey Mouse without ears"), the rest of Smith's artwork for the comic is amazingly detailed. And while I could see this being pulled off in a 2D environment, the choice of 3D was a little worrisome. And to a certain degree, I was right to be worried.
Now don't get me wrong. The 3D backgrounds for the game are incredible; simply rendered but perfect for the style. And the supporting characters look exactly as they do in the comics. The first time I came across the little possum children, the rat creatures, and the red dragon, I was absolutely stunned at how dead-on they had been re-created. But the main characters are much less detailed and fluid in their execution. Smiley looks fairly good, but Fone, Phoney, and Thorn all suffer from pinched muscles in the face (especially around the mouth area) that are very distracting when watching them talk. And for a game that relies so heavily on dialogue between the characters, this is pretty bad. I don't understand how the supporting characters can be so detailed and expressive, while a close-up dialogue with Thorn looks like a badly animated Poser model.
The voices, on the other hand, are absolutely perfect. Once again, consulting Smith while working on the game paid off, as he and the team have cast an excellent set of voices for the characters. From Smiley's drawl to the dragon's deep, half-bored voice to the varying giggles of the possum children, all are exactly as you would imagine them when reading through the stories.
Also adding to the environment is the wonderful musical score running in the background. Never intrusive, it blends in perfectly with the game world, and adds a very folksy charm to the game. And that's not counting hearing Smiley sing his rendition of "The Old Gray Mare", which is an experience in and of itself.
Before we go into detail on the gameplay, let me start off by saying one thing. With the possible exception of a few action sequences that will be discussed in a moment, this is an extremely short game, and definitely on the easy side as far as difficulty is concerned. Most people are going to blow through the first chapter in around three hours or less, and while I love the idea of serialized games, for the current $20 (U.S.) asking price, this seems way too short. Here's hoping that Telltale listens to popular community feedback on this issue, and choose either to drop the price for the subsequent chapters, or noticeably increase the amount of episode content offered in future.
Navigation in Out from Boneville is icon-based point & click, but rather than selecting the appropriate icon to use for each occasion, the icon changes over each hotspot to depict what can be done. This nicely eliminates some of the tedious switching between icons to find the right action that happens in many games.
Dialogue is handled in an inventive way when dealing with more than two characters. Rather than having to navigate from one character to the next for a series of two-way conversations, this game allows for conversations between multiple characters at once. When you click on one character, all other relevant characters show as icons at the top of the conversation bubble. Talking to Thorn but have something to say to Phoney? Just click on his icon to address him, and the dialogue options will change to reflect the conversation switch. This is a great touch and hopefully we'll see more of it in the future.
The puzzles run the gamut from light action sequences to logic puzzles to your standard inventory and fetch quests. But what Telltale has done here that most developers seem to miss is offer a variety of organic puzzles. I don't remember the last time I was able to go from escaping flying locusts to figuring out what order to jump rocks in order to cross a stream to playing hide and seek, all in the span of less than an hour. This shouldn't be a surprise, however, as Telltale was founded by several former LucasArts developers, and their experience really shows in the way they approach their storytelling through gameplay.
Another great touch is the built-in help system. This is one game that will definitely not need a walkthrough posted, and not just because of the difficulty level. Running into a problem figuring out where to go or what to do next? Hit the help icon and you'll be given a very generalized clue -- just enough to remind you what you're doing. Still lost? Click again and the clue gets more detailed. And you can keep clicking all the way up to the complete solution for the puzzle. This is great for beginning gamers or children who may be playing the game and feel a little lost. And for you walkthrough addicts, it's a little slice of heaven.
That's not to say that there aren't some issues with the gameplay. As I stated earlier, there are two similar action sequences in the game, and while they should be fairly easy to complete, this can be a deal-breaker for some people. These sequences require you to use your mouse to run from creatures while jumping and dodging obstacles in your way, and at least on the two machines that I played on, the game controls occasionally become non-responsive when the mouse movement is too near the edge of the screen. These types of action sequences are becoming more and more standard in adventure games lately, and I have accepted that fact. But it would be nice if we were given the option to skip them if they were too much, or as in the last Leisure Suit Larry game, an option to lower the difficulty of the sequence after failing at it a few times.
Now that we've covered the game itself, how does one go about getting it? Well, Telltale is among the growing handful of companies focusing on digital distribution, eliminating the need to go down to your local computer store to find the one adventure game sitting on the shelf surrounded by all those first person shooters. Distribution for Out from Boneville is being handled through the company's Telltale Now service, and essentially consists of downloading the game to your hard drive and paying for a code to activate it. Even better, included in the download is a free playable portion, where you can check out the beginning of the game before committing.
While I had no problems with my own copy, it should be noted that early public rumblings suggest the game launched with some kinks in the system. Fortunately these seem to be merely growing pains, as Telltale has already addressed some initial problems with registration, and appears dedicated to addressing any technical issues that arise.
As for the download itself, I was amazed to find that the entire package fit into a roughly fifty megabyte download, which is much smaller than even most demo downloads these days, and thoroughly surprising given the overall quality of the package (although it also explains the fixed low resolution and perhaps some of the graphical issues mentioned earlier).
All in all, this is a promising beginning to a series I am definitely looking forward to continuing in the future. The story is charming and witty, the puzzles are a refreshing change from the usual, and the game is appropriate for everyone in the family. If Telltale can add a little more substance to future episodes, I think with a slight graphical makeover on the main characters and a few small changes (like the ability to skip cutscenes and action sequences), this series could definitely end up being a classic.
[Addendum: Since first publishing this review, Telltale has reduced the purchase price of Out from Boneville and introduced a packaged product as an alternative to the download version of the game.]
A fun (although short) romp through a charming world that will be a hit with children as well as adults.