Bone: The Great Cow Race review
The best stories tend to start with a simple premise, and that is certainly true of Bone. Three cousins are cast out of their home, lost and alone in a strange, unfamiliar world, and trying to find their way back. The trio includes Fone Bone, the gentle protagonist, Phoney Bone, always ready to make money with a new scheme, and Smiley Bone, who takes everything in with the air of someone just simple enough to get into and out of a jam. And for thirteen years, people followed the cousins as their simple story turned into a tale of epic proportions. The fifty-five issues of the comic Bone were later turned into nine paperback volumes, splitting the large tale into its smaller story arcs while still tying the whole story together.
When Telltale Games decided that they wanted to tell the story of the Bone cousins as a PC adventure, they made a few key choices. First, despite episodic content still being a relatively new trend, they decided to release the game in separate chapters, as opposed to one large game. Secondly, they turned to the original creator Jeff Smith to help them keep the characters and game world as true to the comics as possible. And now, with the release of the second chapter of the Bone saga, The Great Cow Race, it's clear that their gamble has paid off.
In the first chapter, Out from Boneville, the three cousins are run out of their hometown after the latest of Phoney's schemes has blown up in his face. After being separated, they have to find their way back to one another while facing down a dragon, giant rat monsters intent on cooking them into quiche, and a group of precocious possums. They are finally reunited thanks to the help of a young woman and her grandmother, completely unaware of a robed individual who seems intent on eliminating the young cousins.
The Great Cow Race actually starts a little before the first game finished, with Telltale having rewound time somewhat to help fill in some story gaps left originally. As the new chapter opens, the farmhouse where the cousins have been staying has been attacked. Despite the damage to the house, Gran'Ma Ben is determined to make it into town for the annual cow race, which she has won for as long as anyone can remember. Meanwhile, Phoney is determined to make a killing on the bets for the race by entering a mystery cow against her. Along the way, we find out more about the mysterious hooded antagonist, get a clue to one character's past, and have another hilarious run-in with our favorite group of young possums.
The original comics provided an amazing series of stories, and Telltale has once again done a great job of bringing us into that world. While the story is extended and slightly restructured for the puzzle aspect, the developers have managed to keep all of the charm of the comics. And just to make sure that no one is lost who may be unfamiliar with the series, Telltale has added a cast page so that you can familiarize yourself with the characters and their backgrounds before starting the game. This is a great touch that I would love to see more of in future from other long-running series.
For the most part, Telltale has really stepped up to the plate on the 3D graphics with this chapter. I was a huge fan of the background art for the first game, with its simple but whimsical styling, and they've blown me away this round. In fact, once the game got started, I had to remind myself that there was a task at hand, because I kept wandering around looking at and interacting with the environments. Telltale has stocked its screens with lots of little details to catch the eye, and made sure that the game world looks lived-in, which is something I wish more developers cared about instead of presenting us with sterile worlds.
That's not to say that graphically the game is perfect. One of the beefs I had with the first game was the fact that the quality of the characters didn't match up to the quality of the background work, and unfortunately that has carried over into this chapter as well. The characters that work, work incredibly well, such as the owner of the local tavern, the possum children, and the strongman at the local fair. But my game time is spent with Fone, Phoney, and Smiley, all of whom still look sub par, mainly due to their simplified shapes next to the more detailed characters and backgrounds with which they are interacting. Compound this with voice synching once again suffering from the limited expressions of the characters, and you can very easily be taken out of the game.
And running up against synchronization issues is a real shame here, because the voice work is once again astounding. Many of the characters from the first game are here again, and it's almost like welcoming back old friends. The Bone cousins are exactly like you would imagine them from the comics and the new characters are perfectly voiced to match their personalities. And I could spend a whole day listening to the bickering rat creatures and the possum children. In fact, if you watch through the closing credits, you'll get to witness a great argument between the rat creatures that goes on through the entire credit sequence.
Music is similarly well done, and definitely holds its own against the score for Out of Boneville. The music fits the scenery perfectly, and blends into the background just enough to be appreciated without being overt.
Navigation for the game is handled with a classic point & click control scheme, and as with the first game, your icon changes when it's placed over a hotspot, so you'll never be stuck guessing what action to take, though you can sometimes cycle through cursors for optional interaction.
Dialogue is dealt with in the same way as the previous game, and it's a great way to converse with other characters. When you speak with a group of people, the game will display a tabbed dialogue box with icons of each character. This way you can switch between different people's conversations without having to close out and select each new one in turn. I've praised it before, and I'm going to praise it again. This is a wonderful feature that every adventure game developer should be kicking themselves over for not being the first to implement in a game.
The built-in hint system is back as well, taunting my walkthrough-addicted self with its promises of just one more clue. Any time you get stuck, all you have to do is click an on-screen icon and the game will point you in the direction you need to go. And if that's not enough, click again and you're given a more direct clue. And so on and so on until you have to force yourself to pull away before you click that one last time that provides a step by step answer to solving the current puzzle completely.
It's a good thing the hint system is so robust, because you will most likely need it by the end. While the first game was seen by many to be too easy and too short, there shouldn't be any of those complaints this time around. Even with a few hints here and there, I still clocked in five and a half hours on the game before the credits rolled, and Telltale has definitely paid attention to those who claimed that the first chapter was a no-brainer.
While Out from Boneville's puzzles were well done and fit the story, the inclusion of some non-skippable action sequences really hampered the game for me. Luckily, this is not an issue this time around. Puzzles are a mixture of different types, from dialogue puzzles to fetch quests to carnival games, and almost all are implemented into the story so logically that you don't have to worry about the usual "need three jeweled crowns to build a sundial to solve a puzzle to open a basement door" style of puzzles that is prevalent in many adventure games. In fact, I can only think of one puzzle in the whole game that struck me as out of place, and it was over so quickly that I barely registered it.
Another nice facet is that each of the three cousins are given their own section of the game that needs to be puzzled through, from Fone trying to impress his girl, to Phoney trying to talk people into betting on the mystery cow, to Smiley trying to create a cow costume so they can enter the race. And on top of needing to solve their own respective tasks, you'll need to switch amongst them to help each other out. This is a little reminiscent of the classic Day of the Tentacle, and was a refreshing way to play through a game.
The only issue I had with gameplay was the load times when moving from screen to screen. In some cases I clocked five seconds waiting for a new screen to load or to switch between characters. This would not be as big an issue if there were a load screen -- no matter how brief -- when the game needed to load a new scene. But instead of that, the game just appears to lock up for several seconds until the new scene comes up. This is not a big issue in the beginning of the game, but later on when our characters are running back and forth to solve puzzles, it becomes a major hassle.
As they did with Out of Boneville, Telltale is distributing the game online through their Telltale Now service. The game is available as a 100 megabyte download, which comes complete with a free trial period and an option to purchase at the end of that time, which provides a registration code to unlock the rest of the game. This time around, there is also a packaged version being offered from the outset for those that would like something a little more tangible. No matter which version you choose, you'll be paying less than the first game originally cost, as Telltale wisely opted to reduce the price of each episode. With longer game time and a lower price tag, the developers have already addressed the two strongest criticisms of the introductory episode, giving The Great Cow Race a much better value.
This is a series that is really picking up steam, and Telltale seems intent on listening to players and trying to make each installment better. The inclusion of the cast page was a simple thing that adds a lot to the game, and unlike the abrupt ending of its predecessor, the conclusion of this game makes for a more satisfying standalone experience as well as being part of a greater series. This should do wonders for getting people to appreciate their decision to release the games as episodic content instead of as one large, scaled-back game. The source material is wonderful, the puzzles are challenging but not overwhelming due to the hint system, and the graphics are a sight to behold. And while I would still like to see some small improvements (like the ability to skip cutscenes) in addition to addressing the character animation and loading issues, The Great Cow Race is definitely a game I can recommend to everyone.