We live in an era that is starting to transcend each and every notion of sanity. It is an era that even manages to turn entertainment to anxiety. In this dark period for mankind, everything feels, and actually is, rushed. Well, not this review. You see Telltale has been kind enough to provide us with a copy of the second Bone episode, The Great Cow Race, almost a week before its release, meaning I’ve had more than enough time to thoroughly explore the game and everything related to it. Not rushing to prepare the review for the day of release allowed me to reread the comic book, explore every available option of the game, browse through forums and sites, read Sam and Max comics, drink heavily, and generally let the game grow on me. I even downloaded and read the pdf manual of Bone 2, which –if you must know and can’t be bothered to have a look for yourself- is a beauty. I also checked my beloved thesaurus for synonyms of the words beautiful and beauty. It even occurred to me to write a totally surreal The Great Cow Race review that would include references to a Jack Daniel’s advertisement and my thoughts on the Greek Football (soccer for you Americans) Championship. Thankfully I overcame that silly phase.
So, in my vain attempt at originality, I’ll settle with talking about the first Bone episode, Out from Boneville, instead. To be honest, in my review for Adventure Lantern a couple of months ago, I overrated it. Not by much, but I definitely did. Especially when compared to its successors’ score (it’s an 89, don’t bother to scroll all the way to the end of the article), the first act of Bone exploited my fondness of Telltale and my ancient craving for humorous adventures. Being based on Jeff Smith’s brilliant work did help a tad too, but, despite being a good, innovative and refreshing game, Out from Boneville did have its fair share of problems. Most important were its (lack of) length, linearity, and rather empty surroundings. The game had a few glitches here and there, not to mention quite a steep price tag.
Thankfully all these issues are sins of the past. Banished to oblivion. Telltale not only released a better, longer, more interesting, more polished, and cheaper sequel, but went back in time and lowered Out from Boneville’s price too. They have even ironed out their distribution system, and are offering reduced prices to people who bought the first Bone and the option of a boxed version to the bandwidth challenged. In a confident, but self-sarcastic and definitely ritualistic move, Bone: The Great Cow Race goes to great pains to show how much Telltale values the fan-base feedback. It starts with a great line: “The last one was fun, don’t get me wrong, but it was too short!”
Actually, I could go on for ages rambling on each and every little thing that Bone Act Two fixed or improved over its predecessor. Little things like the marginally better voice-overs, the slightly more vivid landscapes and the richer animated 3D models. I could even get a tad meaner, overcome my fanboyism and discuss things that should have been remedied but weren’t, such as the fact that the 3D engine isn’t scalable, that the range of facial animations still isn’t what it should be, or that at points you are stuck with the cursor mode the developers chose. Apparently I won’t. I guess I’ll have to stop this filthy and rather obscene habit of judging Bone Act Two in relation to Bone Act One. Even if it’s an episode in a series, it will face judgement on its own, or at least almost.
In case you haven’t played Out from Boneville and want to try The Great Cow Race, understand this: Bone 2 is a great standalone episode, but you will not get full satisfaction from this game unless you are able to follow the entire story (for full satisfaction, you can also try to Google phrases like ‘escort service’ or ‘remote control vibrating panty’). You can get a feel for the overall storyline in three ways: 1st buy the comic books, which -believe me- are worth it, 2nd buy and play Bone Act One, 3rd visit Telltale’s site to download a video, that sums the story so far, and have a look at the expansive and beautifully illustrated “Who is Who” that’s included in The Great Cow Race’s Main Menu.
The Great Cow Race (TGCR), besides sporting an improved Main Menu, and as the name rather profanely suggests herding enough Cows to keep me happy, is mostly about a Cow Race. A great one as far as cow races go, and to be more precise one that takes place in Barrelhaven, one of the mythical Valley’s rural centers. Being a game in the Bone series, TGCR features the three Bone cousins. The cousins are the stingy Phoney, pointlessly smiling Smiley and all-around good guy Fone Bone. Other key characters include Grandma Ben, the Red Dragon, Thorn, Ted, the Rat Creatures, and the Hooded One.
In Barrelhaven two of the Bone cousins, namely Phoney and his totally enthusiastic partner in crime Smiley will try to win a major cow-race bet. In the meantime, Fone will go for Thorn’s heart. Accompanied by a brilliant soundtrack, TGCR features all this, while the true story of the Bone saga starts unfolding and picking-up pace. Where Out from Boneville introduced the characters and set them on their way, The Great Cow Race starts entangling the Bones in the grand and rather funny epic Jeff Smith has created.
So, story and music are excellent. Graphics are okay, low-tech but colorful and at points plain beautiful. Animation is at times excellent and rich and at (other) times (especially at facial close-ups) barely decent. What about the game play then? Well, if you enjoy adventure games –and let’s face it, you are reading Adventure Lantern, you absolutely adore them– Bone Act Two shines in the game play and puzzle departments, as long as you don’t expect Gabriel Knight 3’s level of complexity. The puzzles are a bit on the easy side, but definitely harder than the first time (don’t worry, the excellent and subtle hint system is still there; you might even need it). The challenges are smart and very varied. They sometimes appear as an organic part of the story and sometimes as interesting and well-implemented mini-games. This time you will also have to slightly manipulate your inventory, endure the odd fetch-quest and use Telltale’s excellent dialog system. But the best parts of the game (which I won’t spoil for you) involve writing a love poem for Thorn and winning the Cow Race itself. This is puzzle design straight from the golden LucasArts era. That is also where the idea of freely changing the character you are controlling (between Phoney, Smiley, and Fone) comes. Think Day of the Tentacle, only not so weird. Appropriately, the game’s tone changes to reflect the character you are controlling.
The game of course is not just a collection of puzzles and mental trials. It’s an excellent storytelling experience that can almost last 8 hours; provided you take your time that is. There is an abundance of clickable hotspots, that help flesh out Bone’s universe and enrich your adventure. You can talk to a variety of characters in order to discover their detailed stories (Benedict, Dirk, Cecil, Alvie and Dirk, the four brothers come to mind). The game has a few great gags, a glimpse at the dark side of the Valley, a nice cliffhanger-ending, and a particularly successful credits sequence right after the finale. You can even chat with the cows or try reading excerpts from Moby Dick to every person you meet.
Unfortunately, not all is rosy. At points the experience seems to be a bit lacking. Definitely not marred (did you know that ‘mar’ is a word coming right from prehistoric Germanic?), but just no so satisfying. The animations for example can get stiff or overly theatrical. The lip-synching is mediocre, load times can get tiresome, and the 3D engine is far from perfect. There is also no proper opening sequence, despite the frequent use of cut-scenes. Oh, and Thorn could use a new head. She still doesn’t look like someone anything would fall in love with. Ok, so these problems don’t even get close to spoiling the game, they are actually quite easily overlooked, but they still exist and keep this excellent adventure game from achieving classical status. On the other hand, I only believe five adventures from the past fifteen years are worthy of classical status.
Nevertheless, reaching a verdict for Bone: The Great Cow Race, unlike the game itself, is child’s play. Buy it. You’ll thank me, and you’ll be prepared for the eagerly anticipated third installment of the saga. For less than 13$ (that’s 10 euros) you’ll get a beautiful, funny, innovative, engrossing adventure. And you get to look at Bone’s expressive eyebrows for more than a few hours.