"A lot of notice was taken of Boneville's shortcomings and fixed up in this outing; while both games drip with a vibrant and goofy charm that will appeal to audiences young and old, the more sinister undertones that Jeff Smith's comics were so loved for have been allowed to further develop in this episode."
Let's talk about Bone: Out from Boneville. A game that successfully bought the vibrant world of Jeff Smith's graphic novels to life by reinventing a forgotten genre, housing a solid point-and-click adventure within an intricate world that was a joy to explore, littered with characters that dripped with personality and depth. A game that did justice to a universe bound to paper and to a trio of very different cousins exiled from their hometown. Fone, Phoney and Smiley found themselves cast adrift in a simmering desert and driven apart by a swarm of locus, the aim of the game to reunite them. However, also a game that finished abruptly and felt very much like the start of a series rather than a stand-alone effort. Out from Boneville was a fun game to play, but only if you accepted it was simply a stepping stone to the second chapter, The Great Cow Race.
Now, let's talk about Bone: The Great Cow Race and what it does better.
Gone is the vague sense Boneville gave the player that he was working towards a dead end; The Great Cow Race manages to play as a stand-alone title that is merely enhanced -- not made -- by playing the first chapter's release. Set slightly before the first game's conclusion (which completes the reunion of the three Bone cousins who serve as both game's protagonists), the game's second improvement is highlighted cleverly; for also gone is the very straight path that Boneville made you tread. If the first game was guilty of using the comic as a set-in-stone storyboard that allowed very little straying outside the lines, The Great Cow Race flexes some more inventive muscles.
From the start, all three characters are controllable, allowing the player to switch between them as they wish. Quiet thinker, Fone, escorts budding flame Thorn to a yearly fair while scheming scrooge-like Phoney and laid-back slackster Smiley find themselves forced to work at the local tavern to repay some debt they foolishly blundered into. When one of the cast stumbles across a genre-standard puzzle that vexes you, the answer can often be found by switching their lead and working towards a solution from a different angle.
If that isn't enough, you can be thankful for the return of the built-in help option that can provide confused players with anything from vague hints to outright solutions. When Fone meets a rival for Thorn's affections in the guise of Tom, the disturbingly barely-clad honey-seller, the hints offered can range from a slight prod in the right direction of a more soluble solution written out in crayon. It's to The Great Cow Race's credit that this system will see a lot more use than Boneville; being one to listen to fan feedback, Telltale Games have turned the trickery up a notch.
In fact, it seems a lot of notice was taken of Boneville's shortcomings and fixed up in this outing; while both games drip with a vibrant and goofy charm that will appeal to audiences young and old; the more sinister undertones that Jeff Smith's comics were so loved for have been allowed to further develop in this episode. In a cryptic dream (which will no doubt hold relevance in later chapters), a young Thorn finds herself in a darkened cave, scared, bewildered and seemingly alone. As the player sweeps their mouse around the screen, a figure will appear, warning the girl of danger and urging her to flee, all the while, haunting red eyes will emanate from the shadowy background, blink in and out of view eerily. With a final plea, the girl escapes as more and more watchers swim into view.
The right balance is employed between the darker plot points that lurk beneath the bright veneer of the Bone franchise and the humorous dialogue that the pont-and-click genre is famed for, and many is the time that a clever put-down or vocal stumbling will highlight some stellar voice acting. Surly Phoney will grouch and complain when not scheming up some wild get-rich-quick plans that eager to please Smiley will often get caught up in somehow. The same tight voice acting that continues into the second chapter, adding to the killer dialogue and supporting an additional level of depth to an already loveable cast. Even the ambient background music is just right; consider the first gag in the first game which had Phoney only part with a dollar when Smiley took up his banjo and played a very off-key version of "The Old Grey Mare". Here, when a player decides to take control of Smiley he gains much more than a laid-back stroll and an uncanny knack of messing things up; he also gets a bar of the same song written directly into the character-specific BGM. If that's not attention to detail, I don't know what is.
Supercilious complaints can still be made about the so-so 3D graphics engine or the relatively short life-span of the game which will still only last a handful of hours, or that some of the more memorable cast members from the last game -- the 'stupid, stupid rat creatures' pair that hunt Fone but spend more time bickering amongst themselves and the enigmatic Red Dragon are the two prime examples -- but this is only to be expected in a serialisation project such as Bone. What's more important than these little nit-picks is that Telltale have seen what worked from their first outing and improved it, ironing out most flaws and presenting a more polished game for their trouble.
Whether you're trying to help Fone bypass a tough giant bee with a Brooklyn street accent, helping Smiley barter for a cow udder hat or guiding Phoney's misguided efforts to swindle the entire clientele of the tavern, expect to be sucked up in a well-told story set against the backdrop of a surpassingly deep world. There's at least one more person anxious to see how the third chapter of this story unfolds.
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