Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Bone: Out from Boneville + The Great Cow Race

In the year 1991, independent comics creator Jeff Smith launched the first issue of Bone, a comic that ran for 55 issues until 2004 and would receive immense critical acclaim. I had been somewhat aware of this comic as far back as when I was in middle school, including seeing a wild fan art of protagonist Fone Bone as well as some of the earlier one-volume collections, however I would not get around to actually reading it until a couple years ago after buying an autographed (black-and-white) one-volume collection at Jeff Smith’s Cartoon Books booth at SDCC. I then understood the low-key hype surrounding this book and fell in love with the characters and setting, and since then have read the Bone: Coda and Tall Tales collections and the recently-released Smiley’s Dream Book, with the Rose comic prequel and Quest for the Spark novel trilogy on my radar as of this writing.

Cover for Bone #1, released July 1991
(from left: Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, Smiley Bone)

One of developer Telltale Games’ earliest works would be a series of games based on the Bone comic, starting from the beginning with Out from Boneville in 2005, shortly after the comic ended. A follow-up, The Great Cow Race, would be released in 2006, however the Bone saga in video game form would come to an ending there (incidentally, the latter game would also come right before Telltale’s first breakthrough with Sam & Max Save the World). With the recent shutdown of Telltale Games in late 2018, I recently decided to purchase the Bone duology while they were still available on the Steam store, playing both games shortly afterward for this review. Though the games were initially released as stand-alone product, I have decided to present a review of both games as one package.

After being run out of Boneville, the cousins Fone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone discuss their current situation, with the whole thing being Phoney’s fault. Soon after the three come across a map in the middle of nowhere, the three are attacked by a swarm of locusts and end up separated, while Phone Bone ends up with the map as he starts looking for his cousins. Meanwhile, a pair of rat creatures target him as they look for Phoney.

While both the comic and the game begin similarly, the game presents a somewhat compressed version of the story that still covers the same narrative beats. Though some moments that were cut arguably contributed to world building, these moments may have come across as filler when translated to a 2-hour point-and-click game. These small moments aside, the game retains the more important events, making it easy to follow for someone unfamiliar with the source. It also prefaces the story with lore that was originally divulged much later in the comic, teasing early on what sort of story the player is experiencing.

The gameplay for Out from Boneville is pretty linear, playing more like one of those “interactive storybook” games. Certain things from the comic, such as the Bone cousins running from locusts or Fone Bone’s first encounter with the character Ted, are translated as full-on minigames, though the chase sequences can be optionally skipped after failing them once. As this was Telltale’s second game overall (their first being Telltale Texas Hold’em), the more simplistic gameplay compared with their later endeavors is more excusable here.

The graphics actually hold up pretty well, as they offer a direct translation of Jeff Smith’s art style in a 3D space. This combined with the voice acting (which includes a small JoJo's Bizarre Adventure OVA reunion) and music gave the idea that Smith’s acclaimed comic had really come to life. I especially liked the casting choices for the Bone cousins, though I would give praise to those who had voiced multiple characters at once and managed to make them all sound and feel distinct from each other. A minor gripe on the technical side of things was the occasional glitching on some characters’ heads, wherein they did not seem to know whether to look in a neutral direction or the one intended by the developers, though otherwise things went pretty smoothly.

Soon after the Bone cousins are reunited in the town of Barrelhaven, Phoney and Smiley Bone have to work off a debt at the local tavern while Fone Bone pursues his romantic feelings towards Thorn. Meanwhile, Barrelhaven is getting ready for the Cow Race, in which Gran’ma Ben races against a herd of cows. Phoney sees this as an opportunity for a quick buck, collecting bets with the promise of a “Mystery Cow” that is fast enough to outrun Gran’ma Ben.

Compared to Out from Boneville, the game manages to retell the same basic story from the comic while shuffling things around a little to suit a mechanic where you have to shuffle between Fone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone for the majority of the game, completing certain tasks to move the plot forward and influence what happens to each character. Some small filler not present in the comic is also added in order to aid this mechanic, including the introduction of a handful of side characters not present in the source material (they do, however, still include some side characters who had a fair amount of screen time in the comic).

Despite these differences, while the story was still pretty easy to follow and hit all the major moments from the comic, I ended up having to use the in-game hint feature a bit more often in order to get through it. As The Great Cow Race came directly before Sam and Max Save the World, Telltale’s aforementioned first major hit, this acts as sort of a precursor to the increasingly-complex logic puzzles that series would go on to be known for.

I didn’t find anything wrong with the game on a technical level, though I would note certain changes in the voice cast. Most of the voice actors from the first game return here, however Wendy Tremont King, the original voice actress for both Gran’ma Ben and Thorn, was replaced with Bridgit Mendler and Susan McCollom, who voice Thorn and Gran’ma Ben respectively. The change is noticeable after playing both games back-to-back, however the two try their best to sound like King while delivering their own unique performances that improve upon what she had started.

Though among Telltale’s lesser-known work, Bone: Out from Boneville and Bone: The Great Cow Race are both enjoyable games in their own right. After having read the comic, it’s a bit disappointing that the game adaptation never got past the second arc of the story, though as they are, the two games are worth playing through for Bone fans to get a taste of how things might’ve been. For non-fans, I would also highly recommend reading the Bone comic itself, as the One-Volume Edition isn’t too hard to come by. Either way, as the fate of Telltale’s games in digital storefronts is uncertain, I would recommend picking up these games on Steam while you still can.

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