Online distribution is opening new doors for developers, and newcomer Telltale Games is hoping it can connect with an audience long thought to be dead. Born from the ashes of the Sam and Max sequel cold-heartedly struck down by LucasArts, the gang at Telltale has something to prove. Their first major release, Bone: Out From Boneville, is a deliciously old-school point-and-click adventure with a lighthearted approach, sure to bring back fuzzy memories of times long gone.
Like Sam and Max, Bone turns to a cult-favorite comic book for its inspiration. Jeff Smith's epic series has been described as a sort of 'Smurfs meets Lord of the Rings', and chronicles the adventures of 3 Casper-esque humanoids lost in a strange valley after being thrown out of their home town. Perhaps as part of a desire to handle the source material delicately, Bone is faithful to Jeff Smith's original narrative to a degree previously unheard. In fact, it’s an almost word-for-word, scene-for-scene adaptation of the comic book. While this is likely a relief to those protective of the source material, diehard fans might be disappointed to find that, in terms of story and dialogue, Telltale's adaptation offers precious little new.
Those new to the Bone universe, however, will delight in a rich universe full of memorable characters and witty dialogue. The character interaction is a sizable chunk of the experience, and players will be treated to a branching dialogue interface. Unfortunately not all these branches really flow well into each other, but it’s a minor complaint. The world itself is also well realized, and while it might not wow with its visuals, the environments are nicely textured with a hand-painted look that comes off like a halfway between Rayman and Tales of Symphonia. The world's inhabitants are expressive as well, if not especially detailed, and marred by occasional glitches in animation.
It's refreshing to see the return of the point and click interface that so many associate with the golden age of adventure gaming. Although it's completely 3D, Bone keeps its interface simple, its cameras scripted, and makes few compromises in terms of feel. This translates into very intuitive exploration and interaction, and even small children should be able to get the hang of it in no time. Unfortunately, the interface is woefully limited in terms of the types of interaction it can allow. Rarely will the player be able to interact with an object in multiple ways, and never will he be able to interact with something unsuccessfully. This kills much of the process of trial and error associated with adventure gaming it, and with it the need for more open-ended problem solving. Progress can be made by simply moving the cursor around the screen and seeing which elements are interactive.
These limitations contribute to the broader problem: linearity. With a very small toolbox at your disposal, Bone is greatly hurt by its very narrow progression. Perhaps because it follows the comic as if it was a storyboard there is little room for lateral movement, backtracking or otherwise deviating from 2 or 3 locales at any given time. Often players will be confined to an area not much bigger than what's shown on screen. This keeps the story trucking along, but makes for an experience that feels almost as if it’s on rails.
Bone attempts to pioneer a new format to videogaming: the episodic series. Much like a serial TV show as compared to a movie, Bone dishes out a small portion of a broader story at a lower price, and with relatively high frequency. This considered, I think the amount of content in Bone feels about right for what a gaming "episode" should be. It covers one collected volume of the comic book (there are 9 in all), and gives players the chance to control two different characters, play some mini-games, solve a few logic puzzles, meet a half-dozen or so non-central characters, and get a healthy introduction to the story. Unfortunately, the aforementioned problems of linearity make this content go by rather quickly; don't expect it to take you more than 4 or 5 hours, and don't expect much incentive to come back and replay very often. This might decide whether $20 is a fair asking price for such an episode for some people.
Bone is a charming, funny, and nostalgic romp, but it's difficult for me to give it a strong recommendation due to its stifling simplicity. It's a title that children and adults alike will enjoy and it's a refreshingly uncompromised take at a neglected form, but the short-lived thrills are not enough to keep most players coming back. Bone is a game with a lot going for it that just misses the mark. Fortunately, we won't likely have to wait long to see if Telltale can learn from its mistakes with the next episode.