When I reviewed Out from Boneville, the first episode of Telltale's adventures based on Jeff Smith's classic comics, it was with some hesitation that I had to admit it was only an average game, because it was certainly not an unexceptional one. In fact, it had a lot going for it, including a great soundtrack, strong characters, a simple, intuitive interface, and buckets of personality and charm. Unfortunately it was also one of the most stiflingly linear adventures I've ever played, and had some very limited interaction, making it an all-too-brief and all-too-simple experience. Fortunately the episodic format provides a unique opportunity for developers to get feedback from players and try new things on a much faster scale than games with a development cycle of years. Telltale has stepped up to meet the challenge and Bone's second episode, The Great Cow Race makes great strides in the right direction.
Initially, things don't seem much different than the last episode. Players will be greeted by the same menus and theme music as before and visually the two are nearly identical. Character models seem to have carried over from the first episode, and those hoping for a more detailed environment will be disappointed. The graphics are serviceable and run very smoothly. The animations in particular have a ton of personality, from Phoney's surly shuffle, to Smiley's laid-back stroll. The characters themselves still feel a bit flat and could benefit from some more complex shading and lighting to get rid of some of that early-PS2 feel they have.
But aesthetics aside, once the game gets rolling the drastic change in the design approach becomes immediately clear. I felt at times that Out from Boneville was almost using the comic as a story board, with very little backtracking or room for exploration. In The Great Cow Race it seems more as if they took the key events from the book, and worked them into a broader adventure design.
This go-round players are given access to most of the game world right off the bat. Each of the three Bone cousins has about four areas to stomp around, and players can switch between characters at will. These three adventures run parallel to each other and there's some direct and indirect interaction between them, so teamwork is a must. Probably about 80% of the game takes place during this stretch, so for the most part this is a very broad adventure. It also feels denser and meatier, with more puzzles, more dialogue, and more to do. There's less of a sense of pointing and clicking your way through a scripted cartoon, and it helps to make the player feel more a part of the game's events.
Those hesitant to jump in for lack of playing the first game should put their fears aside: There's a brief synopsis mode, and as it's only the second chapter, they shouldn't have much trouble finding their place. It is very much a serial story though, so expect to be left hanging in the end. Luckily the wait for the next installment shouldn't be long.
It was clear from the first episode that the potential was there. It's encouraging to see that Telltale has learned from their mistakes and have come closer to making this series what we all hoped for. The longer, more substantial, and more enjoyable quest, coupled with the lower price point ($12.99) makes it much easier to recommend The Great Cow Race to adventure gaming diehards and fans of the comics alike. Hopefully Telltale continues to make steps forward with each episode, and the future for Bone could be bright.