Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Adventure of the Week: Bone - The Great Cow Race (2007 Director's Cut)

I'm trying to spend time with a few more recent releases, for a change of pace and to celebrate the recent revival of adventure gaming.  So this week we're looking at Telltale Games' graphic adventure Bone Act Two: The Great Cow Race, originally released in 2006; we're playing the updated Director's Cut version from 2007, in its PC/Windows edition.

Like the first entry in this prematurely truncated series, Bone - Out from Boneville, and unlike Telltale's later licensed games, Bone - The Great Cow Race is a more-or-less straight adaptation of an existing work.  It adapts most of the second book from Jeff Smith's popular Bone graphic novel series, with puzzles and additional dialogue added.  If you've read the book, the game will cover familiar territory, and vice-versa.  But both are worthwhile and current experiences -- the books are widely available, and the game can be found for purchase at Telltale Games' site.  So if you haven't tried either, I strongly encourage you to set this post aside and tackle one or the other before continuing.  Because there will be substantial...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

The game's very first line of dialogue is a self-deprecating in-joke, referencing critical and audience reaction to the first game in the series, Bone - Out from Boneville:

The shortcomings of the first Bone game are in large part remedied here -- there are more puzzles, embedded in a more clearly-driven plot, and some key scenes missing from the first game (as compared to the book) are restored to the narrative here. There's still a bit of rearranging and editing to make the story work as a game, but there's more ground to cover and the game sticks more closely to its inspiration.

We begin with a scene drawn from the first book, Out of Boneville, but left out of the first game, in which several denizens of the Barrelhaven tavern are discussing the upcoming cow race as the odd-looking Phoney Bone arrives in town.  He's in great need of a beer, and our first puzzle concerns finding a way for the short-statured Phoncible to make use of the bar's "Ring for Service" bell.  There's a long bone on the table where Wendell, Euclid and Jon Oakes are hanging out, but it belongs to the big bruiser Euclid, and he won't give it up without a little convincing.  Phoney can also take this opportunity to be himself and drum up a little betting action on the upcoming cow race, an event (and a scheme) that will drive most of the plot.  But the immediate goal is to obtain the bone, which Phoney can do by engaging the other characters to remind Euclid of an unfortunate gastronomical incident involving the terrors of Pawanian soup, causing him to lose his appetite.

Ringing the bell summons the bartender, Smiley Bone, whom we have (almost) not seen since the beginning of Telltale's first Bone game.  (He put in a reunion appearance at the end of that game, so this game's timeline actually begins slightly before the end of Out from Boneville.)  The two Bone cousins get to talking about the Great Cow Race, and Phoney hatches a bookmaking scam -- they'll spread rumors that Gran'ma Ben, who always wins the race, is just too old to do it again this year, and that a speedy "Mystery Cow" is in the running.  The Mystery Cow will, of course, be Smiley in costume, and he'll almost win but throw the race to let Gran'ma Ben emerge victorious at the last moment, enabling Phoney to clean up on the bad bets.  This important conversation is covered very briefly in the book, but takes up significant time in the game, and the scene is nicely handled, capturing most of Smith's best original lines and laying out the plot while remaining interactive.

So Smiley's objectives -- finish off the cow costume -- and Phoney's -- talk people into betting on the Mystery Cow -- are now established.  The tavern's owner, a beefy older gentleman named Lucius, arrives and demands payment for the beer Phoney has been downing -- two eggs, which Phoney is dismayed to learn means literally two eggs.  His wad of cash is worthless in the barter-driven Valley, and so he has to work it off, mopping the floor in an interesting sequence/strategy puzzle.  As Phoney mops up footprints, Wendell and Jon Oaks walk back and forth after every three applications of the mop, leaving new dirty footprints for him to clean up.

The trick here is to make small economic gains -- always wipe up two footprints with one mop stroke, and eventually Phoney will catch up with the newly tracked-in dirt.  After he's worked off his bar tab, the mysterious hooded figure seen at the end of the first game reappears, to warn Phoney that he has come for his soul.  But before Phoney can protest or figure out what this is about, Smiley interrupts and the figure vanishes.

Meanwhile, our hero Fone Bone is with Thorn and Gran'ma Ben back at the damaged homestead, following the previous night's attack by the rat creatures (as seen in the first book and game.)  Gran'ma Ben is voiced by a new actor for this installment, and sounds grittier and tougher, more in keeping with her character as she questions Bone about what the rat creatures might have wanted with the Bone cousins.  There's a simple fitting puzzle to solve, as Fone loads the party's luggage into the wagon, and then Thorn tells him about her strange dream, in which she is spirited away as a young girl to the land of the dragons.  And then we're off to the fair, replaying the reunion of Fone, Phoney and Smiley in Barrelhaven, and letting us see that old Lucius is a little bit sweet on Rosie, a.k.a. Gran'ma Ben.

The next segment replays Thorn's dream -- it's a neat little interactive sequence, though there's not much the younger Thorn can do besides recall snippets of conversation from mysterious hooded figures who appear and disappear.  We learn that the Red Dragon was her guardian, now forgotten, and that Thorn herself drew the child's map to Deren Gard, found by the Bone cousins in the desert at the beginning of the Bone saga.  Fone thinks they should tell Gran'ma Ben about the map, and figure out how she knows the Red Dragon, but Thorn wants to wait until after the race when Gran'ma has less on her mind.  It's time to head off to the fair.

Now that everybody's in Barrelhaven, the narrative picks up where the actual Great Cow Race book begins (some of the preceding material occurs later in the book, some comes from Out of Boneville.)   Thorn and Fone explore the fair, meeting Tom the cute, young, masculine honey seller, who flirts with Thorn (and looks a lot more like his comic book self than Thorn does.)  Fone Bone has a crush on Thorn, and is none too happy about this, and the ensuing conversation gets him into trouble with his crushee, who abandons him to wander the fair on her own.  Fone knows she is mad, though it doesn't really dawn on him that his feelings about her are showing through, and he thinks perhaps some wild honey will cheer her up if he can find some.

The game at this point allows the player to switch at will between Phoney, Fone and Smiley, in the grand old Lucasarts Maniac Mansion tradition, as each of the Bone cousins pursues his own objectives.  Each of these quests is fairly substantial in itself, and the puzzles are intertwined, requiring some switching back and forth between characters.  These puzzles will comprise the bulk of the game.

Smiley needs to round up an udder, a tail, and some horns.  And he'll need the others' help to do so, as he's stuck working at the Barrelhaven.  Well, working may be too strong a word, but he can't leave the joint.

To supply the cow's tail, Smiley just has to break something conveniently fragile in the kitchen -- Lucius arrives with a broom, which fits the purpose nicely, and we don't even have to actually clean anything up.

To supply the udder, Smiley needs to obtain an unusual hat worn by the mustachioed gentleman who runs the cow race game at the fair.  But we can't do that until Fone Bone talks to the man and wins a round of the game, after which the proprietor gets hungry and leaves his post.  Now Smiley can trade some eggs for the man's remarkably udder-shaped hat -- if he can get hold of some eggs himself.  There's a henhouse in back of the tavern, but the key is hidden -- under Phoney Bone's chef's hat, as it turns out.  Smiley has to put a potato on a plate and ring the kitchen bell to get Phoney to come and pick up the order; as there's no actual customer involved, Phoney's confusion gives Smiley enough time to lift the hat up and take the key.  Now Smiley can unlock the henhouse, gather some eggs, and obtain the udder hat for his costume.  (There's a bit of a design oversight here -- Smiley can talk to the man about selling his hat for some eggs, but can't actually arrange the sale in conversation even if he has the eggs in inventory.  We have to back out of the discussion and apply the eggs directly to the man.)

The horns come from the fair's Burly Barbarian game, a test of strength.  Fone Bone has to win the game, cheating a little bit by adjusting the rig's tension, and he can't do this until Phoney Bone's task is complete.  At that point, the man running the game leaves briefly to make a bet on the race, Fone Bone knocks the giant wooden barbarian's hat off, and Miz Possum's playful kids (from the first game) make off with it to play a game of mad bull.  Now Smiley can dye a kitchen towel red in the kitchen and play toreador with Miz Possum's three kids -- he needs to hang the "cape" on a tree branch in order to outlast the kids, who play for three hours (not real in-game time, thank goodness).  Then they agree to switch roles and let Smiley wear the hat, while they play an endless game of rock-paper-scissors to decide who's going to be the bullfighter.

With all three finishing touches applied to the cow costume, Smiley's task is done for the moment, and we can focus on Phoney's quest.

Phoney Bone's challenge is to talk the locals into betting on the Mystery Cow, and against Gran'ma Ben, so his puzzles are largely conversational in nature, befitting his nature as a slick-talking con man.  Phoney has to convince Jon Oaks that he can realize his dreams of racing his own cows with the proceeds from a big bet, which he can accomplish with a little persistence and dramatic insinuation.

The others take a little more work.  Phoney has to convince Wendell that Gran'ma Ben is a little under the weather, which he can do by sprinkling a little pepper on Gran'ma's workout punching bag, conveniently hanging outside the tavern window.  But first he has to get Wendell to care about the race's outcome by fixing a bad shoe Euclid made for Wendell's racing cow, Maude.  This requires taking the bad shoe to Lucius, who is busily bending metal bars outside the tavern, and getting Maude to "shake" and hold the pose so he can shoe her with the newly reshaped cow shoe.  Now Phoney can rig the punching bag with pepper, causing Gran'ma Ben to sneeze and convincing Wendell to place the "correct" bet.

Fone Bone also stops in at the Barrelhaven to visit Phoney; he talks about his current girl troubles, and finds out his cousin is taking bets on the cow race.  This is a fun exchange, and captures a couple of great lines from the comic that won't be heard if we don't spend a little time in conversation; these aren't essential to finishing the game, but shouldn't be missed.

On to the third potential bettor.  Euclid is a habitual eavesdropper, so Phoney can convince him to bet on the Mystery Cow by getting Gran'ma Ben to say a few misinterpretable things about her chances of winning the race when she stops into the tavern for some turnip tea (at Smiley's urging.)

The key bits of conversation here include getting Grandma to (1) agree that she's not going to try to win, (2) say that it's nobody's business how old she is, and (3) not object too strenuously when Phoney suggests that she may not be feeling well.  It's not hard to accomplish any of this, but the conversation is well-written and entertaining.

Of course, after the locals are convinced, the skeptical and level-headed Lucius shows up, and in a sequence drawn directly from the book, he suggests that this Mystery Cow might be a figment of someone's imagination.  Wendell and Euclid demand to see this impressive animal, and Phoney has to concoct a story about the cow's viciousness to discourage too thorough an inquiry.

Phoney puts some warning signs up around the barn out behind the Barrelhaven, and it's Smiley's job to make a frightening racket, so that the men will refrain from investigating more closely.  Smiley can beat on conveniently placed pots and anvils with a wooden spoon from the kitchen, but one of Lucius' steel rods makes a much more suitable implement.  The trick here is to hit the available noisemakers to get a pitchfork in the hayloft swinging widely enough to strike a huge bell hung up there, out of reach.  I wasn't able to really get a handle on this puzzle -- it seems like sequence is important, and so is speed, but I never quite figured out the rules; a little trial and error is sufficient to solve it, at any rate.  With the men convinced, Phoney's story is concluded for the moment.  (Another minor design omission turns up here -- Smiley can knock on a metal tub hanging on the kitchen wall with his hand, making a satisfying thunk, but hitting it with the metal rod produces no significant noise.)

The bets from Phoney's unwitting suckers are safely secured, and this wraps up Phoney Bone's primary quest.  But there are a few intermissions along the way, as dark forces gather against our heroes and the hooded, scythe-bearing figure directs Kingdok and the rat creatures' army to seize and kill Fone Bone:

Fone Bone hasn't been doing much at this point, beyond helping his cousins out and pining for Thorn.  But he's earned a Strong Man's Guild certificate by winning the Burly Barbarian game on the midway, and a stuffed chicken for Thorn by playing the Cow Race game.  The chicken's not actually meant for Thorn, though -- it's sorely missed by Cecil, the man running the disgusting Pawanian Soup booth.  We learn that most of the guys running the fair are brothers, and Cecil offers some pleasantly useful advice for winning Thorn -- it's basic stuff, but relaxing and being oneself seem to be on the cards.

Of course, we have to solve a few puzzles before we can proceed to the Cow Race.  Fone has to face down a gigantic bee to get some honey:

The bee doesn't take kindly to this attempted thievery, of course, and knocks Fone literally back down to earth.  But we can talk to the aggravatingly handsome Tom the honey seller to learn that a little smoke might put the bee to sleep, which it does... after we grab a handful of hay, light it in the fire under the giant soup cauldron, ignite the Hay Ride cart to create a smoldering source of smoke, and move the cart under the tree by feeding the cow a little (non-burning) hay.  Now Fone can fetch some honey while the bee dozes.

Fone Bone can also read from his trusty copy of Moby Dick whenever the mood strikes, and while this isn't generally useful, it's fun to hear the appropriate quotes the designers have found for each situation.

With the Strong Man's Guild card, the giant bee's honeycomb, and ... something's missing.  Oh, right, we need to play the Cow Race game once more to win a stuffed cow for Thorn.  It's more difficult this time -- the cursor is purposely floaty, so spurring our cow on to the finish line may take a few tries.  Unlike the aggravatingly difficult action sequences in the earlier Bone game, this isn't too bad -- but there's also no way to skip over it.

As Fone Bone arrives with his three tasks completed to see Thorn, he finds her talking with Tom and paying no attention to his offerings.  Fortunately, Ted the Bug arrives to boost the crestfallen Bone's spirits, and tells him he ought to write her a love poem.  This is a fun puzzle -- we start out with a few items that barely rhyme, and fail to make for a compelling piece of flattering traditional poetry.  Fone has to talk to the brothers staffing the fair to build a larger library of metaphors, until he can put together a suitably romantic paean to Thorn's charms.  The initial version is a little too fixated on Moby Dick, it seems:

But love will prevail, and after some entertaining conversations and wrestling with some hilariously inappropriate word usages, Fone is ready to present his romantically inspired efforts to Thorn.  But before he can do so, a couple of rat creatures show up; they plan to take Fone Bone to Kingdok, until they decide he might be tasty and they should perhaps keep him for themselves.  This breakdown in discipline in the ranks provides an opportunity for Fone to make a run for it, just as the race is starting, and so the Great Cow Race is likely to encounter a few unanticipated complications.

At the starting line, where Phoney is gathering last-minute bets, it develops that Lucius remains skeptical of this Mystery Cow, and he bets the entire Barrelhaven tavern... on Gran'ma Ben.  This calls for a hasty change in strategy, as the new bet outweighs the others Phoney has been making book on.  Phoney does an eye-bulging, jaw-dropping "take" (it's funnier in the book, it looks kind of creepy in 3-D) and realizes that now Smiley has to actually beat Gran'ma Ben, with Phoney in tow to protect his investment.

The race consists of five sections -- in each sequence, Smiley and Phoney must jockey for position, getting ahead by pulling tails to knock the real cows into low-hanging branches, talking the competition out of the way and climbing over them if necessary.

Finally they gain on Gran'ma Ben, but can't manage to pass her as she hears Phoney's directions to Smiley and consistently moves to block them.  A little old-fashioned "opposite day" improvisation allows them to get past her, but as Smiley, Phoney, Gran'ma Ben and a whole passel o' cows go over an inconvenient cliff, they run into Fone Bone and an army of rat creatures in hot pursuit.  The cows and creatures take each other out for the most part, but Phoney must toss available inventory items at the remaining pursuers -- including pepper, eggs, and a bone -- to knock them out of commission.

When all is said and done, Gran'ma Ben wins the race, and Phoney finds himself almost literally in hot water as Lucius fends off the angry villagers.

It's up to Fone and Smiley Bone to rescue Phoney from near-certain death, or at least a good tarring-'n-feathering, by rounding up getaway transportation and getting Phoney down from his trussed-up perch.  Of course, Fone Bone runs into a little resistance from the revived giant bee when he goes to fetch the Hay Ride cart, and must trade back the insect's honeycomb to claim it.

Smiley has to borrow Cecil's cleaver -- using the Burly Barbarian mallet to break the lock securing it to the soup stand, as the only key available doesn't fit -- and then use it to chop Phoney down, as Thorn arrives with a plank to keep the grouchiest Bone cousin from plunging into the boiling soup cauldron.  Lucius promises that everyone's bets will be paid back, as the race has been invalidated by Phoney's scheme, and our heroes back slowly away and escape the mob.

Of course, Phoney and Smiley will have to work off their rescue, doing farm chores for Gran'ma Ben and working for Lucius at the Barrelhaven.  Victory is at hand, or at least a brief reprieve, as Lucius and Rose strategize against the evil hordes, and the forces of darkness continue to gather...

This was, unfortunately, the end of the line for Telltale's Bone adaptations.  But the continuing story goes on in print form, and some funny rat creature dialogue from Jeff Smith's third book, Eyes of the Storm, is adapted and extended here to enliven the end credits.

I wish this series had continued, but as so often happens commercial exigencies prevailed, and this is where the game version of the Bone saga ends.  There's a Bone movie in the works, and Telltale keeps producing accessible and worthwhile episodic adventure games in other universes, some of which we will cover here as they age into reasonably spoilable territory.

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