Just when you thought point-and-click adventure games were dead and buried, last year's Bone: Out From Boneville sent a pale hand shooting up from the soil. Adapting the comic-book antics of three cousins who look like marshmallow femurs, Boneville was charming and fun, but its two-hour runtime (and $20 price tag) left something to be desired.
Bone: The Great Cow Race - the second chapter in the series - has no such problems. Available on the developer's website for $12.99, it offers Bone fans a deeper, longer adventure, packing in more minigames, more personality and much higher production values. The characters are more expressive, there's more to see and do and you can even switch between characters on the fly.
Like the first game, Cow Race is a mouse-driven, "find the things to use on other things and solve the puzzles" adventure. Exploration through the 3D environment is broken up by quick minigames, puzzles and conversations, and overall the action is slow, thoughtful and pressure-free. (Seriously, you can even click a question-mark icon for progressively more detailed hints if you get stuck.)
For those unfamiliar with the comics (or the first chapter of the game, which we reviewed here), Bone is the story of three cousins - sweet-natured protagonist Fone Bone, miserly schemer Phoney Bone and empty-headed hobo Smiley Bone - who get run out of their hometown on a rail. They end up in The Valley, a medieval-fantasy land populated by cigar-smoking dragons, an insanely tough old woman named Gran'ma Ben and vicious, man-sized "rat creatures" who argue endlessly about the merits of quiche.
Cow Race introduces players to the town of Barrelhaven, site of the annual Great Cow Race (which Gran'ma Ben always wins, despite her competitors having four legs). As Fone Bone, you'll wander around the festival grounds, trying to figure out a way to get teenage heroine Thorn to like you. Meanwhile, Phoney dons his bookie hat and tries to fix the race, while Smiley puts together a cow costume to help with Phoney's scheme.
If you get stumped by one of these plots, you can switch to another one on the fly, and events in each storyline are frequently key to solving puzzles in the other two. Knocking the Viking hat off a carnival statue as Fone Bone, for example, enables Smiley to grab the hat later and use its horns. This adds a depth that was lacking in the first game, and makes Cow Race more fun for those with short attention spans - if you're bored with one of the Bones, you can always see what the other two are up to.
Cow Race also features better minigames than the first episode did. In one, you'll man a wobbly catapult at a carnival booth, taking shots at a cow-shaped target to push it forward in a race, while another actually turns mopping a floor into a challenge. The puzzles are no slouch, either, whether you're trying to put a giant bee to sleep (hint: reading to him from Moby Dick - which you can actually do - doesn't work), trick some would-be gamblers out of their hard-earned eggs or help Fone Bone compose a Herman Melville-themed love poem.
Gameplay aside, Bone: The Great Cow Race boasts pretty, well-animated visuals, excellent voice-acting and a great musical score, especially for an indie title. It's still a little short and none too replayable, but it's a fun little quest while it lasts, and its charm and $12.99 price tag more than offset any negatives. If you're a fan of old-school adventures, you really don't have an excuse not to play this.