It’s been almost a year since I joined the VR gaming space with the Oculus (yeah, I still call it that) Quest 2. Along with some great games like Resident Evil 4 VR and Undead Saints and Sinners, I became addicted. One of the games that stood out to me the most was boneworks, an immersive virtual reality simulation from the relatively small team at Stress Level Zero, who helped take virtual reality to the next level of gameplay and immersion. Its sequel of sorts, Bonelab, came out a while ago, with very little marketing or fanfare, oddly enough, given the acclaim its predecessor gained. Does it manage to live up to the original?
Much like the original Boneworks, the storytelling isn’t central to the game, but there is, in a way. You play as an inhabitant of MythOS, a virtual world, who is betrayed and sacrificed to the gods of the void, but manages to escape, being able to dive deeper into this VR world. At least that’s what I think is happening. The plot is ultimately not very clear. It’s there primarily to introduce the sandbox elements and get you to grips with the game mechanics. There are fragments of a story that hint at a larger and much more interesting world within MythOS than we know just don’t see.
While Bonelab’s core highlights some of the strongest aspects of VR, its structure and design feel dated and downright underwhelming, dropping a wonderful base. After a fantastic fifteen-minute intro that sets a wonderfully unique scene, we come to the Bonelab hub itself. From there, you can access mini-games such as Tactical Trials, Arenas, Sandbox Maps, Experimental Maps, and finally Mods. bonelab lays its foundation here, promising strong support for mods, from avatars to weapons, and even entire levels for the community to fill, but forgets to fill them in itself. Tactical Trials and Parkour Maps are fun mini-zones that let you feel like an absolute badass and try out moves in well-designed and fairly replayable maps with a variety of weapons. But there aren’t many either, and can often be completed in minutes, leaving bonelab overall feeling like a disappointingly light package.
And the campaign then? Well, that’s a bit more complicated. Whereas boneworks had a solid and structured campaign, bonelab just don’t. Once you arrive in the hub, you may not know where to go initially. Turns out there’s a boring crane puzzle you need to do to unlock a door to proceed. A little boring, but as you get back on track it gets better…until the campaign puts you in the filler minigames to collect avatars to even progress.
Some of them have brutally bad level designs like the moon or tower climb chapters. The actual campaign content is generally very good, highlighting a fantastic core, but there isn’t much of it and it’s very short. Removing the campaign filler of about six hours leaves about three hours. The collection of avatars taking the majority, the bonelab the campaign forgets to let players enjoy core mechanics like boneworks did.
For the majority, bonelab plays exactly the same as its predecessor. The best way to describe it is as a physics-based sandbox. Everything has physics and weight, including your own arms and body. This means you interact with the game world beyond what VR games typically target. You are not just a pair of floating arms. The combat itself is fun because of that; the weapons handle very well and the physics-based puzzles really bring a lot of what made half life so good. Not to mention the incredible slow-motion capability you can trigger with the push of a button, making you feel like a real badass.
The problem is that the enemies are the same, with very little variety, and the AI is also the same. Except I’ve noticed they’re hitting their own chords a lot more now. Either way, they provide enjoyment, but I was really hoping for improvements in this area.
The highly controversial boneworks the climbing mechanic is back, and pretty much the same as ever, without a lot of improvements. It’s a bit of a shame as I felt like climbing still had potential, but pulling off a ledge was still clunky, constantly getting caught in the environment or magically launching itself into the map. When it works, it works reasonably well, but it’s not consistent enough. Same with melee actually; while melee or daggers are generally fun to use, bigger weapons like bats feel just as clunky. I just used my gun instead.
The biggest addition is the Avatar Switch feature, allowing you to quickly switch between different avatars that have different stats based on their size and build. The idea is that you can dynamically change “builds” on the go. Need to go fast? Use the fastest frame. Do you just want to run and beat everything in sight? Use the tank frame. It’s a good system, but not the game-changer the game itself claims to be, given that it takes more than halfway through the main campaign to fully establish itself. And even after that it is used maybe once or twice. The biggest use of avatar switching will come in future updates, mods or rolling back and revamping missions and finding a few more routes and collectibles to use in sandbox modes.
Playing mainly on Quest 2 natively I was surprised by the results. While packing what is essentially mobile hardware, the Quest 2 port managed to achieve a level of quality somewhat comparable to the PCVR version. All the features are there, of course with some major downgrades to account for the weaker hardware. However, it’s not perfect and there are some stability issues with framerate drops and semi-frequent crashes when completing story levels. Luckily, the Quest version is cross-buy, so getting it from the Quest store will unlock it on the Oculus PC app. It’s a cool feature that lets you try out both versions without having to buy them twice. On the PC version, it’s about on par with frames, so don’t expect it to push the tech to the next level here, with much the same recommended specs as before.
If you are not comfortable with intensive VR games, then bonelab won’t be for you. Much like its predecessor, the physics-based gameplay isn’t ashamed of its intensity. And that’s a good thing in my opinion. You’ll be inside crashing elevators and driving high-speed karts and if you flip it can be very shocking (just a tip; click right stick to exit!). As well as a long roller coaster sequence. Some of them confused me for a few seconds and I actually haven’t experienced anything like this since I started in VR. These are all in the main story mode, so they really can’t be avoided. Comfort is not a priority here and that’s fine; The zero stress level makes it clear that it’s for people experienced with VR and more. Although it would still be nice if the game offered an option to skip those moments just for a little extra accessibility.
bonelab lays the foundation for the future of VR gaming. It’s an immersive playground experience that highlights some of the best aspects of this burgeoning technology. Unfortunately, it also brings out some of its worst elements, namely nausea and a pitiful amount, and it’s just that, a base for more content down the line. I expect to bonelab to have an incredibly fleshed out future with updates and mod support, but that’s not its current state, and there’s absolutely no guarantee that it will receive said expected amount of support later on. It’s an incredibly difficult game to recommend in its current state, unfortunately.
Impressive visuals considering the hardware limitations of the Quest 2.
If you want boneworks then Bonelab provides this same basic gameplay. Just with very small improvements. It is also very intensive and not recommended for beginners in VR.
Boneworks sound design is decent enough but nothing memorable. Carried by an appropriate soundtrack.
Bonelab’s disappointed me with its boring main campaign, light overall amount of content, and very few improvements over its predecessor’s core gameplay loop.
Final verdict: 6.5
Bonelab is now available on Quest 2 and PCVR.
Seen again during quest 2.
Check them out!