Review – Bonelab

It’s been almost a year since I joined the VR gaming space with the Oculus (yeah, I’m still calling it that) Quest 2. With some great games like Resident Evil 4 VR and Walking Dead Saints and Sinners, I’ve been hooked. One of the games that have stood out the most for me was Boneworks, an immersive VR sim from the relatively small team at Stress Level Zero, which helped push VR to the next level of gameplay and immersion. Its sequel of sorts, Bonelab, was released a while ago, with very little marketing or fanfare, oddly enough, considering the recognition earned by its predecessor. Does it manage to live up to the original? 

Much like the original Boneworks, storytelling isn’t a focus of the game, but there is one, sort of.  You play as an inhabitant of MythOS, a virtual world, who is betrayed and sacrificed to the void gods, but manage to escape, being able to delve deeper into this VR world. At least that’s what I think is happening. The plot is not actually very clear. It is there mostly to introduce the sandbox elements and allow you to master game mechanics. There are fragments of a story that hints at a larger and much more interesting world within MythOS that we just don’t see.

Welcome to the Bonelabs.

Whilst Bonelab’s core highlights some of the strongest aspects of VR, its structure and design feel dated and completely underwhelming, letting down a wonderful foundation. After a fantastic fifteen-minute introduction that sets a wonderfully unique stage, we arrive at the Bonelab hub itself. From here you can access mini-games such as tactical trials, arenas, sandbox maps, experimental maps and finally mods. Bonelab lays its foundations here, promising strong mod support from avatars to weapons and even entire levels for the community to fill, but forgets to fill them in itself. The tactical trials and parkour maps are fun mini-areas that allow you to feel like an absolute badass and try out moves in well-designed and fairly replayable maps with a variety of weapons. But there are not a lot of them either, and can often be completed in a matter of minutes, leaving Bonelab as a whole feeling like an underwhelmingly light package.

So what about the campaign? Well, that’s a bit more complicated. Whilst Boneworks had a solid and structured campaign, Bonelab just doesn’t. Once you arrive in the hub you might not realise where to go initially. Turns out there is an annoying crane puzzle that you need to do to unlock a door to proceed. Slightly annoying, but as you get back on track it does improve… until the campaign puts you into the filler mini-games 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 really good, highlighting a fantastic core, but there’s not a lot of it and is cut really short. Removing the filler from the roughly six hour campaign there are about three hours left. With the avatar collection taking the majority of it, the Bonelab campaign forgets to let the players just enjoy the core mechanics as Boneworks did.

For the most part, 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 to it, including your own arms and body. What this means is that you interact with the game world beyond what VR games typically target. You are not just a pair of floating arms. Combat itself is fun as a result of this; weapons handle really well and physics-based puzzles really bring a lot of what made Half-Life so great. That’s not to mention the incredible slow-motion ability you can trigger at the press of a button making you feel like an absolute badass.

Bonelab is at it’s best when it gives you combat arenas to play with.

The problem is the enemies are the same, with very little variety, and the AI is also the same. Except I noticed they fall over a lot more on their own accords now. Regardless, they do provide some fun but I was really hoping for some improvements in this area.

The much-debated Boneworks climbing mechanics are back, and about the same as ever, without much in the way of improvements. This is a bit of a shame as I felt like the climbing always had potential but pulling yourself over a ledge always felt clumsy, constantly getting caught in the environment or magically launching yourself across the map. When it works, it works reasonably well, but it’s not consistent enough. Same with the melee actually; whilst hand-to-hand or daggers are generally fun to use the larger weapons like bats just feel clumsy as well. I just used my gun instead.

The biggest addition is the avatar-switching feature, allowing you to quickly swap between different avatars that have different stats based on their height and build. The idea is that you can dynamically change “builds” on the go. Need to move fast? Use the faster frame. Do you want to just run and beat up everything in sight? Use the tank frame. It’s a fine system, but not the game changer that the game itself makes it out to be, considering it takes over half of the main campaign to fully establish. And even after that, it is used maybe once or twice. The biggest use of avatar switching will come in future updates, mods or going back and doing the missions again and finding a few extra routes and collectables to use in the sandbox modes.

Playing primarily on Quest 2 natively I was surprised by the results. Whilst packing what’s essentially mobile hardware, the Quest 2 port has managed to get up to a quality level that is somewhat comparable to the PCVR version. All the features are there, though of course with some major downgrades to account for the weaker hardware. However, it’s not perfect and there are some stability issues with some frame rate drops and semi-frequent crashes when completing story levels. Thankfully the Quest version is cross-buy, so getting it on the Quest store will unlock it on the PC Oculus app. It’s a neat feature that allows you to try out both versions without having to buy them twice. On the PC version it’s pretty much on par with Boneworks, so don’t be expecting it to push the technology to the next level here, with roughly the same recommended specs as before.

The rooftop parkour map is reminiscent of the opening scene of The Matrix.

If you are uncomfortable with intensive VR games then Bonelab won’t be for you. Much like its predecessor, the physics-based gameplay is unashamed of how intensive it is. And that’s a good thing in my opinion. You will be inside crashing elevators, and driving go-karts at high speeds and if you flip it can be super jarring (just a tip; click in the right stick to get out!). As well as an extended roller-coaster sequence. Some of these disorientated me for a few seconds and I’ve not actually experienced anything like that since my early days in VR. These are all in the main story mode so they really can’t be avoided. Comfort isn’t a priority here and that’s fine; Stress Level Zero clearly state this is for people experienced with VR and then some. Though it would still be nice for the game to give an option to skip these moments just for a little added accessibility.

Bonelab lays the foundation for the future of VR gaming. It is 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 foundation for more content down the line. I expect Bonelab to have an incredibly fleshed-out future with updates and mod support, but that’s not its present state, and there’s absolutely no guarantee that it will receive said expected amount of support later down the line. It’s an incredibly tough game to recommend in its current state, sadly enough.

Graphics: 7.5

Impressive visuals considering the Quest 2’s hardware limitations.

Gameplay: 7.0

If you like Boneworks then Bonelab provides that same core gameplay. Just with very little improvements. It’s also very intensive and not recommended for VR newcomers.

Sound: 7.0

Boneworks sound design is fairly decent but nothing memorable. Carried by a fitting soundtrack.

Fun Factor: 6.0

Bonelab’s disappointed me with its dull main campaign, overall light amount of content, and very little improvements upon its predecessor’s core gameplay loop.

Final Verdict: 6.5

Bonelab is available now on Quest 2 and PCVR.

Reviewed on Quest 2.