Half-Life Alyx never really impressed me in 2020, because boneworks already had its hooks in me. While the budget is clearly lower and wonky in places, I fell in love with its simulationist approach to VR. Physics-based avatars bouncing on 3D legs, all with weight and weight and no invisible walls to keep me from climbing into the sim’s poorly textured corners. Sometimes it was the kind of VR magic I dreamed of as a kid.
What is that?: A VR physics sandbox with a significant story mode.
Expect to pay: $39.99 / £29.99
Release date: September 29, 2022
Developer: Zero stress level
Editor: Zero stress level
Revised on: Windows 11, Nvidia 2080 Ti, 4.9GHz Intel i9-9900k, 32GB RAM, Quest 1 Wireless via Virtual Desktop
Multiplayer: None officially. Some with mods.
Link: Official site (opens in a new tab)
Bonelab — part sequel, part creator’s sandbox — expands on this experimental design, in hell or on the high seas, that I want out of VR. It’s not an experience that I can recommend to newcomers: moving on virtual legs can be a dizzying experience, even if it is an experience that I have adapted to. Despite uneven pacing and a bit of physics (apparently a staple part of any VR game with lots of moving parts), Bonelab is one of the most exciting PC experiences I’ve had with my Oculus Quest headset.
Where Boneworks was more of a traditional story-based action game, Bonelab takes that core and reworks it into something similar to Garry’s Mod for VR, interwoven with a 5-6 hour story mode. Set in a weird 90s alternative (think Hypnospace Outlaw, but more haunted) where VR took off early, the story takes you from a conservative, corporate-run metaverse to become a freewheeling hacker and modder. For the most part, it involves racing, shooting, brawling, and puzzle-solving familiar in VR, but expands into more creative territory in the end.
Learn to walk again
The first section of Bonelab introduces the basics. Movement (walking, climbing and jumping, no teleportation), basic physics puzzle solving (often with ample leeway for improvisation), and combat with melee weapons and firearms. Guns are a satisfying bunch of (mostly) real-world bullet pipes. Although not painfully realistic in their handling, they feel right, with you magazine jumping, sliding the slide, and doing tricks as the recoil dynamically ruins your aim unless you hold it steady with both hands. Thanks to better sounds and effects, it feels punchier than shooting in Boneworks, although melee has seen the biggest improvement.
For a game sold on its physics-based brawls, Boneworks never quite appealed to me. The weapons were too heavy and my character was too weak. In Bonelab, most of the avatars I inhabited could easily swing a sword or club. Blunt attacks land with satisfying weight, while blades pierce and stick into virtual no-flesh, requiring some force to dislodge. Bare-knuckle combat is even better, letting you wrestle and brawl properly. No other game has allowed me to convincingly grab an enemy, trip them, pin them down, and headbutt them (ideally while raising their virtual shoulders towards you so they don’t throw your helmet) in submission. Who needs pub fights when I have virtual reality?
After the intro Bonelab gets a little experimental, putting the story on hold to introduce a large hub containing physics sandboxes, challenge maps and score chasing minigame modes, as well as a showcase of some mods approved by the developers. Arenas are an interesting distraction, and the Tactical Trials maps offer satisfying John Wick-style one-on-one combat, but it picks up the pace of the campaign a bit. It’s a taste of Bonelab’s long-term vision, although at this point I felt like something fundamental was missing.
The six-body problem
That something is kept secret until about halfway through the story: the Bodylog. Much like how the gravity gun recontextualized Half-Life 2, this little arm-mounted device changes the way you play Bonelab, allowing you to freely change physical avatars for the rest of the game and beyond. . Replacing your generic starter body, there are six main avatars (ranging from an animated little she-devil to a lanky 12-foot-tall monster) and the effect they have on gameplay is huge.
Each body has physics and stats based on its appearance, which made me want to inhabit a completely new body. Thanks to clever proportional mapping (if you enter your measurements correctly), each avatar looks like an extension of your body, no matter how different it is from your real-world meat sack. Configured correctly, touching your chest in real life is the same action on almost all avatars. Even user-created models with more alien proportions feel controllable, though it sometimes feels like you’re handling them on strings, rather than completely. to live in their.
Switching between bodies to solve problems is the focus of the later part of the story campaign, which has the highest concentration of physics puzzles, parkour, and combat. It’s never quite immersive levels of freedom sim, but it’s exciting to shapeshift to solve problems. I reduced myself to a cartoon creature to crawl through a vent or blast myself into an armored knight when I wanted to rumble with my bare hands or move a half-ton stone obstacle. This endgame segment also features the most variety of environments, leaning into the idea that you’re stepping out of a virtual world.
Diving into this fragmented metaverse probably wouldn’t have been so memorable for me without The soundtrack by Michael Wyckhoff (opens in a new tab). Airy synths are accompanied by moody melodies and a surprising number of varied vocal tracks. Eight vocalists lend their talents, and it really cements Bonelab’s aesthetic identity; Mechanical, strange, but with a surprising soul.
There is no spoon
This playful atmosphere peaks in the home stretch. Bonelab’s ending is as oddly structured as anything before it, ending not with a dramatic boss fight, but with the climbing of a windmill. If I had been here just for the story I might have been left behind, but for me that’s where the real Bonelab experience started, thanks to the game encouraging me to detach immediately and begin to experience everything I was given. The real magic for me became apparent, bringing my avatar changing powers back to previous cards. What once seemed purely linear is now clearly infested with secret areas and easter eggs, most of them rewarding new tools, gadgets, or NPCs you can summon.
This maze of secrets is Bonelab’s way of selling the fantasy of breaking free from the confines of “normal” virtual reality and becoming a cool creator and hacker. The other half is that the end of the story includes an invitation to the mod community’s official Discord channel and, in turn, the game is growing rapidly. mod repository (opens in a new tab). This is where Bonelab’s true potential lies. Although the mod SDK is only partially complete (not officially supporting the creation of new AI or custom items at this time), players have already created things way beyond anything in the main game: Avatars with built-in weapons (opens in a new tab)a water park (opens in a new tab) slip into a rubber buoy (opens in a new tab), tons of guns and hundreds of new maps; some scripted, some sandboxed.
Although not early access, Bonelab is still a work in progress. Since launch, there have been several updates to mod dev tools and a major game update to improve a handful of levels. Even in the game, there are hints of a whole “B-side” storyline that currently doesn’t exist. The developers of Stress Level Zero have promised to work closely with players on the future of Bonelab, and anyone can guess where that will end. I’m just happy to be on the ground floor of such an experimental game and curious how it will change – or change VR itself – over the next few months.