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Bonelab burst onto the Oculus Store and Steam platform back in September 2022. The promotion prior to launch was nonexistent with the creators only announcing the existence of the game a week before releasing the finished product. This was quite a ballsy move and even though the anticipation for the arrival of Bonelab was short-lived, the hype was very real!
Created by Stress Level Zero, Bonelab is the successor to the PC-only VR title BoneWorks. This fact alone left many VR enthusiasts very excited indeed leading up to the release of Bonelabs. The idea that a physics-based sandbox with decent graphics and mod support was finally coming to Quest 2 along with PC was enough to create a fever pitch amongst fans.
Flash forward a number of months and although the reviews seem mostly positive, the comments section on both the Oculus Store and Steam show that the community is very much divided when it comes to judging Bonelab. So what is the issue, why is this such a love/hate VR experience? Let’s jump into it and find out!
Initial Hype – How Hype May Have Hurt Bonelab at Launch
Love it or hate it, the hype is very real. Even though the window between the announcement and release of Bonelab was so short, it didn’t prevent the Internet from exploding with speculation. Stress Level Zero had previously launched Boneworks on PC only and many people were excited to see their newest creation. The fact that it was launching on Quest 2 also with full mod support was a revelation for many. Getting all the great physics and assets from Boneworks and cramming it into a mobile version sounded like a tall feat but the launch trailer looked impressive. Fans were expecting the moon on a stick prior to launch, to say the least! Boneworks boasts rave reviews on Steam and Quest 2 players were very much looking forward to getting an improved second iteration from the Oculus Store.
One commonly known negative about Boneworks was how it felt unfinished. The story and narrative were lacking and it very much felt like a sandbox for experimentation rather than a finished product. Fans were well aware of this but hoped that Bonelab would be different. Perhaps by learning from the community, the developers might launch a more complete single-player campaign and make a game more accessible to all VR enthusiasts. Trailers showed some story content, multiple playable characters, and varied locations so fans were right to get excited it seemed. Was Bonelab going to launch with a decent solo campaign and a compelling story? Well no … no it wasn’t!
Launch – Driving without Wheels
Initial impressions of Bonelab on the whole are poor. Graphically it holds its own and all the physics-based stuff from Boneworks has carried over well. But story-wise, Bonelab is a mess! The story if you choose to try and explore it is little more than the text found on clipboards throughout your playthrough. Worse than this is just how little the game directs you. This can be done proficiently and Elden Ring (Game of the year 2022) is a perfect example of this. Not much direction is given but enough to keep you exploring and learning subtly as you go.
Alas, Bonelab is not comparable to Elden Ring in this regard. The real crime committed by the game occurs at around the 20 to 30-minute mark. No spoilers but once you reach a hub of sorts, you’d be forgiven for thinking the game was over. You’re presented with doors that allow different game modes and mods (we’ll come back to this) and it feels like you’ve no more progression ahead of you.
No joke, I had to look up a walk-through to learn how to progress the single-player campaign from this point onwards. If you’re having to look up walk-throughs and are feeling aimless then it’s clear the developers have failed to engage the player properly. A lot of people simply put down the headset at this point and give up. Bad form Stress Level Zero! Also, it’s no surprise that one of the most downloaded mods is a save file with 100% completion as most players just want everything opened up to them and all the tools and guns to be unlocked. That’s a pretty telling sign that you’ve missed out on player engagement for your title.
Gameplay Exposed – Is Bonelab Fun to Play?
While the story might be lacking, the gameplay mechanics are quite solid. However, like everything with Bonelab, there is a love-it-or-hate-it caveat to the gameplay. Having realistic physics is amazing for a VR title and definitely helps pull the medium forward. Your own body in the game has mass and can press against things or hide behind them. Weapons have weight and feel more realistic to swing or shoot than in most VR titles. Realistic physics means puzzle solving feels intelligent and there are always many ways to get around an obstacle. Stacking objects and climbing them is possible as is using brute force to knock things out of your way.
To be fair to Stress Level Zero, there has been very little comparable to Bonelab except for their previous PC game, Boneworks. Half-Life: Alyx is the closest but in that game, they take a few shortcuts in the body mass which we’ll get into.
Having a more realistic physics-based sandbox doesn’t necessarily mean more fun though. Time and time again, your own body will be your worst enemy. Objects you’re holding getting caught in the scenery, arms getting stuck behind walls at the worst time. This is where more realism isn’t always better. Half-Life: Alyx has some frenetic fun arcade-like shooting action coupled with in-game physics to give you a nonstop fast paced satisfying action title.
When you’re pausing to try to make a jump or climb up a ledge and your body is getting in the way, it stops being fun. Action slows to a crawl if you’re unlucky in Bonelab and often I found myself just wanting to shoot without worrying about everything else making the gameplay overly complicated. Realism is great for immersion, but not so good for fun gameplay!
Climbing deserves a special mention as it will forever go down as a pet hate. Similar to Boneworks, climbing involves a number of joystick movements and button presses to raise your legs up in a ball while you try to pull yourself up with your arms. It’s weird, it’s unnatural and it’s ridiculously complicated. Climbing up a surface and standing on top feels like a lottery as most of the time when you think you’re ready to stand and release your grip, you’ll fall to your death.
However, if you are invested enough, the gameplay in Bonelab can be a lot of fun. Once you’ve mastered the mechanics there is a good time waiting for you. The guns feel punchy and satisfying to shoot, aim and reload. The melee weapons are different enough with the added weight leading to some decent duels throughout the game. The traversal and puzzle-like parkour throughout the game offers great challenges and feels satisfying when you overcome them. Trust me, you may find yourself sweating in the real world as you monkey bar yourself across lava pits!
Unlocking new areas opens up new maps and new gameplay modes plus tools to experiment with. Behind the single campaign player campaign there is a creative sandbox for you to hone your skills and mess about with. Not too shabby!
Avatars – Changing Characters is a Unique Mechanic
Possibly the strongest selling point for Bonelab is the ability to unlock and play as new characters. These can be switched to and from on the fly by simply selecting from your arm. At first glance, this doesn’t seem too impressive but the characters are designed with specific strengths and weaknesses to help/hinder your gameplay. The real genius behind it though is how it still meshes with your real-life body. Swapping from a 4ft anime girl to a giant 10ft metallic robot on the fly while still maintaining a one-to-one connection with your real-world movements goes beyond impressive.
This is remarkable tech allowing the body mesh to adapt to your own height and movement span while transposing it to an in-game character of different shapes and sizes. Witchcraft I say! It’s simply something that hasn’t been done before and seems to work flawlessly.
From a gameplay perspective, it also offers plenty of variety for movement, puzzle solving, and combat. It’s far easier to speed run a parkour death trap if you’re an agile ninja but when facing a group of enemies, you might want to switch to the slow and heavy brute who can pick them up and hulk smash them for days! This freedom to switch on the fly (once unlocked) offers great freedom for the player and many chances to act creatively or just have some fun. It makes previous levels replayable as you unlock new characters and makes you want to have repeat turns to see what new kind of chaos you can unleash.
Level Design – A Muted Puzzling Paradise
The design of each level is very unique and creative. The way Stress Level Zero has combined puzzles, parkour, and combat in lots of different ways is rather impressive. I found myself stuck on many occasions and often the solution was perfectly logical rather than what we’re used to seeing in normal games. The areas are varied from one to the next and you will explore city rooftops, sewers, fantastical Alice in Wonderland-type areas along with medieval dungeons. I have to give the developers credit for coming up with so many different play spaces for us to explore. Can you tell there’s a but coming though?
But even though the areas are wildly different, they kind of look the same. That’s oversimplifying it, what I mean is they’re all unique but a little bland at the same time. Playing on Quest 2 is a disadvantage over the PC version admittedly as the textures and details aren’t as good but that is not quite the issue here. The color palette is dark and dull and no play area especially stands out. All the assets and backgrounds are perfectly serviceable but nothing really stands out. During the playthrough, there were no moments where I had to stop and soak in the scenery. It’s more functional than artistic, unfortunately. I would have loved more beautiful skyboxes or vistas in the open air areas and if I’m being perfectly honest, you spend way too much of this game in grey corridors or dark sewers. The color and the artistic flair just aren’t there, unfortunately. It’s not a deal breaker but it does lead to having an overall more forgettable experience with Bonelab.
Mod Nation – Why Bonelab Deserves your Attention
So up until now I’ve been quite negative or at the very least, have shared mixed feelings about Bonelab. It’s not designed for new VR players as the lack of hand-holding and almost nonexistent narrative will have many players bounce off the game quicker than jelly hitting a trampoline. It’s technically very impressive and may appeal to seasoned players wanting a more realistic experience. Yes, for sure that is the demographic of VR users that Bonelab appeals to right out of the box. Mods though are where Bonelab shines and can appeal to all types of VR users.
Bonelab is the first VR title to my knowledge that has easy modding support for both the PC version and the Meta Quest 2 version. Up until now, modding has been pretty much impossible on Quest 2 without the use of a PC. Stress Level Zero has left their creative tools open source and made it extremely easy for creators to pump out new content for the game. And yes, it’s incredibly easy to install mods on the Quest version so don’t panic.
The modding community for Boneworks was simply huge and the amount of user-created content on PC for the last number of years has been staggering. Bonelab is no exception to this. Within the first few days of launch, modded new content in the form of new character skins started popping up online. Flash forward a number of months and the library of content currently available to PC and Quest users is staggering. Guns, Gadgets, Player skins, NPC skins, new maps, imported maps from old games, new levels, new music, new tools, and much more are all now available for those who are interested.
Not only has modding become an appealing reason to purchase Bonelab, but it’s also overtaken the base game! I strongly believe that this was the game developer’s intention all along. The base game feels a little unfinished and the story for sure is undercooked. It makes sense that they wanted to get the bare bones (pun intended) version out to all the players and then watch the creative community grow around it. Want to wield a lightsaber while go-karting down Rainbow Road? Of course, you do! Want to fly like Ironman but dress like Batman, why yes, sign me up!
Modding for Bonelab is what makes this an investment rather than a purchase. Sure the base game isn’t going to change your life but the ability to incorporate all your favorite things into VR just might do the trick. The community only seems to get bigger and release more free content as time passes so it’s quite possible that Bonelab can become a game that never outstays its welcome. With constant updates and additional content, you could conceivably have fun in Bonelab for many years to come.
IS Bonelab a masterpiece? No, not even close. It’s flawed and a little dull in the looks department but it has many great hidden mechanics and a solid focus on realistic physics. Where it excels is in the endless possibilities that modding presents. If you aren’t lucky enough to own a VR-capable PC and have never experienced mods, then Bonelab for the Quest 2 is a must-purchase. Even if you are very familiar with mods and PCVR, I would still recommend Bonelab as the community behind it is one of the largest and most creative I’ve seen to date. Well worth your time and your money. Go get it!
If you want to check out Bonelab’s dedicated modding community, visit here.
If you’d like to see what we think of a similar title Hal-Life:Alyx, check this out.