Boneworks introduced a new approach to VR interactions, giving all objects a real sense of weight and overtly inviting the player to role-play alongside the game. The game advised players that “if you physically imagine holding the heavy object, you will find it easier to move it”.
This is the basic philosophy of Stress Level Zero’s Marrow1 interaction engine, developed for Boneworks and now used in Bonelab. Everything you loved (and maybe hated) about Boneworks interactions has been carried over to Bonelab. That means you’ll need to act in pantomime when lifting for the best results, but it also means there’s the same level of playfulness, unpredictability, and experimentation.
A new structure
However, Stress Level Zero takes a slightly different approach to the overall game structure this time around. Opening the game for the first time will start the main campaign. After about 15 minutes, you’re introduced to a new hub area called The Lab. This is where you will begin to realize the full scope of the Stress Level Zero vision – the campaign is just one facet of what is on offer.
The Lab offers a range of mini-games, game modes and activities to explore. There are sandbox environments, wave shooters, time trials, and parkour courses, to name a few. After playing The Lab for a bit, you’ll be able to continue the campaign, but you can come back anytime during or after – this becomes a permanent option in the main menu, always accessible. More modes and levels are added as you progress through the campaign, and leaderboards allow you to compete globally or among your friends.
After a detour to The Lab, the longest and meatiest section of the Bonelab campaign begins. Much like Boneworks, Bonelab’s campaign is a mix of platformer and shooter that encourages you to come up with creative and unique solutions using the various tools provided. There’s a mix of enemies – including faceless digital zombies and crab-inspired robots – but they rarely pose a real challenge.
The game constantly gives you new and varied weapon types to experiment with. Most of the fun of the campaign comes from this experimentation, letting you go to hell for leather in dramatic fashion as you progress through each area. The more creative you are, the more fun you will have. The sandbox system is so open that there were multiple points where I completed a task and left unsure if I had done it as intended, or if I had invented some other solution that turned up. proven to work. The most likely answer is that it doesn’t matter: Bonelab often doesn’t care how you get from A to B, it just wants you to get it any way it can.
The flip side is that the physics system can also be incredibly frustrating at times. Climbing a ladder or jumping over a ledge is always more difficult than necessary, for example, with body parts getting stuck or acting out of place. Likewise, I would often grab an object on my body, like my gun, and end up with something else in my hand, like ammunition. This occasional inaccuracy with interactions can become frustrating and worsen when assaulted by nearby enemies.
This will all sound quite familiar to players of Boneworks, which has the same premise and inherent issues. That being said, Stress Level Zero introduces new mechanics to shake things up. Most important is the game’s avatar system, which allows you to embody a variety of characters with different physical attributes and stats (speed, weight, strength, etc.). You’ll unlock these avatars in a series of worlds featuring mini-games and obstacles designed around an avatar’s given strengths or weaknesses. There’s a parkour course for the speedy avatar, for example, or a retro-inspired mini-game for the one with super strength.
Once all avatars are unlocked, you can switch between them at will using a unit on your arm. For the rest of the campaign, switching between avatars becomes a new tool for solving environment puzzles or creatively approaching encounters. In some circumstances you’ll have to use a specific avatar to get a result, and in others you can just switch because you feel like it. It’s certainly an interesting new mechanic in theory, but in practice the campaign doesn’t always benefit from it in a lot of interesting ways. You can also freely switch between avatars in The Lab, where players are likely to find more interesting uses for them.
Support for Narration, Post-Game Sandbox, and Mods
In terms of storytelling, Bonelab’s story is pretty thin and hands-off. The campaign is definitely a continuation of the Boneworks universe and threads, but don’t expect a lot of concrete answers or a lot of narrative conclusion. You’ll explore a series of soulless and abandoned corporate environments and research facilities, as well as a mix of more creative MythOS worlds developed by former Monogon Industries workers. The campaign probably took me around six or seven hours in total, but your mileage may vary depending on how fast or slow you play.
Just like with Boneworks, it sometimes feels like the campaign and narrative play second fiddle to the larger sandbox toolset that Stress Level Zero creates in Bonelab. However, improvements to the post-game offering and game modes might make that more palatable this time around. As mentioned, The Lab is a fantastic hub area with a huge variety of mini-games and game modes to explore. That in itself gives players a decent amount to come back to after the campaign, but there’s another major addition: mods.
At launch, Bonelab’s mod section will support importing custom avatars for use in-game and will automatically assign stats (strength, speed, etc.) to the avatar based on their build. Stress Level Zero developer Brandon Laatsch said mod support will grow over time, with plans to include support for custom items, vehicles and more.
While this all marks a solid foundation, Bonelab has rougher edges on Quest 2.
It’s a feat that Stress Level Zero managed to run such an ambitious build on standalone hardware, but it also has noticeable and consistent performance issues on Quest 2. During my playthrough, I encountered frequent stutters, frame drops and lots of clear that the headphones had trouble keeping up. The game also crashed several times and there were several instances where I had to manually quit and restart the game to progress. It’s certainly playable, but not a completely smooth experience.
Performance issues aside, it’s also clear that significant compromises have been made to run the game on Quest 2. Many environments feature heavy gray fog at close range, likely to obscure short draw distances, and the game uses a heavy and visible fixed foveal rendering. . Textures are fairly sparse and often appear blurry from a distance, only resolving into detail when the player is very close.
Despite this, the game still looks decent on standalone hardware given the circumstances. It’s still an impressive feat, but the performance is definitely lower for Quest 2.
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