Though everyone has their HMD cameras trained on Half-Life: Alyx as VR’s killer app, I’ve been staring creepily at Boneworks' gif-rammed Steam page and saying “soon” over and over. Having spent a few hours working my way through its meta game-within-a-game world, I’m not quite in the position to review it as a whole. It’s exhausting and sweaty, and if I didn’t take some breaks during my six hours of playtime I’d have probably done a puke. I tried, but this is not an exhaustive review of Boneworks. It has exhausted me.
It’s an innovative, fascinating, and flawed adventure that pushes VR in all sorts of directions, but makes some baffling design decisions, and still suffers from a number of VR specific issues. It’s the first time during a review that I’ve punched a lampshade.
Boneworks’ setting is important. If it looks like a half-finished game, that’s because it’s set within a partly-developed VR game that you’re attempting to fix. I dig it as a setting because I prefer my worlds to be weird, so strolling through a glitch-filled, half-built world, offing wireframe NPCs (that bit is important for one very specific reason that I’ll get to) and finding huge levels hidden in errors is very much a Craig thing. I’ve seen people complaining about the look of the game, but it suits its purpose well. And I'm sure that the game you're fixing resembling Half-Life 2 is nothing more than a coincidence.
The game proper is a physics-playground. It approximates your whole body, meaning it’s not just your hands that deal with the world and its physics, but you can nudge things with your legs as you stroll along. It’s filled with pick-up-ables, toys, doo-dads, and guns. The simulation is designed to fulfil your expectations of what you’re using, so you can pick up garbage bin lids to block bullets, gently open doors to peek at what’s on the other side, or pick up a box and drop it on your head.
Or bounce a basketball.
As is often the case with both physics games and VR games, using these elements to do something more than having a lark can lead to frustration. I applaud Stress Level Zero for their ambition, because grabbing a chair by its legs and using it as a weapon is pretty cool, but I spent a few minutes lining up a box to stand on for one puzzle that caused me to take a break afterwards. In the real world, it would have taken seconds; in a non-VR game, it would have been a few clicks. Here, I was fighting the slight imprecision of the Index controller’s grasp, the physics engine adding mass that interfered with my own body position in the real world, and the in-game body bumping the box about. I couldn’t even throw the thing off a ledge in a fit of rage, because my in-game hands refused to let go in time. When I finally lined it up, climbing up on the ledge I was aiming for was like drunkenly trying to put a wetsuit on.
You’re stuck between player agency and the game’s logic, and they’ve chosen the most arse-about way of doing things. Immersion within a VR game is key to the whole experience, but swinging a heavy object will lag behind where you are in order to simulate the mass. Lighter objects are fine, but sledge-hammering an NPC to death was like being in a fight while your partner holds you back telling you it’s “not worth it”.
To contrast that, I killed a man with a brick, grasping the side of his head as I pounded his wireframe skull in. It was so precise that it kind of sickened me. And here it is to sicken you. I'm just glad he was swathed in an NPC's wireframe garbs. Doing this to a proper person would lead me back to therapy.
Shooting them is less disturbing, but guns in VR are a dime a dozen, and they’re nothing new here. So let’s move on to the levels. A fair few sections are entire puzzles. Multi-storey rooms with switches to click, boxes to push, and gaps to leap. They’re forgiving, enabling you to experiment to find the correct path, or to fudge it with physics and do your own thing, like skipping across a moving platform rather than spending 10 mins setting up a couple of blocks that stop it from lowering. You can genuinely plan and execute according to how you know the world works.
Also, you don’t need to use your hands for buttons.
These levels are huge and can take over an hour of leisurely prodding to get past. If you die, you’ll be sent back to the start. The world remains as you left it, but you have to traipse back to where you were. There are a couple of issues with this. First, that’s not fun in any game, but in VR it’s absolutely exhausting. Secondly, there are no comfort options in Boneworks. Movement is bound to a thumbstick or pad, so if you’re prone to any sort of locomotion sickness you’re pretty much cut out of enjoying Boneworks. I’m not, but I had to take a lot of breaks to keep any nausea at bay. Even non-standard movement, like climbing, suffers from overly graspy hand physics.
Bonework’s simulation doesn’t quite match its lofty ambition. It’s a real shame because I was begging for someone to make a VR game that didn’t suffer from being a VR game. At some point, we’ll be able to review one without feeling like we’re reviewing the entire concept of virtual reality itself, but Boneworks still suffers from those issues in addition to a complex physics simulation. It can get a tad Tresspassery at times because of this, though it’s more robust than it should be in the circumstances. I’m happy to recommend it if you have a VR setup, because it’s probably the most advanced game you can shove your face in so far.
And because you can do this.