What happens when you throw headcrabs, crowbars, and advanced physics puzzles into a dystopian cityscape? If the first thing that comes to mind is Half-Life 2, you’re only half right. Boneworks, by developer Stress Level Zero, is a clear homage to that and several other Valve classics. And while its mechanical ideas and atmosphere aren’t the most original, Boneworks’ best physics-driven moments manage to make VR feel more tangible than any other action-adventure game to date.
Physics-based arena games like Blade & Sorcery and Gorn have been a favorite of VR enthusiasts for years now, but Boneworks is the first VR game to take the idea of giving you a variety of objects, each with their own distinctively modeled weight and heft, and then use those as the components for solving single-player puzzles and combat. I was pleased to discover that there’s quite a thick campaign to progress through here, sprawling across nearly 13 different levels. There’s also a pretty cool original retrowave soundtrack by Michael Wyckoff, and it adds flavor to the overall ‘Half-Life meets Tron’ style that Boneworks is shooting for.This campaign clocks in at around seven to nine hours, depending on your skill with its wide range of tricky physics puzzles, predictable but satisfying combat encounters, and springy movement systems. That said, nothing about the campaign stands out against other action-adventure games. There’s a city streets-themed level, a sewer-themed level, a warehouse-themed level, and so on. As Boneworks takes you through the motions of a campaign that stylistically resembles both Half-Life and Portal, occasionally sprinkling an added helping of DOOM-style backtracking and keycard collection for good measure, it generally works fine. But it only really succeeds at conjuring a washed-out memory of what those games were like in their prime.
Your mute protagonist is a computer hacker who broke into the VR world of MythOS to “reset the clock,” whatever that means. This is only loosely explained, and your own motivations remain pretty unclear throughout. At best, Boneworks has something of an anti-plot. It strings itself together on style and clever use of physics, but fails to say much about its own world or lore. You wouldn’t even know your character’s name, for example, without doing some extra digging or paying extra close attention to the clues left in the environment. The convenient fact that it takes place in a “virtual” virtual world is a tolerable gimmick for letting Boneworks get away with consistent jankiness mixed with some inconsistent art direction and minimal plot.
However, MythOS’s intentionally low-fi aesthetic and constant fourth wall-breaking gags barely excuse the fact that you can easily break the level design by losing key items if you aren’t careful, and even the physics systems that tie the whole game together are precariously shakey. The latter problem happens often, when limbs and meshes get stuck inside one another, or when enemies trip over loose objects or even other enemies. That’d be forgivable and even funny if not for the fact that if you leave Boneworks or need to restart in the middle of a level because an item you need was lost, you’re forced to go back to the very beginning. There are some autosave points strewn throughout each level, but they act more like respawn points rather than dedicated save files, and you can’t manually save at a certain spot to come back to it if you mess something up.
Being partial to consistent action in my action-adventure games, I was pleased to find that there aren’t a lot of characters to talk to or exposition dumps to slow you down. The main interaction comes from your real-world friends Hayes and Alora, played competently by YouTuber Mike Diva and actress Heldine Aguiluz, who speak to you through monitors you find as you progress through the story. You see far more of Hayes (Diva) than you do of Alora (Aguiluz), but both characters are so forgettable that I had to Google it to figure out what their names were. All I remember, only a couple of days after finishing Boneworks’ campaign, is that Hayes usually shows up to ramble about void generators and Monogon, the nebulous mega corporation that created MythOS. None of that exposition ever translates to gameplay so you can bypass it entirely if you prefer and you won’t miss much. It’s often more fun to smash these talking screens against the side of a wall in VR, and I was pleased to discover that you are free to do that here.
For the most part, MythOS feels as lifeless as the robo-headcrabs that plague its digital corridors, and the lack of a meaningful story made Boneworks feel a little hollow. What it does have in droves is Easter eggs and unlockables; there are plenty of secret toys and weapons, and you can accidentally trip over them if you aren’t paying attention. Stumble into a nondescript nook and uncover a key that opens a secret room, or go searching through some drawers to produce a gag item with a silly name or description, like a bag of “Endurance Nuts” or a book titled “Texturing for Morons.”
One of the coolest unlockables, however, is the Sandbox mode, which Stress Level Zero subtly hid (minor spoiler warning) behind a fake wall in the second level of the campaign. It puts good use to any items you collect and drop into giant blue Reclamation Bins during the campaign by letting you build any crazy, Rube Goldberg-style death trap you can imagine. It feels a little light at first, but it’s the kind of thing that you could spend hours tinkering in once you’ve fleshed out your arsenal of toys.
The infinitely replayable Arena mode is equally fun, and provides a heap of clever new customizable challenges to beat in a variety of ways. Each of its three modes – Trials, Challenges, and Survival – are enjoyable in their own way, offering a reason to keep coming back to Boneworks time after time. They also introduce a lot of interesting mechanics that weren’t explored that much in the main campaign, like a balloon gun which lets you lift enemies, objects, and even yourself into the sky. Some of the modes are particularly tough, including one Trial that forces you to fight through waves of headcrabs without any health regeneration. If you beat it, there’s even an arcade-style scorekeeping system that you can use to prove to your friends and family that you are, in fact, John Wick.
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In all of Boneworks’ modes, your own creativity is what makes the real fun happen. Some heavier objects, like metal boxes and two-handed weapons, feel unintuitive and awkward to handle when your real-world motions don’t quite match up with their simulated weight. But they often interact in interesting and unforeseen ways. For example, if you find yourself cornered, you can just topple the closest nearby shelf to crush enemies under their weight. The whole game ends up feeling like a tantalizingly reactive physics playbox, and it’s the little things that you do with those physics in VR that make it fun.
It doesn’t always work as expected, though. The main issue of everything being physically simulated, including your own body, is that it’s often possible for your virtual arms or legs to get snagged on various objects. The climbing mechanic is the most disappointing part of the package here: it’s difficult to approximate where the next rung of a ladder will be once your virtual body stops bobbing up and down in response to the simulated shift of weight. It’s annoying that entire sections of the campaign force you to climb up structures or fiddle with weighted objects with your real-life hands, all while your virtual body continues moving on its own. You can get used to making this work in the virtual world with practice, but in addition to the fact that there’s no teleportation movement option whatsoever, Boneworks can be downright unplayable if you struggle with VR motion sickness.
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Luckily, the flow of gameplay is fantastic when it’s at its best, and it certainly pushes VR to the edge in some ways. One pleasant surprise was that it’s possible to execute a virtual shoulder tackle by turning your real body in the real world at just the right angle before impact – an obvious evolution of physical melee combat in VR. Gunplay is as fluid and exciting as you could imagine for a single-player adventure with mostly cannon fodder opponents, and especially when multiple enemies are coming at you from different angles in the midst of combat where you have to find a use for both hands. For example, at one moment you might be staving off a headcrab with one arm while landing a shot on a distant ranged opponent with the other. That’s where Boneworks’ combat and VR movement systems truly click into place.
Performing well in combat isn’t really too difficult once you get the hang of the world’s rules and learn to use the environment to your advantage, and you’re benefited by an intuitive inventory system that lets you pull up to five weapons either out of a menu, or out of the holsters on your hips and back. Hold down a button for infinite slow-mo and you can do incredibly cool stunts like reloading a rifle mid-air by using its own weight to lock a magazine in place. Whenever I ran out of ammo, I just used the butt of my rifle to bash my foes into submission. However, there’s not much to make you get fancy – Boneworks’ bestiary of headcrabs and zombies are particularly clumsy and fragile, and there aren’t any difficult boss battles to add artificial difficulty on top of the deeply engaging physics system that already poses its own challenges.
Vaulting through MythOS with a physical body that reacts to everything around it was exactly as engaging as I imagined it to be, once I got the hang of it. And whenever I thought of a solution to a given problem or combat encounter, I was usually able to pull it off. An early segment had me facing down a stationary turret with no clear way past it, and I was called on to invent my own solution. In this case, I used a trash can lid to shield myself while I rushed the turret. But I could have instead picked up and placed crates onto one another to create an impromptu step stool over some nearby fencing. Boneworks is full of possibilities. There are some limitations here and there, and the physics systems do sometimes become a pain when the solution to a problem is more obvious than the sheer logistics of making your virtual body do what you need it to do. But it’s surprising how much flexibility Boneworks affords in problem solving overall.