You’ve been waiting all year, but it’s finally time for another outdated game review! Aside from my brief holiday in the jungles of Tselinoyarsk last Christmas, the only PS2 games I’ve played since God of War were Persona 3 and Final Fantasy XII. They both rumbled on for months and I only got about halfway through them both before getting sick of them and wanting my life back – I kept notes on a kind of time and motion study for FF12, including TWO HOURS spent running through a linear sewer system and fighting no more than three different types of enemy, which I might post at some point as a sort of ‘review’.
Recently I decided to draw a line under all these tedious JRPGs and play something a bit more uptempo. I had another go with God Hand but was rudely beaten down again, with none of my friends offering any kind of useful advice on where I was going wrong – apparently I’m just supposed to endure being bored with frustration until eventually it will just click and suddenly become really good*. I went back to my pile of unplayed games hoping for a more populist, unchallenging experience with Bully, and boy did it deliver!
Bully – officially known in the UK as Canis Canem Edit, although that’s the last time you’ll hear me use that title – is a GTA-style sandboxy misadventure set in a private school. You play as young Jimmy Hopkins, a troubled child who has apparently been expelled from seven different schools already, and who has now been enrolled at Bullworth Academy by his emotionally distant mother who is running off on a twelve-month round-the-world honeymoon cruise with her old and wealthy new husband. None of that backstory really matters though, other than to explain why the school never summon your parents in to discuss your behaviour.
This basically sums up everything that is wrong with Bully. The writing is TERRIBLE. Every single character in the game is a grotesque, shallow stereotype – with the possible exception of your dorm buddy Petey, who rarely escapes portrayal as a milquetoast hanger-on. The Nerds are D&D-obsessed astronomy club members who wear thick-rimmed glasses and struggle with incontinence and impotent rage. The Jocks are steroid-pumping morons who enjoy nothing more than discussing their bodies and sporting activities in inadvertently homoerotic detail. The privileged Preppies, the 50′s throwback Greasers, the ape-like Bullies and the Townie kids who are too unruly to attend the school all fall within their own tight stereotypes.
Even the students who aren’t affiliated with a particular clique come across as monsters, like the fat, dopey girl who the writers use as comic relief, or the younger kids who keep asking you to break into lockers for them (but will dob you in when they see you breaking school rules at other times). The only notable exception are the two ‘unaffiliated’ cheerleaders – sexually submissive Angie and big-boobed uberbabe Christy, who seem to avoid criticism by providing ever-available lips to kiss and bums to pinch (but because they have no position with the story, are completely excluded from the more serious relationships you can form). Among the teaching staff there is a drunk, a bully, a hypocrite, a letch, and a MILF. Your mother is implied to be some kind of gold digger who only takes the time to dump you into a new school each year because your father has long since disappeared. Even Jimmy comes across as a complete asshole for most of the game, often putting everyone down during mission briefing cutscenes only to have a last-minute change of heart and agree to help them out for no particular reason whatsoever!
In fact many of the characters exhibit this bizarre behavioural inconsistency. The game is broken up into five chapters, each of which focuses on a particular school clique. You have relationship stats that reflect your standing with each group – not unlike the gang relationships in GTA2 – but these only seem to change as a result of missions. The outcome is that each chapter seems to start with a cut-scene that shifts your relationships around in the most unlikely fashions, purely to set the scene for the next part of the story. It’s unclear what this relationship even represents. Most of Jimmy’s missions involve helping out people who have been wronged in some way, standing up for the underdog, but each chapter ends with him publicly beating down a clique leader. Jimmy’s rise to power ultimately seems modeled on Ray Winstone’s performance in Scum, his plan being to fight his way to the top of the pile and rule the school through fear and violence. Why, then, does he keep performing ‘Good Samaritan’ acts like recovering the Nerds’ stolen D&D character sheets?! It no sense at all – the same problem as many GTA games suffer from, when they want you to emotionally invest in the protagonist while also trying to justify their violent, amoral behaviour.
The reason I feel moved to write about this game is that, once you get over the bad writing (which means skipping cutscenes and trying not to think too hard about the context of your missions), Bully is actually a really, really great game. I had far more fun pottering around the school and nearby town than I did playing any of the GTA IV games. The system of having classes that you should attend, but can skip, but at the cost of drawing attention from patrolling prefects or policemen, feels like a perfect balance of obligation and choice. The level of granular detail in the game world – like being able to pick a banana out of a fruit bowl, eat it to restore health, then drop the peel in a corridor and watch another student slip on it as they walk between classes – sets a whole new standard for Rockstar, who already impress me in that regard.
Combat is often quite easy – especially if you put some time into learning new moves in gym class, or from the hobo behind the school – but feels really satisfying. I think the game suffers a little as it introduces more ‘gun’ style weapons (the catapult is a given, but I’m not sure about the bottle rocket launcher or the potato cannon), but its barefist brawling system is a lot better than many other games. Possibly I’m just saying that because of all the grappling options but that still counts! Fighting without weapons – and I don’t just mean GTA‘s selection of guns, but also things like God of War‘s intangible blades of wide-area slashing – might not make so much sense outside of the context of playground scuffles, but it feels very tactile and personal, and Bully backs it up with a satisfyingly broad range of throws and strikes. The granular detail I mentioned earlier comes into play in the way you can use all kinds of makeshift weapons and perform ‘environmental’ special moves. For example, you can grab another student, drag them into a toilet cubicle and flush their head in the bowl – certainly a gameplay option that would draw controversy, but undeniably fine attention to detail. The only thing that really breaks the combat is the targeting system, which sometimes makes life hard against one opponent, but often screws you over when fighting in a crowd.
The skateboard, obtained near the start of the game, is an absolute masterstroke. You can summon it out of thin air at any time – assisted by the fact it has its own unique shortcut command (pressing the ‘next item’ and ‘previous item’ buttons at the same time) – and it functions as an alternative movement ‘mode’, allowing you to travel a lot faster over solid surfaces like tarmac. For one thing, this means that you always have the option of running away from an unwanted encounter, if you don’t want to get tied down in a fight. In another sense, I think it creates a really wonderful sense of environmental awareness when you’re trying to get around quickly! I found myself switching back and forth between skateboarding and running, as my network of shortcuts developed (running is faster uphill or on mud, skateboards can go down flights of stairs but can only jump up them if they are below a certain height, etc). You can also ride bikes, which are generally faster than running of skateboarding across all surfaces and situations, but these function more like the cars in GTA – you must find them first, and when you stop riding them you must leave them behind. The skateboard is an inherent part of Jimmy, an alternative form he can take at any time, like a Transformer turning into an ice-cream van.
As a general rule, I would say that the ‘sandbox’ side of Bully is equally as brilliant as the scripted side is awful. This makes it a strange game to sum up, overall. If – like me – you don’t mind skipping cutscenes and sweeping aside the sexist, inconsistent and relentlessly negative characters, there’s a lot to love about the physical and social mechanics of Jimmy’s day-to-day life! It’s just a shame that you have to endure all those missions and dumb plot twists to gain access to all those toys and tools. I hope they make a sequel, and I hope Dan Houser makes an effort to ensure the script is less tediously cynical.
*So that we’re clear, I’ve no doubt God Hand is a good game at heart, I just think it does a terrible job of explaining itself to new players. If you’re going to design a deliberately unfriendly user experience, you have nobody to blame when nobody buys your game.