Nobody likes a bully, and nobody likes being bullied. But what do you do when confronted by a bully? Do you sit there and take it out of fear that standing up to the bully will lead to even more torment? Do you rat him out and hope for the best, knowing that it'll lead to a parking-lot brawl after school? Or do you stand up, fighting fire with fire? Rockstar's latest game, appropriately titled Bully, puts you in that situation and gives you the tools to stand up to those bullies, knock them around with your fists, and rise to the top of a boarding school's social scene. The interesting story and unique setting set Bully apart from the pack, and the result is simply exciting.
Bully opens with you, 15-year-old troublemaker Jimmy Hopkins, getting dumped off at a boarding school by your newly remarried mother and her rich husband. Your mother and her new husband intend to spend an entire year away on a cruise while you languish in what might as well be a teenage prison with slightly better-looking uniforms. Bullworth Academy is run by a clueless administration and a series of social cliques that are always scrapping. As the new kid thrown into the equation, you're quickly painted as an outcast. You're also befriended by another such outcast, a weird kid named Gary, who is apparently off his attention deficit disorder meds and has delusions of taking over the entire school. However, crazy Gary removes himself from the picture relatively early on, leaving you to fend for yourself against the school's different factions while attending classes, avoiding authority figures, and occasionally kissing girls.
While the gameplay is certainly strong, it's the setting and storyline that make Bully worthwhile. The characters are over-the-top caricatures of what you'd expect to see from jocks, principals, nerds, cheerleaders, and so on. Jimmy, however, is sort of the street-smart kid in the middle of it all. His dialogue is well written, portraying him as the one who can see through almost all of the personalities before him. That, plus the high school setting, is relatively untapped for this type of game. The conflicts seem real and edgy without being gratuitous, and the game maintains a T-for-Teen rating, without making you feel as if it's pulling any punches. It's like a modern-day River City Ransom.
Bully is an open-ended mission-based game, but don't mistake open-ended for a lack of structure. This is school, after all, and you're expected to attend two classes each day. You wake up at 8 a.m., have a morning class at 9 a.m. and an afternoon class at 1 p.m., and after that you're free to take on additional tasks until 11 p.m., which is curfew. Of course, rules were made to be broken, so as long as you dodge the prefects who roam the campus or the police who roam the nearby town, you can stay out and about until 2 a.m., at which point you'll automatically pass out from exhaustion and wake up at 8 a.m. the next morning. The game time moves pretty quickly, but because there's no real deadline for getting things done, you can take missions and classes at your own pace. So the game does have a specific structure to it, but it never feels as if you don't have enough time to get things done.
While it may be tempting to blow off all of your classes, staying in school has very real benefits. Each class has five minigame sessions, and succeeding at each task gives you a bonus. Doing well in gym class teaches you new fighting moves via wrestling and gives you increased accuracy by winning at dodge ball, which is a simple take on the game and serves as a bit of an homage to the classic '80s game Super Dodge Ball. English class gives you a set of letters, and you have to come up with as many words as you can by using those letters. Passing English gives you increased verbal abilities, allowing you to beg off from beatings or apologize to authority figures to avoid getting busted. Chemistry class gives you access to a chem set in your bedroom that lets you make firecrackers and stink bombs. Shop class has you pressing buttons in a set sequence to build BMX bikes, which are then unlocked for your use. Art class is a Qix-style minigame (or, more accurately, it's maybe a little more like the seedy naked lady Qix clone, Gal's Panic) that has you claiming parts of a painting while avoiding erasers and other enemies. Photography is the least essential of all classes because it just unlocks the ability to take photos and save them to your memory card. It also gives you a side mission as a yearbook photographer, with the goal of finding and snapping pictures of every student. Once you complete all five sessions of a class, you're no longer branded as a truant for skipping that class. So on top of getting some necessary upgrades, getting school out of the way early opens up your schedule for more missions.
Bully is broken up into chapters. Each chapter has you butting heads with one of the school's different factions, so you'll be going on missions to trip up that faction. For example, the preppie kids prefer in-ring boxing to street fighting, so one mission will have you head to their boxing ring and take on some challengers. In the segment where you take out the jocks, you work more closely with their nemeses, the nerds. You'll sneak into the girls' dorm to take naughty photos, steal the school mascot's uniform and use it to sneak around and pull off some nefarious deeds, and so on. Some missions are less about your current target, though. During the course of the game, you'll also help out some teachers, like the pervert gym teacher who asks you to go on a panty raid or the alcoholic English teacher who needs a little help cleaning up his act. None of the missions are lengthy or difficult, but the variety of the tasks you take on will keep you interested from start to finish.
Jimmy's abilities grow as you unlock new attacks and get new items. You interact with specific students by holding down the L1 button to lock onto them. From there, you can greet them positively or negatively. These social buttons are also used to hire bullies as bodyguards, to attempt to kiss girls, and so on. Of course, locking onto a target is also the best way to fight it. You get a good number of weapons during the course of the game, and they're all appropriately adolescent, like a slingshot, firecrackers, a bottle rocket launcher, a potato cannon, itching powder, stink bombs, the occasional baseball bat, and your fists. Your fists and feet are your most potent weapons, and there are no guns, knives, or anything else that would just straight-up cause death in the game. Enemies can block your basic attacks, but you can learn overhand hits, low sweeps, and other moves that can get around an enemy's block. On top of that, you can also grapple enemies, taking them down and kneeing them in the groin or hitting them in the face some more. The fighting system is really satisfying, though no single enemy is ever very tough. The enemies do, however, provide more of a challenge when you're outnumbered. Many of them drop life-restoring cola, so even when you're outnumbered, the odds never seem too overwhelming.
From a technical perspective, Bully won't immediately blow you away, but that's because of the age of the PlayStation 2 platform. Taking the platform into consideration, Bully looks great, with a lot of lifelike animation that makes the characters come alive during its cutscenes. The frame rate isn't 100 percent solid, but it always maintains a playable speed, and things like camera control rarely get in the way. The voice work is fantastic. The characters are perfectly cast with voices that fit them, though you won't recognize many, if any, of the names behind those voices. The same goes for the music. Rather than being filled with a bunch of instantly dated modern music that any teen might listen to, Bully has an original score that is thematically similar throughout, with plenty of harpsichord, all of which helps give the game a cinematic feel. The game has widescreen support and Dolby Pro-Logic II, which both work about as you'd expect.
Bully isn't a very difficult game, and it's likely that you'll be able to get through the storyline and see its somewhat predictable conclusion in about 15 hours or so. If you're a completist, there are plenty of hidden objects to collect, clothing items to purchase, and side missions (like bike races) to take on, and you can go back and do those things after finishing the main game. Overall, it's interesting from start to finish and most definitely well worth playing.