Bully: Scholarship EditionSliding down stair rails. Bunny-hopping over cars. Attending (and bunking) class. Winning the hearts of girls from every clique. Learning how to fight from a homeless bum behind the school bus. Achieving school domination and having complete power over staff and students alike; just a typical school year.
The first I was aware of Bully as a kid was in the build-up to launch. The game took a huge hit of controversy in the UK due to the ignorant assumption the game promoted bullying and starred you, the titular Bully. Obviously not the case, the game had the misfortune of being renamed Canis Canem Edit, translated as Dog Eat Dog, and even led to retailers not stocking it. Several years on, the game was re-released on modern consoles as a Scholarship Edition, mostly the same but sporting a new engine, extra missions, characters, lessons and other tweaks. Having grossly enjoyed myself the first time around, I decided to see if maturity affected my enjoyment at all.
Rockstar Vancouver’s first outing follows James Hopkins of Liberty City, inherent troublemaker and regular expelled student. Abandoned by a mostly inconsiderate mother, Jimmy is forced to fend for himself in Bullworth Academy, a traditional English boarding school filled with corrupt and criminal teachers and a strict hierarchy of cliques that dictate your position in the school. In standard Grand Theft Auto affair, this is a story of the underdog climbing the ranks, starting with owning the Bullies.
It’s not just themes that Bully shares with GTA titles, but largely the gameplay too. An action-adventure sandbox, you’re not purely limited to school grounds but the New England-based towns surrounding the school too, which become progressively available the further in the story you venture. Obviously avoiding the use of any lethal weapons, the combat is mostly hand-to-hand with combos unlockable through collectibles. Despite that, there is still a thorough selection of weapons: starting with a largely ineffective slingshot, making good acquaintances with the Nerds can eventually lead you up to spud guns and rocket shooters. For the inner-mischief in many of us, the game also provides the likes of stink bombs, itching powder and marbles to trip on, bringing out the childhood in me I know I never lived.
For the most part, the gameplay is solid enough, but there are certain nuances that drag it down. Your health bar suffers drastically from the lack of a block function, something that I was begging for from the initial fight. Although manageable in the earlier seasons, late game it becomes a nightmare as groups of Townies gang and destroy you. Another gripe is the camera, which is almost as if it was half coded and then simply forgotten. All I’d ask for is a simple, 360 degree view but instead it is crippled by elastic bands that affect the player’s direction too, causing enough grief to simply overlook the right analogue.
The narrative is structured around the seasonal terms of school (Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer), each one providing you a new clique and selection of issues to focus on. During these periods, you are required to complete missions for a rather eclectic cast of misfits, mostly students and teachers, but even extending to people outside of the school, such as a homeless bum who is certain he is Santa Claus. One thing that consistently burdens open-world games like these is the nature A to B (or A to B to A) missions, and this is one thing Bully excels at; the missions feature fantastic imagination and actually benefit from being stuck behind the narrative of a child. Vandalising corrupt teachers homes; taking part in bike races; pranking the gym team dressed as the school mascot; storming through the Nerd stronghold as it rains potatoes. It’s definitely not free to repetition, but it maintains a strong variety that holds interest throughout.
Travelling does become a significant portion game, but Rockstar remedies the age and vehicle wall quite fantastically. A staple of gameplay introduced early on is your skateboard; tapping both shoulder buttons anywhere quick-draws your board, and features the same controls as running: hold to leisurely ride, or tap the button fast pedal. Likewise, you can olly on it holding the jump button. Later on, when the scale of these distances increases, bikes are introduced. Honestly, half of my save file can be tied down to enjoying myself way too much on both (as it can on San Andreas with the BMX): ollying up steps and off the first floor of the school; leap-frogging cars, students and walls on my bike and otherwise trying to invent all sorts of tricks or exciting pieces. In terms of bikes, both mountain bikes and BMXs are available, which are either purchasable through shops or unlocked through the Shop lesson.
Being a sandbox game, there’s an abundance of things to do outside of story missions and you can progress at your own comfort. A clock in the corner of the screen displays the in-game time, and structures what you can do in a day. Between 9am and 4pm you have the choice of two lessons - and by choice it’s meant that you can skip as long as you don’t get caught. It’s worthwhile taking part in the lessons though, as progression unlocks you certain rewards, such as new weapons and bikes. After that, though some missions are available only at certain times, you’re free to indulge in the side-missions and completion objectives, but only up until 2am where you pass out without sleep. Collectibles litter the map from G&G playing cards, radio transistors and rubber bands, each with their own reward. More excitingly, you can take part in go kart racing, bike races, boxing tournaments, perform jobs for cash like delivering papers, or even just perform small errands around the school aiding other students.
Bully’s key strengths lies in its writing; each character is so hilariously memorable or unique, with the story taking you on unforgettable, unexpected missions. What other game sends you on a stealth mission through an insane asylum to break out a teacher? I spent a lot of my second playthrough anticipating certain events and characters, parts that I loved I knew I’d yet to enjoy. Likewise, the design is fantastic. While the graphics are nothing extraordinary (though for a Playstation 2 port they hold up well), they too have a wonderful charm that complements the characters and writing perfectly.
It’s true that the game doesn’t share the same poignancy as other games in the genre, but it captures a perfect balance of mischievous fun and engrossing story without ever weighing itself down.