Written by  :  St. Martyne (3655)
Written on  :  Oct 18, 2007
Platform  :  PlayStation 2
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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Parents ought to play it.

The Good

How old are you? Do you remember your school days? Or are you still trying to survive in the harsh and competitive environment of the educational establishments that have more in common with prisons and concentration camps than places where the flowers of the nation are being cultivated? If so, than I suppose you should skip on this game, because it will hold nothing new for you, which you don't have the access to already. This game was designed only for those who has passed the twenty years mark and who might have already forgotten what it is like -- being a teenager. When nobody understands what occupies your mind, and dismiss it as something not worthy of attention of a grown-up. That if they don't label you as a trouble-child and avoid common sense altogether.

This game is a must-play for every parent, so that he can recall his school experience and would have an ability to relate to what his children are going through right now. Albert once said "Everything is relative.”And so does it remain in the walls of school, where the hard-working, money-earning adults presumes their children to be having an effortless life, whereas, in reality, they have to mercilessly fight for survival, even if this "survival" is mere "not letting others to call you a jerk".

Now that we're done with metaphysics let's talk about the game itself. Bully continues a streak of so-called GTA-clones that have spawned in uncountable numbers since the release of GTAIII, with only exception being, that this game was released under the same logo as Grand Theft Auto games, namely Rockstar. However, it’s not the same Rockstar, who developed GTA games. It’s Rockstar Vancouver, former Barking Dog Studios, notable for their outstanding add-on to enigmatic Homeworld.

Unlike GTA games, Driver: Parallel Lines or True Crime games, Bully doesn’t confine itself to the cramped walls of urban-crime story. And here comes the first pro of this game. Unlike any other GTA clone the game takes place in a unique setting of private school, where every notable side of it has taken it's own manifestation. I mean corrupted teachers, gangs, bullies and girls developing secondary sex characteristics. Its setting is so original and unique, that it makes you wonder why this theme wasn't developed earlier. However, it's not the setting itself that proves the genius of Rockstar Vancouver, but the treatment of it.

When I first heard about Bully and it's setting, especially since it was after completing GTA: San Andreas, I immediately thought about every possible image of the contemporary American high school. Drugs, guns, cars, rap, lots of rap and rap again. Well, I imagined that with the game's target audience being mostly teenagers the game has to almost absolutely include everything which is popular on MTV nowadays. Little did I know, that despite its Teen rating the game is in fact targeted towards a much more mature audience. It shows everywhere.

First, the number of contemporary pop culture references is subjected to the minimum, unlike, say, Need For Speed recent games, with their graffiti and rap soundtrack. Second, the game's story takes place in the timeless period. It could have happen in 70's as well as today. Nothing in the game pins down the story to a certain background. It's a definite plus, since it establishes that schools of our children today are not that much different than those we have attended.

And, lastly, the music. It's absolutely gorgeous. The fusion of funk, rock-n-roll and contemporary jazz is a perfect background layer for the things happening on your screen. The music is dynamic. In style of Lucas Arts adventures and another PS2 exclusive (as of 2007) Shadow Of Colossus the music changes according to the situation while still maintaining an uninterrupted flow. In essence it has a couple of versions of the same piece recorded which interchange each other as the pace of the scene develops.

As you see the ideas of the overall design ides behind the art direction are fabulous. The game's unique approach to an original setting proves that Rockstar-labeled games has much more to their stories, than yet another Scarface or Gansta rap saga.

So what is so wonderful with the Bully story? Very much as others modern games, Bully's story comprises of two equally important parts, plot and characters. The plot is trivial. A classic romantic story of the protagonist being judged unfairly and then him reclaiming that which belongs to him by right. It worked 150 years ago in times of Victor Hugo, Byron and Goethe and so does it work now. I may be biased, since I have always hold romanticism very close to my heart, but every work of art following the guidelines of the XIX century prominent movement is doomed for my admiration.

Now, Bully's characters is a much more mixed bag. Since we're still in the Good section, let me describe a shinier side of the coin. Although, most of the Bully cast are typical school stereotypes that serve no particular function except that to show the lack of imagination on Rockstar Vancouver writers’ part, there are still notable figures worth mentioning. Of course, Jimmy Hoppkins, the protagonist, receives the first award, simply because his character has much more screentime devoted to him than any other. The character walks a thin line separating a tough, cool teenager everybody wants to be and a noble defender of weak and offended. Although he does make occasional leaps in either of the sides, overall impression remains very strong and convincing. Jimmy is a good boy, without being too cute and sweet.

Obviously, his arch-enemy Gary comes second. Unlike Jimmy I doubt you will ever find someone like Gary in average American school. At least not of that magnitude. Gary is sinister, cunning, devil-tongued bastard who precedes every movement of yours in one or even two steps. The closing scene is so intense only because of his outstanding personality. Unfortunately, he appears only in 10 cut scenes, with each being about 1 minute long. That’s so depressingly little for such a powerful character. Being an Anarchist myself, I’ve actually sympathized a lot to his cause. “Why do you do it?” asks Jimmy in the closing scene on the roof. “Because, I can!” follows the answer. Still it hasn’t kept me from grinning while beating the hell out of the twisted son of a b…..

Unfortunately every other character (except, perhaps, a manly cook Edna) is below average. The worst of them I will mention shortly. For now, however, I’d like to turn your attention to the nerds. Bully features the coolest portrayal of the social outcasts ever. Much unlike stereotyped muscle-pumped Jocks or stucked-in-the-50s Greasers, Nerds here are completely different from what you usually expect of them. They’re cunning, devious and inventive in their schemes while still remaining a bunch of spineless smartasses who plays pen-and-paper RPGs in the comics shop basement. Fantastic combination!

The Bad

I wished I could’ve stopped there, but as a man wiser than myself once said “The First Duty of a Starfleet officer belongs to the truth!” And so, in this extremely nerdy and Star Trek-ish manner, I have to continue.

Since I’ve already mentioned characters I’ll start there. Nobody of supporting cast comes anywhere near the strength of Jimmy and Gary. However, some of them even fall much lower. Firstly, it’s Zoe. A strong promising female lead was a must to this game, but, unfortunately, Zoe feels very underdeveloped, and not at all essential to the plot, although in design she, apparently, was supposed to be. The horrible ending scene of her kissing Jimmy shows how artificial and unsatisfying she came out to be in the final game.

As for everybody else, it’s safe to say that all of them (teachers, gang leaders) are uninspired, featureless and run of the mill, without any cool twist for an excuse of a caricature approach, the game boasts all the time. All in all, even GTA: San Andreas presented a much more weird and interesting cast than Bully.

But the controversial cast is not the most disappointing flaw of the game. It’s gameplay.

Yes, you heard it right. The critically acclaimed open-endedness of GTA clones doesn’t befit this one at all. As actually any other game for that matter, but that’s a completely different story. You may inquire: “But what about all the stuff you can do in this game?”. Then I will response with “But why would I want to?” Really, why? Why would I want to mow the lawn, participate in bike races, change clothes and haircuts, play arcade minigames, attend classes if it all doesn’t have any effect on the game itself? Nor does it bring any significant benefit. Money, you say? There’s no shortage of money ever in this game, since you receive everything to suit your needs from completing the story missions. Nothing you do besides the obligatory missions have any point to it. There are no interesting side-stories to this optional stuff. Nothing.

As another reviewer has already said, it feels like you’re playing a game inside a game. But, unlike him I don’t consider it to be a positive aspect at all.

One might reply with “But, it’s so fun!” Excuse me, but it’s not. Once again the obligatory missions have all the fun and diversity to satisfy any gamer needs, but the time spent by developers on those minigames I would have loved to see devoted to fleshing out the characters or, maybe, allowing me do some meaningful choices on my character’s part. Because, it’s much more entertaining to do something that actually matters.

The Bottom Line

We’re almost done. As you can see from this review, Bully is anything but an average game. In spite of the flawed characters and lacking gameplay, it manages to capture the essence of the youth spirit today: rebellious, harsh and competitive, but still having the basic understanding of honor, friendship and honesty.

You might recognize yourself as one of the adults in this game. Indifferent, rule-abiding, deaf to children needs and problems, overconfident, self-important and above anything they can dismiss as “childish games”. If so than this is a perfect opportunity for you to change.

“The worries of the child are not trivial matters!” says the game. I concur. Now, it’s up to you.