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.