Bully is like a GTA game in a smaller sandbox, with no ability to drive cars or listen to the radio. You dominate various school cliques in missions much like you would conquer Saints Row gangs. The game shows its age. I had crashes that made me have to redo entire missions again, and I couldn’t tell you why it doesn’t autosave mission progress or update collectibles when you pick them up. Maybe autosave was a fringe belief in 2008.
It was nice to see Rockstar try a different setting, and the game has some endearing qualities, but they could have tried harder. It still adheres too closely to the GTA mission-and-minigame formula. (I should put a little disclaimer that I haven’t played GTA V yet, so I can’t speak to how it might or might not differ.) It would’ve been good to see some choice in quests, allowing you to take on school in a way that appeals to you. The protagonist is kind of bland and unlikable, and I didn’t especially appreciate initiating some awkward 10-second wish-fulfillment kiss through the lips of that short-ass Bobby Hill motherfucker every time I wanted to restore my health. The Rockstar character humor also felt a bit formulaic within their South Parkish comfort zone, and while I didn’t by any means hate the dialogue, it didn’t have me barking out loud.
I had been excited to see what the classroom stuff was like, as that was the major component of the game that was particularly not Grand, Theft, or Auto, but it mostly consists of QTEs, other janky minigames, or being tested on whether you already know where a country is on an unlabelled map. I would have liked to see influence from something like Persona 3 here, which really did a lot of cool stuff with with classrooms, scheduling, and its classmate characters, though even its classroom gameplay was still ultimately nothing other than choosing dialogue options. GTA IV incorporated entire stand-up comedian routines that you could go watch, so if they had given Bully as much polish, it might’ve been cool to listen to humorous takes on class lectures while actually sitting at a desk and choosing either to participate, or to be a shitty kid who shoots spitballs at the nerds in front of him. Maybe actually learn something. Balance your academic success on one side, and your classmate respect in not being a teacher’s pet on the other! Throw a paper airplane at a kid’s neck right when he’s about to raise his hand, and steal his opportunity to answer! Choose to answer questions correctly, sarcastically, or just plain wrong, with an Alpha Protocol dialogue choice system! This would be a completely different and far more interesting game that I’m describing, I think.
They spent a lot of effort incorporating various activities–racing games, skateboarding and BMX riding (one of the most fun things to do is hop around on a bike, but there’s no grinding or challenges to do a 1080° spin or anything like that), rhythm games (music class), dodgeball, shooting galleries, photography, stealth (instantly fail a mission if you’re seen, no proper stealth mechanics), tower defense (or at least a mission where you can knock out some guys with traps before they reach you)–but none of these million things go above a state of mediocrity.
And while they have all these things, the fundamentals of movement and camera control aren’t even handled well: the player character doesn’t turn with the camera if you try to adjust it as you run, so you need to take your thumb off the left stick before the game recalculates which direction you’re heading in. (Movement in GTA IV was awkward too, though I couldn’t say off the top of my head whether it was as awkward as Bully’s.) Using various punching and grappling moves in combination with debilitating items is actually more interesting than GTA IV’s awkward cover shooting, but it has a kind of “generic third-person action-adventure game” mechanical feeling, by which I mean the multitude of N64-PSX era action platformer games, or something like Psychonauts, which had more than enough charm, cleverness, and good writing to compensate. With nothing really standing out, and more than a few missions that try a player’s patience, Bully wears out its welcome before you’re through.