Bully is a lot more entertaining than it has any right to be. Not since Shenmue has a well-integrated mish mash of half-assed gameplay and bad writing made for such a compelling package. It's the perfect example of a whole greater than the sum of its parts, and the extent to which presentation can make an average product really shine.
As I'm sure most of you have already assumed, Bully is a sort of PG-13 Grand Theft Auto for the younger set. Unlike its bigger brother, however, Bully is content to be playfully mischievous more than perversely sociopathic. It's not so much about getting in touch with your darker side as much as it is a chance to relive those childhood dreams of being the coolest kid in school. Protagonist Jimmy Hopkins isn't a bully, he's the bullies' worst nightmare; a bad kid out to make right. It's a more positive story than Rockstar seems known for, but don't worry; there's still plenty of mischief to be had.
There's nothing here you haven't seen before. The beat-'em-up mechanics are solid, but pale in comparison to Yakuza. There's some shooting (with a slingshot or potato gun, of course) but it suffers from the same obnoxious auto-targeting as GTA. There are even bike races, which are enjoyable, but aren't exactly giving the latest Need for Speed any competition. No part of the gameplay really stands out, but in an odd way this might help these disparate elements blend together better. You never concentrate too much on any of them, but instead they become means to an end.
As much as I didn't like any one part of Bully's gameplay or narrative, I can't deny it sucked me into its world.
The theory is that this is a sandbox game where players have the freedom to go where they want and do what they please. This is ultimately a half truth. While it is possible to stomp around in your free time, Bully's progression feels very artificial. You move ahead by finding arbitrary yellow spots on the map. Tap the triangle button, and all of a sudden you're in a cut scene setting up the next mission. It doesn't feel particularly seamless or natural, and it stifles a sense of real freedom.
These missions don't gel into much of a story, either. Most of them develop little threads that run through the chapter, and pretty much uniformly succumb to cliché. Bully is written in a light-hearted and humorous style, but rarely does it ever elicit a sincere laugh. Instead the writing uses hack sitcom premises and tired setups. Only seldom is it groan-inducing, but the real chuckles are just as rare.
But if you toss a lot of mere adequacy into a well-realized world it can work. Bully creates a living, breathing city to explore that makes you feel like a part of what's going on. It clones its limited cast throughout the streets and halls of Bullworth, so everywhere you go there are familiar characters to interact with. The town is full of stores to explore, littered with arcade games and other distractions, and competitive sports like dodge ball, boxing, or bike races to dominate. The gameplay simply becomes the vehicle for interaction in this world, and the world itself becomes the point.
This really helps drive home the development of the story, thin though it might be. It's great to stroll through the halls of Bullworth Academy and see the different reactions you get. Watching the preps go from enemies to loyal followers, seeing the mild annoyance of the jocks turn to all-out war... It's all immensely rewarding to be a part of. As much as I didn't like any one part of Bully's gameplay or narrative, I can't deny it sucked me into its world. In the same way I enjoyed He-man and Thundercats in my youth through all their contrivances, Bully took me back in time, and I really had a lot more fun than I care to admit.