Jimmy Hopkins, age 15. He has been expelled from every school that he has ever attended, but is now about to be dropped off at Bullsworth Academy. It’s more of a correctional facility than a school and it can’t even do that right. Its student body is rife with bullies and borderline criminals, who torment each other and terrorize the local town. The teachers and staff are either wholly incompetent or actively in cahoots with the worst students that Bullsworth has to offer.
If he is to survive in this harsh environment, Jimmy will have to take drastic actions.
Developed by Rockstar Vancouver and released in 2006, Canis Canem Edit, now known as Bully, was an innovative twist on the open-world sandbox formula popularized by Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series. Its release fell between San Andreas and GTA IV, putting it late in the Playstation 2’s lifecycle. At the time, the notion of having a GTA game set in a school environment caused a meltdown among concerned parents. In their minds, this game confirmed all their worst fears about the medium. Surely it would spawn a BAJILLION school shooters in its wake!!!
However, today the game is rarely spoken of. It’s treated as little more than a sidenote for the revered GTA franchise, which I feel is unfair. Sure, it wasn’t a mind-blowing game nor did it bring upon the end times, but it’s very unique and has a lot to offer.
As Jimmy, you are tasked with navigating the complicated web of highschool factionalism. Bullsworth Academy is divided between the geeky nerds, simple-minded bullies, the football team, the wealthy “preps” from nearby Bullsworth Vale, and the retro-loving Greasers who enjoy mechanical work and racing on bikes. In trying to subdue each of these competing groups, you’ll have to take on various missions to ingratiate yourself to their colorful leaders.
These missions are formatted in typical GTA style where you go to a marker, get a comical cutscene to kick off the mission, and then you take on some specialized tasks. You got simple missions that’ll have you beat up some people or find items, maybe a few chases, but also some special gimmick missions like one where you protect a nerd during his speech by sniping down hecklers with a slingshot.
The writing is all-around pretty darn good. I am not one for Rockstar’s typical cynicism, but the satirical take on typical high school media works out really well for Bully. It had me laughing quite a few times and I enjoyed the atmosphere of the game a lot.
What makes it work especially well is how the game opts for quantity over quality in characterization. Every person at Bullsworth Academy is a unique character. Their personalities are simplistic for the most part, but it makes the place feel more like a community that you interact with, rather than a bloated sandbox with 10,000 copies of each generic civilian dotted around it.
The map is also not small by any means, even if it’s more compact than that of San Andreas. The reduction in size is made up for by just how lively the locations feel, especially the academy proper. You see students everywhere just going about their day, doing the same stuff you are doing. They pull pranks, get into arguments, sometimes start a fight, then get hunted down by prefects or other members of staff. Once you unlock the city it thins out a bit, but the Academy stays relevant throughout the entire game, so it’s not like this experience is just gone after chapter 1.
This has actually made Canis Canem Edit the first sandbox game where I just wanted to play the part. You can attend classes, date girls, cause mischief, and bully people, a lot of which is only questionably useful. I had genuine moments where I came up with some stupid idea and just wanted to see if I could pull it off. Shoving prefects into a trashcan before they can overpower you or giving a wedgie to the school’s brick shithouse of a quarterback, it’s just so much fun. The missions tap into this roleplay well, which helps Bully feel more like its own thing instead of just a toned-down GTA.
A good thing it does, because the gameplay does feel eerily similar. You navigate an open-world, you beat people up with some basic fisticuffs, and later get ranged weapons like a slingshot or firecrackers. A paper-thin combo system puts the emphasis more on CQC than the gunplay of GTA, but it’s clear that Canis Canem Edit was copying its big brother’s notes.
This does lead to some frustrations as well, like how the lack of mechanical vehicles means that you’ll be taping buttons for hours on end to get anywhere fast. Whether its running, skateboarding, or cycling, it’s button-mashing all the way, sometimes way past the point where it has started feeling uncomfortable. Pro tip: grind out the festival games as early as possible so you can get the scooter, and then later focus on completing all the Go Kart races once the final bit of the map opens up. Your thumb will be grateful.
There are also some aspects of school life that I feel are a bit underwhelming. Attending classes boils down to playing simple mini-games that increase in difficulty as you advance. There only a handful of classes with 5 levels each, however, and many of those are locked off until certain story developments. I found myself already completing some classes as early as chapter 2, trivializing entire mechanics thanks to their rewards. The preset rotation of classes also means you end up with entire days where you have nothing to do at the academy at all, until finally a day comes up where you can have another go at doing math.
The respect system is also underwhelming. It measures your relationship with each social clique, but it’s not influenced by anything you do in regular gameplay. You can’t shift it by picking fights with certain groups or taking actions they’d approve of, it’s only affected by missions. This makes the whole system very rigid and free of real consequences
Unfortunately, the game has issues in other departments as well. The final act has some amazing missions in it, but the story ends up feeling rushed towards the end. I don’t feel it quite manage to deliver on all the intrigue and themes that the game was building on, which leaves some characters tragically short-changed.
The game is also rife with bugs and presentation issues; more so than you’d expect even from a sandbox game of this scale. Some cutscenes don’t have lip flaps, for example, and audio quality wavers all over the place throughout the game; in some cutscenes it even seems like bad takes or stock sound-effects were used in the final product by accident.
Bugs I encountered often involved errands, which are basically minor side-quests. These would sometimes fail for no reason or Jimmy would repeatedly greet people instead of accepting the mission. Questgivers would also sometimes despawn at random, one of which never returned again.
In spite of these issues, Canis Canem Edit still delivers on a unique and daring premise. It’s GTA with a twist. Or rather, GTA when it has to impress based on merit rather than cathartic violence. It doesn’t have the mad fun of San Andreas or even Vice City, but I found it to be an engrossing experience with a solid story campaign to it. It’s worth checking out for the originality alone, especially if you like open-world games but don’t appreciate the try-hard edginess of GTA or Red Dead Redemption.