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February 21, 2009

Game Review: Bully for Wii

5 out of 5 stars

There are a couple of valid criticism labelled at the Wii as a whole. First is that tons of its games are just a bunch loosely collected mini-games. The second is that those that aren’t are often just lazy ports from other consoles.

Bully brilliantly manages to flip both of these criticisms around and provide something truly unique.

It’s a game with a long history: originally released on PS2 under the title of Canis Canem Edit, the game has been re-worked for both the 360 and the Wii and given back its original title now the controversy has died down. For the record, you don’t play as a bully, you fight them. The media missed that little fact in their outrage.

What’s brilliant is that Bully plays like it was made for the Wii from the ground up, in many ways it’s a perfect fit. Because at its core, Bully is just a collection of mini-games, but a collection that is strung together so very well you don’t even realise.

There is no primary mechanic in this game. There’s no one thing you spend most of the game doing. An arguement could be made that the fist-fighting fits this as it features in a lot of missions, but at most it accounts for 30% of your play time. About the same amount of time is spent travelling from place to place or racing on skateboards or bikes, while the rest of the game involves taking photos, sneaking around, mowing lawns, delivering papers, throwing stink bombs, boxing, collecting things, playing drums and so on.

Bully throws you into a boarding school environment and lets you do whatever you want to. Going to one of eight different lessons starts a mini-game, which vary from playing dodge-ball in gym class to Brain Training style quizzes in Maths. Or you can skive off entirely and follow the storyline missions, do some side-quests or just go off and explore. On the other hand, attending the lessons and doing well will grant you special abilities which benefit you in the rest of the game.

Bully has one of those mindless collect-em-up subquests where you have to collect 75 elastic bands hidden throughout the world. I normally hate that sort of thing. They’re practically impossible without using a walkthrough or guide. Except in Bully, complete a certain geography lesson, and the approximate location of all the remaining ones is added to your map. So now if you’re in an area for a mission, have some time to kill, and see there’s a band nearby, you can search that area for a quick diversion.

It’s that sort of pacing that also makes Bully such a brilliant game. You get up just before school starts in the morning, and have to be in bed by the end of the night or you’ll collapse. This provides just the right amount of structure in the otherwise free-form game. You can start of in class in the morning, go out on missions of lunch time, head back to class if you’re nearby when afternoon lessons start, stay out and skive if you’re not. The evening is spent with either continuing on missions or doing some sub-quests before heading back to your dorm for the night.

Or perhaps you really want to do both classes that day so spent lunchtime around the school grounds searching for collectables. Since each day isn’t particular long either, it has that brilliantly compulsive “just one more day” aspect that will keep you playing until 4am in the morning.

With all these opportunities for choice, Bully could be a disaster. Sure, you could try and ‘power-game’ it, ignoring the main storyline and doing all the of the classes as soon as possible, but the positioning of each element and the pacing of the game pushes you away from that and actively encourages you to spread your time around, to the point that when you finish the main storyline, you’ll have done a good chunk of the side-quests, but still have a few things to finish off afterwards if you so wish.

Despite it’s brilliance, Bully has been mostly over-looked when it comes to ‘must-have’ Wii games, probably because it’s seen as being ‘just a PS2 port’. But the fact is, the game is far more at home on the Wii that it ever was elsewhere. The piece-meal, mini-game centred approach, with multiple mechanics that all use the Wii controller in a different way is what the Wii does best. The controls are nearly perfect, with the one exception of it asking you to hit + and – at the same time – try that without hitting the Home button (wonderfully, the same section on the PC version asked you to press mouse wheel up and mouse wheel down together).

There’s probably not enough new stuff in this version of Bully to make it worthwhile if you’ve played it on the PS2, but if you haven’t played it at all it’s complete must-have for the Wii. An exceptional game that proves that the words “console port” and “mini-games” don’t have to spell failure for the Wii.

September 25, 2008

Ben Folds: Way To Normal

5 out of 5 stars

Ben Folds’ last album, Song For Silverman was, on reflection, a little staid. It’s not a bad album by any stretch, but it’s basically 11 plodding piano ballads.

There’s a couple of slightly rockier bits but it never really takes off. Any of the songs are good individually, some are phenomenal, but the album as a whole drags a fair bit. It was reflective of a Folds that had settled down with a wife and family and was writing serious songs about serious issues for serious people. Of course, were you to see Folds live during this period you’d have seen a rockier, upbeat crazy bloke doing his regular weird stuff that wasn’t reflected in Songs For Silverman at all. While not a bad album it seemed to be ‘targeted’ at a ‘demographic’ rather than truly representing the artist.

On to Way To Normal. Folds has got divorced and remarried and put out something far more upbeat and fun than Silverman. While he’s stated in interviews that this record isn’t about his divorce in particular, it’s certainly a break-up record.

Hiroshima (B-B-B-Benny Hit His Head)
This is the quintessential Folds funny song. It’s basically a verbatim discussion of him falling off the stage and getting concussion. Piano, bass, drums, silly lyrics, crowd noises… it’s a bit of simple fun but has a brilliantly catchy central refrain.

Dr Yang
In the days of Ben Folds Five, Robert Sledge was all about the fuzzy bass. Perhaps it’s for that reason that Folds has mostly avoided that particular motif in his solo career, but it’s back and bassist Jared Reynolds seems to be having as much fun with it as Sledge ever did. Many have used that link to suggest this is a very Ben Folds Five track stylistically, but I don’t think it is. It’s actually done in a style that we’ve never really heard Folds use before. Check out the bit about 55 seconds in where Folds pretty much switches to an entirely different vocal style and suddenly there’s a whole new set of possibilities for future songs.

The Frown Song
This one returns to one of Folds’ favoured themes of social and class differences. It’s a brilliant lyric and plays about synths and harmonies and all sorts.

You Don’t Know Me
A duet with Regina Specktor which is the second track on the album that sounds like nothing else Folds has ever released. The melody is actually carried by the strings here while the piano is relegated to an accompaniment, and the lyrics are all done in a very dis-jointed style that Ben probably picked up from Shatner.
It’s also the first of those songs about failing relationships and break-ups.

The mid-album 6 minute epic. A slow, heart-breaking ballad, it’d be at home on Songs For Silverman but has so much more impact here where it’s one of only two. The whole thing builds slowly, with the strings slowly becoming more prominent until they just soar through at the end and conspire with lyrics to break your heart into pieces.

Errant Dog
A bit of fun about a dog that ran off. Or it’s about a man that consistently cheats on a woman that can’t bear to leave him. It’s short and silly regardless so doesn’t really matter.

Free Coffee
The third of the truly unique tracks on the album. Folds stuck a bunch of metal tins inside his piano and ran it through a distortion pedal and ended up with something that bears a strange resemblance to a C64 synth. Again, it’s about social division: famous people that can afford it anyway get free stuff but poor people that need it don’t. The lyrics have been criticised for being a bit ‘simple’ and just describing every day life: “Called in sick one day, stepped out my front door, squinted up at the sky…”.
But that’s the point. Folds and other famous people are just normal people like us that do normal things like sending text messages and eating ice cream. But he gets treated differently because of fame.
It’s not actually one of my favourites from the album, it seems to be missing something but it’s certainly interesting.

Bitch Went Nuts
Another break-up track dealing with the after-effects of a separation and the way friends end up taking sides. One of my favourites.

Leading on nicely from the previous track, this deals with someone who took sides and wrote a song about it. The album’s lyrical tour-de-force “There’s something wrong with being copied on a memo / In the form of a bad country demo” and plenty of others I won’t spoil. Musically it’s vintage Folds, much like previous track.

Again, one of those perfect Folds piano-pop songs, that reflects on getting away from your life and doing something else entirely. And just in case you were wondering where it was this is the track with the fast piano solo in it…

Kylie From Connecticut
A ballad about a break-up that becomes inevitable. Somewhat resembles Carrying Cathy musically, not my favourite track to be frank as it drags on a bit too long and its a shame the album didn’t have a stronger closer, but it’s a decent track.

What truly stands out about the album (besides the reflections on break-ups and the fuzzy bass) are how many new, original and interesting songs and ideas there are in this. This is the first album Folds recorded with his band in the studio, and it seems that the inevitable mixing in of their musical interests and stylistic quirks has given us the most interesting and original Folds album since Reinhold Messner.

Downsides: well Folds has developed a strange tendency to go “unh” and “uh” at various points on the record and it just feels a bit weird. He’s been doing it live for a while but he’s really over-doing the grunting on this one. Still it can worked into a fun drinking game.

Apart from that this is a truly brilliant album and hints at so many possible new musical directions that Mr Folds could take now I can’t can’t wait to see what he does next.

Way To Normal is released in stores on Monday 29th September

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