Underneath it all there’s a real sense of progression and deeper storyline, as assumptions are reversed, friends become enemies and enemies become allies. There’s even – whisper it – a hint of morality, as Jimmy comes more and more in opposition to the Nietzschian ‘dog eat dog’ philosophy espoused by the Principal and the psychotic prankster Gary. Maybe might isn’t always right, after all.
And just when you think you’ve got to grips wtih Canis Canem, the game opens out a little more. The gates to Bullworth Vale are opened, and you’re allowed to explore the town by bike or skateboard, enabling you to do a little shopping for new threads or earn a bit of money on the side delivering papers. Before long, you’re even doing favours for the faculty, finding hidden bottles of booze for your whisky-sodden English teacher, or collecting items for the spectacularly unhygienic cook. And all the while, the game packs in a hundred different side-quests, which have you collecting crabs from the town harbour one minute, dropping off chocolates for a lovelorn kid the next. There are items to collect, and even time for a little romance. Chat to girls, give them flowers, and who knows where it might lead…
All this is supported by some of the most elegant game mechanics of any open-world game. The combat system works brilliantly, with a range of punches and grappling moves, to be followed by bone (and nut) crunching combos. The game plays generous with multiple save points and a school bus that can quickly return you from town, and the only major gripes are that it’s occasionally too easy to be cornered by prefects or teachers, resulting in the instant failure of a fairly extensive mission, and that doing so usually means having to return the next day and go through the whole thing again (though at least you can cut through the preamble). Would checkpoints and a restart mission option have caused that much pain?
Still, the mechanics aren’t the only thing to admire. Canis Canem isn’t a feast of visual effects or high polygon counts, but it is packed with genuine artistry. The look and feel is distinctive and almose seamlessly coherent, with brilliant touches in the character design (the cold sores around nerd-queen Beatrice’s lips or that disturbing hint of Y-front poking out of Melvin’s trousers), while the animation practically seeps personality (much like Melvin’s Y-fronts).
The voicework matches this perfectly, and the soundtrack is amongst the best I’ve heard this year. The dominant instrument – the bass – gives the game an emotional beat, getting funky when you’re trying to crack a locker, then going into slap-happy overload when you’re chased by a gang of angry greasers. All in all, Canis Canem is right up there with the likes of Shadow of the Colossus as an example of how next-generation graphics aren’t the only way to create an immersive and engaging game world.