Trauma Center: Under the Knife
By Zach Patterson Wednesday, 24 Jan 2007

The Nintendo DS has been home to quite a few adventure games now, with both Phoenix Wright games, Trace Memory, the recently released Hotel Dusk, and the topic of this review, Trauma Center. Personally, I hope we see a lot more in the future, because this is a genre that has been dead for far too long.

In Trauma Center, you play the role of Doctor Derek Stiles, a young inexperienced doctor who quickly becomes an expert due to some amazing surgeries and the use of the “healing touch”. The action is split up, not unlike Phoenix Wright, with 2 distinct segments: story and operation. The story mainly focuses on Derek and his rise in the medical field, as well as his maturation as a person and professional doctor. Later in the game, it is more about the mysterious disease called GUILT, and a large part of the explanations of this disease are pretty overdramatic and nonsensical, but it works. The operation segment places you in a first person 3D view point of a patient and you are given hints and instructions from the top screen. Your stylus is your operating tool and you have a dozen different options on the sides of the screen to choose from when trying to help a patient with their particular problem. Each operation is timed (aside from the occasional special operation) and you are only given so many screwups. In addition, each patient has a health meter which slowly declines over the course of the operation. If you do not use the magical green stabilizer to keep the health above 0, you lose.

The story section is probably the weaker of the two parts, but it has its moments. It usually sets up the operations pretty well, but there are times (especially towards the end of the game) where it just seems like they threw a few lines of meaningless dialogue at you as a transition into yet another difficult surgery. Also, this is like Phoenix Wright in that you have portraits of characters talking back and forth, but the writing isn’t nearly as funny or witty, so some of it comes across as generic and uninteresting. Also, it seems like each character only had 3 portraits (usually happy, nervous, and shocked), so there are times when their expressions seem pretty out of place considering the plot point. Occasionally, you do get a nice dual screen piece of art for special sections of the game, so that is nice at least. The plot also kind of leaves you hanging at the end when you are expecting one last big final surgery or some resounding resolution, and instead the end feels truncated and a little unsatisfying.

The game lives and dies by its operation segment (wow, what a horrible pun), and this section is the most frustrating to review because it alternates between being brilliant and almost too difficult. While most of the time you know what you have to do, there are points in the game where you are left assuming you know exactly what to do to save a patient, and in reality, you may have no idea whatsoever what they need you to do next. This in turn leads to a lot of failed operations. As you progress later in the game, the objective is more clear, but the way to successfully do it is not. There is often a certain rhythm and way to complete an operation, and deviation from that method will almost always end in faliure. This in turn leads to a lot of screaming at dying patients and cramped fingers from working so fast. By the end, your “healing touch” move and stabilizer shot will become lifesavers and absolute necessities. This still makes for a fun game, but the annoying part comes when you can beat 3/4 of the operation and the last part reveals some crazy final twist, and it kills you in no short order. Essentially, it can ruin 5+ minutes worth of operating in a few seconds, and make the game not seem so fun. Make no mistake, the game is difficult, but finishing these hard tasks is also surprisingly rewarding. When you finish, it’s like you actually have saved their life, sometimes by the skin of your teeth, but saved them regardless. This in turn is a great feeling of accomplishment that you seldom get in most current games.

I mentioned the graphics for the story section already, which is just portraits on environments, but the graphics for the operating part are nice 3D graphics that aren’t high on detail, but they work quite nicely and don’t throw off the style of the story part too much. Sometimes you are looking at parts of the body that are completely unidentifiable, but like i said, the graphics are competent and functional. The blood looks real enough, the diseases look menacing, and the parasites look disgusting, which is just as it should be.

The music doesn’t stand out quite as much as a game like Phoenix Wright, but Trauma Center’s soundtrack is full of appropriately tense songs for operating and dramatic story sequences. One standout track in particular is the final type of GUILT parasite, which is about the most epic operating table music ever. There are times, however, when it falls into generic sounding beats, but in general it is a pretty good and competent soundtrack for the game. The voices in the game are used sparingly, but do tend to grate a little when you hear “DOCTOR!” every time something happens during surgery.

Control in the game is pretty easy for the story part, just press a button to move text. In surgery, the controls are all touch-based. This can be a mixed bag. It seems pretty accurate most times, but there are other times, for example, when you really, really need to suture a wound before the patient dies and the game just will not give you the suture. Other times, when many things are on the screen at once, you get some very noticeable slowdown that gets distracting and your tools will lag or be unresponsive to the pace you need to work. The game works on a ranking guide too, so it’s even more irritating when you lost your chance for an S-Rank because the game didn’t think you did a stitch well enough, when it may not have even been anything you did. These are small issues, despite how it sounds. 95% of operations work smoothly and you never notice these things. It’s that 5% that become troublesome.

Trauma Center certainly isn’t perfect, and it’s about as hard as you would ever want a game like this to be. However, it makes great use of the DS’s features and is the kind of unique, quirky game that the system has become known for. It is certainly a good purchase for those who want a decent adventure game with a sense of action and a good challenge.

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