When Nintendo announced the DS, what did you expect to see the touch screen used for? Steering wheels, camera controls and analogue movement…they likely weren’t really at the forefront of peoples’ minds, but they’ve all happened. With some of those less original concepts out of the way, though, what else have you got? If some of you might have answered ‘a surgery game’ - ding, congratulations, go straight to ‘go’, as developers clearly had the same idea when they came up with Trauma Centre. The aim of the game is simple - cure people - but fulfilling the aim is not quite as easy.
You set off on your operating adventures as young doctor Derek Stiles (ten points if you noticed yet another ‘DS’ reference there, an extra five points if you noticed the nod to the stylus thrown in as well). Now, Derek isn’t the most talented of young medical professionals, in that he needs a lot of guidance, but he has some qualities about him that could prove invaluable to the medical world; firstly, he’s very enthusiastic to learn and practice medicine to help others, due to his father dying from an unnamed, incurable disease. Secondly, he is the possessor of a rare ability, the Healing Touch. By focusing his mind (and mentally drawing a star), Derek is able to work far faster than what would usually be humanly possible (which is very helpful and necessary in more than one section of the game, and can help you catch up if you start to lag behind), making him somewhat of a prodigy. More than just a prodigy is going to be needed to get through the trials that lie ahead here, though...
Everything works as you might expect in a surgery game on a system with a touch screen. Statistics, timers and helpful hints are displayed on the top screen, while the bottom screen becomes your operating table (though the patient's health is in the top corner of the bottom screen for ease of use, too). A line of equipment lies on either side of the area you'll be performing all of your medical wizardry, which consist of typical things such as lasers, scalpels, syringes, ultrasounds, forceps...you get the idea. As you'd think, clicking on a tool selects it for use, and then you can put it to work on the patient that lies in front of you. Each level is based around a new patient (or a few patients, in some extreme cases) that you have to figure out a way to cure with the tools available to you. Everything starts off fairly standard - remove some glass from cuts, remove some tumours, but things soon start to get a bit more complex as you’re introduced to various forms of GUILT, the new disease that’s all the rage in 2018 (mark it in your diaries, it’s one to look forward to - on the plus side, AIDS and cancer are all but wiped out by then according to the game...). To say that it’s a bit of a nasty one would be a big understatement - the various iterations involve monstrous little creatures swimming and crawling about, or sometimes just sitting there causing malignant tumours to grow and wounds to appear.
What you might not expect is that the characters, story and dialogue seem to have hopped out of an episode of Holby City (oh alright, it's not that bad). Political and philosophical commentary is plastered everywhere, doctors and nurses love nothing more than emoting whatever is on their minds, no matter how banal it is, and the plot 'twists' are as predictable as the sun rising in the morning. However, despite the oddities and annoyances of this, it has to be said that the developers certainly seem to know a thing or two about medicine, and it could all be a lot worse - in fact, some of it brings unintentional comedy to the table. It perhaps takes itself a bit too seriously, but there’s a quirky appeal in it. If we sound like we hate the story, don’t get us wrong - this isn’t the case at all, there’s nothing wrong with it and it’s quite an interesting one, the dialogue just leaves something to be desired. To put a positive slant on it though, if it really gets on your nerves and you can’t be bothered reading through the speech of doctors telling each other the most obvious of information and talking to Stiles like a child (despite the fact that he’s a trained doctor who possibly has more talent in his right hand than 99% of others in the medical profession), a quick tap of ‘select’ skips through it all at lightning speed.
Trauma Centre is, to put it lightly, bloody difficult. It’s a nice long game (37 levels, most of which involve messing about with somebody’s guts) and starts out easily, but as you progress, you soon realise that the developers decided somewhere during the production that they weren’t going to take any prisoners. Later on, expect to be repeating levels stupid amounts of times and cursing the day that you picked up the game - a particularly frustrating level involves a form of GUILT that requires you to remove thorns from it before extracting membranes. The problem is, if one membrane is left alone it duplicates a few more, meaning that you’re fighting a never-ending battle unless you take them out in exactly the right order or if you manage to corner it. It’s a game that you can spend an hour on one level trying to form a strategy, switch it off after another failure out of pure frustration and to stop yourself from hurling £100 of technology into a nearby wall, then switch on the next morning and complete the level first time – this happened a few times. On other occasions, it was far more tempting to use the laser and scalpel to burn holes into patients’ organs as a stress reliever rather than attempt a level again properly, as failure was so painfully obviously imminent. While it’s nice to have a challenge, you can’t help but think that the developers have a bit of a sadistic streak; but that just makes the joy of completing a section all the more prominent when you eventually do overcome the odds.
The various ailments get more and more inventive as you go along and even the repetition of all the bosses at the end doesn’t feel like it was used to lengthen the game unnecessarily. The game is so well put together that the story issues can be easily overlooked in favour of the brilliance of surgery, which is superb when all is going right. In fact, the one true fault of the game is that it’s just too hard in sections - call us pathetic, but we don’t like to feel like our heads are going to explode when we’re playing a game. Still, we got through it in the end after much effort, so it’s at least doable, and you couldn’t argue that it’ll be over too quickly because with some of the difficulty spikes it will easily last you long enough to justify the price of entry. A ‘challenge’ mode is chucked in for good measure too, that allows you to go back to your past operations and try and best your scores.
Original titles are what Nintendo promised when they showed off the DS, and this is a game that fulfils that criterion perfectly. Here in the UK we’re only just getting some of the unique titles that other countries have had for months, the titles that really show off what the DS can do, and Trauma Centre deserves to do well - it’s a fantastic example of what can be created if a bit of thought is put into a game. With a sequel already in development, Atlus clearly has made enough money off it already, but you could do worse than offer them more incentive to create a follow up by buying it – far worse.