Review by clarkisdark

"Second time's not the charm"

Nobody enjoys going to the doctor. If you aren't in pain when you leave thanks to the doctor lying about "this isn't going to hurt," you leave embarrassed, because he/she made you drop your pants in front of him/her. It's important work, though, and I'm sure we've all dreamed about being a doctor at some point, whether it was for the money or for the satisfaction of saving people's lives. But if medical school isn't so inviting, it's always nice to have a video game equivalent to fall back on.

Trauma Center isn't exactly like the real thing, though. The graphical style is a constant reminder this is just a game since nothing about it will make you say, "Wow, that looks so realistic!" That doesn't mean making an incision in a featureless polygonal model isn't unsettling. Draining blood from a gaping cut or realigning broken bones in an arm will make those with weak stomachs a little queasy. But this mood is lightened by Trauma Center's anime-inspired character designs. The only problem with this is how they are presented in the numerous cut scenes. They don't move or animate at all. They're simply static cutouts against drab backgrounds that take turns talking. You never get to see any of the action that is supposedly happening, and it's not very interesting as such.

The empty presentation is only worsened by a lack of voice acting. Even though characters will occasionally say, "Let's start the operation!" or, "Be careful, Doctor!" most of the dialogue is text-only. This makes the atmosphere of an operation very claustrophobic and empty. It would be so much more engrossing to have your assistants talking to you--actually talking to you--while you operate so you don't have to break your concentration to read their dialogue boxes. It would have also been nice to hear somebody pronounce correctly a lot of these long, complicated medical terms. And for as heavy as this game is on narrative, it's kind of annoying you have to read the cut scenes like a book.

Despite how lifeless the game comes across in graphics and sound, Trauma Center manages to entertain all the same. This isn't like Cooking Mama or Rayman Raving Rabbids where the tasks at hand are cute, little mini-games. This is a series of operations, and the sense of urgency is very real. Not only is every operation timed, you have to keep an eye on your patient's vitals. If cuts aren't mended right away, or if you miss your target with the scalpel, the vitals will drop. You can do things to bring them back up--like inject the patient with some kind of magical juice--but if the vitals ever reach zero, the operation is a failure. As such, Trauma Center is an incredibly engaging and stressful experience. After making an initial incision, you enter the human body where anything is possible. Tumors. Pieces of glass stuck in the liver. A kidney in need of a transplant. The selection of tools isn't overbearing, though. You mostly just use a scalpel, stitching, antibiotic gel, fluid drain, and laser. Yet the problems you face are clever, fun, and slightly disturbing.

However, Trauma Center is almost as much story as it is gameplay, and the story delves into some pretty far-out ideas. In only the first few hours of play, you'll run into an outbreak of a special virus known as GUILT. These viruses are like little aliens/bugs crawling around inside of people's bodies, and their presence makes the game feel more like a science-fiction melodrama than the everyday struggles of a surgeon... which is what I had hoped for. Trauma Center is at its best when you are treating common ailments, but these operations are few and far between.

Even in these bug-hunting operations, though, Trauma Center still succeeds thanks to its great uses of the Wii remote and nunchuck. The remote acts as a pointer. With it, you can make incisions and stitch up cuts with flicks of the wrist and remove foreign objects by pinching the A and B buttons much like you would pinch your forceps around whatever it is you're picking up. The nunchuck's purpose is to cycle through your tools. So instead of having to move your cursor over to the side of the screen every time you need to switch, you rotate the analog stick. This entire setup feels really good and is immediately natural, letting you focus on the operation and not on trying to get used to a new control scheme.

There is also a special "healing touch" move you use to temporarily slow down time and help you regain your bearings. In more difficult operations, using the healing touch is a necessity. To pull it off, you actually draw a star on the screen with the Wii remote. Unfortunately, what you draw has to be a very accurate representation of a star. The slightest discrepancy won't register. It often takes me four or five tries before the healing touch kicks in, but by then, my patient's vitals are too low to ever come back. The healing touch is designed as a last desperate effort to save your operation, but getting it to work usually wastes more time.

In that sense, Trauma Center can be a little frustrating. It can be very frustrating if you try to play on Hard. This is the operating table, after all, and there's little room for error. You can surely expect to repeat some operations over and over before getting them right. A nice feature, however, is that you can switch between the three difficulties at any time. You don't have to start the story on Normal and stick with Normal all the way through. If you reach an operation that is too demanding, you can fall back on Easy and still progress without any repercussions. It's such a relief to have, and seeing it here will make you wish every game did this.

Lasting Appeal:
Being able to drop from Normal to Easy whenever you wish does make it tempting to breeze through the story. Still, you'll likely have the desire to go back and retry operations on Hard just to see if you can do it. And some of the more realistic operations are pretty fun and worth visiting a second time once the game is complete. Getting to the end, though, only requires a good 8-10 hours of play. If you're a completist/perfectionist, there's plenty more for you to do, but it nevertheless feels like a short adventure. This is especially true if you just came from playing Twilight Princess for 40 hours.

Trauma Center: Second Opinion is definitely a unique and intriguing game. The Wii controller is successful in bringing the procedures of the operating room into your home, and the final product is both enjoyable and rewardingly nerve-racking. But, like many of Atlus's games, though the concepts are great, the execution is sub par. I'm usually not a stickler for a high quality presentation, but Trauma Center needs it in order to create a better atmosphere. As is, the cut scenes are painfully boring, and operating feels empty without any meaningful spoken dialogue. Plus, the over-the-top science-fiction story turns the gameplay into something more akin to fighting space aliens than performing surgery, and it just doesn't work well. If Atlus is so insistent on having such an outrageous basis, then maybe it should incorporate the surgery into an action/adventure game. Because the surgery is fun. It's just out of place with everything else here.

+ Engagingly stressful
+ Great use of the controller
+ Change difficulty on the fly
-- Lifeless presentation
-- Sci-fi melodrama doesn't fit
-- Healing touch is too difficult to pull off

Score: 6.5

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 12/11/06, Updated 12/11/06

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