Trauma Center: Under the Knife was a first-year success for the Nintendo DS and an arguable factor in cementing the system’s status as a go-to for non-standard gameplay. The surgical sim spawned a Wii remake and two sequels that tweaked parts of the series, yet never strayed from its “slice-and-suture” formula. You played one, you’ve played them all.
Trauma Team delivers two AED paddles of variety to the heart of its predecessors by adding new methods of play, not to mention driving its story closer than ever to the realm of the TV hospital drama — albeit with far less whining, sex, or whiny sex.
Classic surgery still remains, largely unchanged from any other game in the series, but now shares the spotlight equally with five brand new specialties: first response, orthopedic surgery, endoscopic surgery, diagnosis and forensic medicine. While it all manages to gel well into one overall title (more on this later), it really is easiest to address each field as a separate game.
Standard surgery, under the hands of doctor/amnesiac prisoner CR-S01 (yes, that’s right and no, he’s not a robot), no longer carries the “magic touch” known to previous doctors yet is quite manageable without it. Those familiar with the series will see several similarities in Trauma Team’s procedures, but there is much less emphasis on twitch action and juggling, making it overall more accessible.
But just in case you miss them, twitch action and juggling have been moved under first response and the care of sassy, pugnacious EMT Maria Torres. Her scenarios require close attention paid to two or more patients at a time, switching back and forth to make sure the others stay alive while you patch one up for transport. There are fewer tools and more of a reliance on one-time special equipment, but it doesn’t make the action any less hectic or anxiety-inducing.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from surgery is orthopedic surgery, performed by gentle doctor/superhero (again, yes) Hank Freebird. There are no vitals or time limits to worry about in these procedures; only a set limit of “misses.” While the variety of objectives — screwing in plates, hammering in pins, setting bone fragments, etc. — doesn’t seem very deep, the demands of precision and detail keep this section engaging and almost zen-like. Gratefully, the controls are spot-on to prevent unnecessarily frustrating moments.
Endoscopic surgery — the minimally-invasive procedure where they go in with little cameras — is handled by doctor/ninja (I promise this is the last ridiculous-sounding doctor-slash) Tomoe Tachibana. This is probably the weirdest duck out of all the specialties, acting a lot like 3D surgery in places that make the inner human body feel like Metroid Prime. The controls are a bit of a pain, requiring holding down A+B and thrusting the Wii remote forward in order to, what they call in the medical business, “shove your scope through someone’s pipes.” Access to tools also requires a press of the C button before making a choice, which messed me up sometimes. And with later levels turning into repetitive mazes, endoscopy was the only discipline I actually grew tired with near the end.
Diagnosis with Dr. Gabriel Cunningham has you scouring through patients’ testimonies, scans, test results and stethoscope sounds to determine what’s ailing them. It mostly boils down to “spot the difference,” which can become annoying when you find yourself constantly flipping between images of the patient’s and “normal” scans trying to find that one shadow that’s off. Why can’t you view the images side-by-side? Once you do locate what you need, however, the story and often amusing back-and-forth dialogue drive each case along quite smoothly.
The forensics section, above everything else, feels like it could’ve existed as its own game. The sultry (and perhaps closet Green Day groupie, given the thickness of her eyeliner) Dr. Naomi Kimishima returns from Trauma Center: Second Opinion to take on the role of a medical examiner, scouring corpses and crime scenes. Evidence collected is entered into a card-based system that can be sent to FBI partner “Little Guy” (hilariously represented by a Mii on Dr. Kimishima’s computer) for further analysis or combined with other cards to form new observations. It’s a bit Phoenix Wright in nature, but demands that the player pay attention and figure out his or her own answers through consistent quizzing. The cases are fresh and interesting, sometimes taking unexpected turns or entering into a completely different game mechanic altogether. It’s surprisingly deep and well composed, making it by far my favorite offering.
With six different paths to pursue, there was an initial fear that I would concentrate on a few favorites and force myself to slog through the rest once my sources of joy ran out. I can say, however, that while I did end up preferring a few techniques over others, I was frequently switching between doctors out of real interest. This is largely thanks to the overarching plot that weaves through all of the doctors’ individual missions. A patient diagnosed by Dr. Cunningham may end up operated upon by CR-S01 or a suspect tracked down by Dr. Kimishima may end up creating a scene requiring Torres’ response. The way in which all of this is revealed depends on what order you take the cases in, but you are never restricted in your choices until the end, when all the paths merge into a set order for the finale.
There is some feeling of repetition in the action once the game is in its later stages — something to which there should be little to no excuse — but a brisk-paced storyline that’s not afraid to take off the kid gloves sometimes does an effective job of battling this.
When not through actual play, the plot is advanced through comic/manga-style storyboards, which on one hand add a real dose of style to the Trauma series but other times looks a bit “cookie-cutter” with its use of character art. It would’ve really sent the production value through the roof if there weren’t some frames that looked like the artistic designers were playing with paper cutouts. They can keep the fact that a lot of the nameless “extra” characters in scenes look like the figures on an airplane safety pamphlet, though. That’s actually pretty cool.
I’m happy to say the characters themselves often have more dimension than they way they’re portrayed. The oddities of superheroes and ninja aside, all of the doctors act remarkably human, each with an individual personality and real weaknesses that make them likable. Some resolve their issues; others do not. And while there are a few flaws — part of Dr. Freebird’s storyline features the series’ tired “I wanted to die, but now that you saved me I want to live!” arc — it is overall satisfying to watch the stories play out. Drs. Cunningham and Kimishima steal the show, mostly through the extra voice time they get in their cases and the sheer strengths of their characters, but the others are never left behind. The soundtrack also tends to fit the characters and situations rather well, being tense when it needs to, atmospheric when it needs to, and ripping off the Weather Channel most other times. I love it.
The co-op element introduced in Trauma Center: New Blood is also available in the operations here, although the rules are switched up. Tools are divvied up in standard surgery, patients are distributed between players in first response, turns are taken by action in orthopedic surgery and turns are taken by time limit in endoscopy. It all works pretty well, although endoscopy, sadly again, brings up the rear.
What I’m really trying to say is…
If Trauma Team is supposed to be an evolution of the series, I’m pleased with the direction it’s taking. While there can still be some more variety shown in the individual operations, the additions of new disciplines and guidelines are welcome, while whoever gave the story and writing a shot in the arm should be commended. Veteran virtual surgeons will likely love the new freedoms and/or be a bit disappointed by the decrease in difficulty, while newcomers should find a great place to hop aboard.
Trauma Team is developed and published by Atlus and is available for the Nintendo Wii for MSRP $49.99 USD. Game rented through Gamefly and completed in 26 hours on “Resident” difficulty. You don’t want to know where this camera has been.