What do you get when you add a bit of Phoenix Wright, a dash of Scrubs, a generous helping of Trauma Center with a sprinkling of General Hospital? Spike/DreamCatcher’s Lifesigns: Surgical Center! If you love your meds with a bit of drama, then this one’s for you.
Lifesigns was originally released in Japan as Kenshuui Tendo Dokuta 2: Inochi no Tenbin (Dr. Tendo Dokuta: Balance of Life). It’s actually the second in the Tendo Dokuta series, the first was Kenshuui Tendo Dokuta released in 2004. As a fan of Trauma Center, I saw Tendo Dokuta 2 in my local import game store and snatched it up immediately. I’ve played the import version of Lifesigns off and on for about 6 months. Since I can’t read a great deal of kanji and none of the dialogue is spoken, I had a vague at best idea of what was going on. Which was crazymaking because the story looked damned interesting. So I was prepared to have to wait to know what’s going on until my kanji improves, because you know and I know…niche games such as Tendo Dokuta have a snowball’s chance of being localized. So imagine my shock when I read that Tendo Dokuta 2 was being translated by DreamCatcher. It’s a fine day in GameLand when another publisher picks up the gauntlet from companies such as Working Designs and translates these quirky, fun, distinctly Japanese games for non Kanji reading gaijin.
Lifesigns begins by introducing the protagonist, Dr. Tendo, who is in his second year of internship at Seimei Medical University Hospital. Tendo has quite a few people to interact with during the game, from Professor Sawai, the Director of the Hospital, Dr. Suzu, Tendo’s attractive heart surgeon/mentor, Nurse Hoshi, the cute nurse, and Dr. Aoshima, a fellow intern just to name a few. Many of their stories are intertwined, and there is quite a bit of backstory with the characters involved, and I won’t spoil it here, but trust me…it keeps you playing. What I found immediately interesting about Lifesigns is the fact that it is story based. Yes, surgeries matter, and you must do well in them, but in this game it’s the relationships with the people in the story that matters. The game doesn’t plop you right into a surgery, Tendo does what most doctors would most likely do, walk around, talk to co-workers, check up on patients, until an emergency calls him to the OR. The story plays out to allow for Tendo to have feelings, whether positive or negative towards the people he’s treating.
Graphically, Lifesigns certainly doesn’t disappoint. The characters are anime style all very well done. Dr. Tendo’s is charming, yet endearingly goofy, however you don’t see him much, only in still pics and cut scenes. The characters Tendo interacts with are interesting and expressive, and their actions/expressions are animated well. The backgrounds look good as well, however there isn’t a great deal of interaction, only in a few spots does Tendo interact/look for anything in a room. Sound effects are good, the surgery sounds aren’t as “juicy” as in Trauma Center, whether that’s a positive or negative is completely up to you. The soundtrack is decent as well, not mind blowing but not I’m turning the volume down annoying either. No spoken dialogue here either, yes young Padawan, you must read. If you are an ADHD monkey who doesn’t like to read and doesn’t like talking to people to progress a storyline, you may have problems with a text driven story. I should point out the translation had a few text wrapping gaffes, and a one or two misspells, not a big whoop.
Gameplay wise, the action goes something like this. An overview of Seimei hospital appears on the bottom screen. Available places to go in the hospital, such as reception, cafeteria. etc. appear as dots. If there is someone at a particular location which Tendo can interact with, their picture appears when you hit the spot with the stylus. Hit it again and Tendo “walks” there. Conversation ensues; then two buttons appear at the bottom of the screen, Medical Records and Transfer. Press Medical Records and little icons will appear at the top of the touchscreen. Each icon has snippets of information Tendo has gathered which allow you to grill the person you are talking to for more information necessary to progress the story.
Sometimes, however, the conversations take a more personal tone, as some of the women Tendo speaks to are obviously interested in him, which leads to multiple endings, which I’ll touch on later. Most topics of interest to the person you are talking to are obvious, however a few take a bit of abstract thinking. When you’ve hit the right topic, you hear a “jingle” noise and the story progresses. The Transfer button allows Tendo to move to another location. All of this talking is often interrupted by…sick people! This is a hospital sim after all. Off goes Dr. Tendo, med coat flapping, to the rescue! But before surgery comes…diagnosis.
Lifesigns is the only game I’ve played which not only allows surgery, it allows for diagnosis as well. After all, you really can’t operate without a proper diagnosis, right? Diagnosis plays out like this….both top and bottom screen allow Tendo to see the patient’s areas of complaint. You can move up and down by using the stylus or the D pad. Tendo has three tools to diagnose, His eyes, his hands, and his stethoscope.
This part of the game is 90% common sense (a knife in the sternum is obviously causing problems) and 10% trial and error. The trial and error here may frustrate some, just keep poking, listening, and looking and you’ll hit all of the bases for a diagnosis. If the patient is grimacing and/or saying “ugh!!” you’re in the right place! Word to the wise, watch where you poke the female patients. If Tendo pokes where he isn’t supposed to…well…let’s just say Seimei doesn’t want any harassment lawsuits!
After a proper diagnosis, Tendo performs surgery, usually with a mentor/assistant (he is an intern after all), a surgical assistant, and an anesthesiologist. Again, both screens are used here, the top providing impressive animations of the actions of the surgical team, and the bottom screen used for surgery. I thought it cool during conversations that the mask of the person speaking moves while their dialogue is on screen, as if their lips are moving. The patient’s health bar is located at the top of the screen and goes down bit by bit as surgery progresses. The learning curve is rather kind in Lifesigns. I like the fact that you’re not left to guess as to what to do next. By pressing the L or R button, Tendo can “focus” (ie; hint time!) if you are unsure where to work and what to do. Tool-wise, the usual suspects are present; scalpel, suction, suture.
Lifesigns does add some interest to the mix with an electric scalpel (trust me, I fried more than one patient before achieving proficiency with it) and a bone saw (complete with unpleasant sound effects!). The DS controls are very good, in fact they are made for a game such as this. Slow and steady wins the race, pace yourself and surgery should be a success. Be mindful of your time though..it can directly affect the story, I’ll hit this later as well. If you fumble however, and take too long, sloppily cut or fry patients with the electric scalpel as I did, the health bar will go down, the patient will flatline and resuscitation is necessary.
To resuscitate, you must do a short minigame involving pressing the L and R buttons. It was my experience that you get one freebie in most cases, however let it happen again and your mentor takes over, Game Over for you. And in a couple of surgeries, a flat-line leads to Game Over immediately. The only aggravating part I encountered with surgery that at times Tendo is required to pick items up with forceps. I had a time with this, as what I picked up kept falling and I had no idea why. I finally succeeded, not sure if by skill or luck. The functionality of this could use a bit for tweaking.
Another way to see that lovely Game Over screen is failure to “convince”, which is another type of mini-game which involves presenting a compelling argument (remember those conversation icons?) to convince another character to do something. Failure to do this in some cases will end your game rather abruptly. I found this part of the game to mostly common sense as well. The correct argument is usually obvious.
Speaking of mini-games…Lifesigns has a few story related mini games involving fishing, takoyoki making, and air hockey to name a few. They aren’t horrible, they aren’t earth shattering either. I found the air hockey to be the most fun.
Now I’ll touch on the episodes and endings. Tendo’s actions such as successful surgeries, chatting up people, etc. has an effect on each subsequent episode. Not to spoil the story line, just to say my first playthrough I didn’t realize time spent on surgery mattered, and a person died who I thought was supposed to die. While talking to someone else playing the same game, this person didn’t die in his game…so his game played out differently than mine. Will this make me replay the game? Absolutely!! Tendo can also get separate endings with certain ladies he encounters. After you finish the game and save, you have the opportunity to replay surgeries and minigames by purchasing them with the points you racked up post-surgery during the game. An episode gallery is also available.
In closing, I can’t recommend this game enough to fans of games with that difficult to define quirky Japanese-ness. Lifesigns shares a special place on my shelf o’games next to other wonderful DS titles which really don’t have a genre, such as Phoenix Wright, Trauma Center, and Cooking Mama. I’m having trouble typing this today, as my left hand is sore from playing Lifesigns so much yesterday. And when a game compels me to play to the point of arthritis, that my friends, is a good thing. I’m keeping the fingers crossed on my non stylus cramped hand that DreamCatcher will localize the first Kenshuui Tendo Dokuta