Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

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Those crazy kids at Atlus made a surgery game. Yes, that’s right, you get to be a life-saving surgeon and save lives using nothing but your Nintendo DS stylus. Welcome to the world of Trauma Center. Under The Knife is the first game in the series, released in 2005 for the Nintendo DS–back in the day when touch screens on our handheld systems were still a new thing and developers were experimenting with the new tech. Atlus definitely experimented and came up with one of the most innovative series of the last 10 years. How does their first entry in the Trauma Center series hold up over time?

You play as Dr. Derek Stiles, an up-and-coming greenhorn doctor who has just started his new position at Hope Hospital. As you start your new position, you’ll be doing surgeries that are standard for a medical doctor: injuries and medical conditions that a normal doctor would do. The game does a good job of teaching you how to use your different medical instruments and what they’re designed to do. You’ll learn how to use a scalpel, a suture, a laser, and other marvels of modern medicine, and it works well most of the time (but not all of the time; more on that upcoming). Playing Trauma Center is NOTHING like doing real surgery. This is not a simulator by any stretch. It almost has the feel of a 2D shooter, except you use nothing but your stylus: no buttons, no d-pad, or thumb slider. As you get further into the game, the insanity begins, not only with the story, but with the gameplay: you realize about halfway through the game that Trauma Center is a difficult game–very difficult and too often not in a good way. Here we go.

The main character and hero, Dr. Derek Stiles.

The main character and hero, Dr. Derek Stiles.

While I admire what Atlus was trying to do in their first Trauma Center game, it suffers from poor execution and design decisions that significantly handicap the game enough to the point of it being almost unplayably frustrating at times. Design decisions were made that seem either rushed and not properly thought through or purposely implemented for no other reason than to make the game more frustrating. Games should be fun. When you make design decisions that make a game less fun and more frustrating, that’s a good indicator of a poor design decision. Atlus made enough of these in Under The Knife that made me want to put the game down and never touch it again, especially in the later missions.

The biggest issue is the touch screen controls. Trauma Center uses touch screen controls exclusively, and like I said, it’s also a pretty difficult game. You would think that if you’re designing a game with Trauma Center’s difficulty, and if you’re going to make touch screen controls the only way to play the game, that those touch screen controls would be spot-on 100% of the time. If they’re not, you’re going to frustrate your players. That would be like designing a 2-D platformer where sometimes the main character decides not to jump when you hit the jump button. Since jumping is the primary game mechanic in platformers, that game mechanic had better work flawlessly. That isn’t the case with Under The Knife’s touch controls. While they do work most of the time, they don’t work flawlessly, and seem unable to keep up with what the game is demanding from the player in the more difficult stages, where I found myself having to do three things at once without damaging my touch screen on my system because I was having to repeat certain actions over again with more force because they were either not registering or not registering accurately. It made me feel like the game was fighting against me, which is not a feeling I like to have as a player. It’s a one-way ticket to gamer frustration, and not the good kind that brings the gamer back thinking that maybe, with a couple more tries, they’ll have it.

Also, there’s no way to restart a mission without failing the mission or turning the system off. Let’s say you get halfway through a mission, are making a poor run of it, and decide you want to start the mission over. Nope. Hit the start button and all you get is a paused game with the word ‘PAUSED’ in big white letters on the screen. There are no other options to start over the mission you’re playing or to go back to the menu screen like just about every game of the last 15 years has had. You have to fail the mission (which in Trauma Center means intentionally bringing your patient to the brink of death) before the game will let you start over.

Yes, that's Nurse Angie. She makes that face a lot.

Yes, that’s Nurse Angie. She makes that face a lot.

Another issue is the game being purposely vague as to what to do next in a mission. For example, there’s a particular strain of virus that the game has you go up against, and it seems they go out of their way to be very vague as to how you’re supposed to defeat it. This is a weird contrast from the other strains that you run up against where they many times lead you by the hand step by step telling you what to do. The trick might be letting you figure it out for yourself and being vague for that reason, but I never did figure it out fully. When I defeated that particular strain, I was never sure exactly how I did it so I could improve my technique for next time. Even when I went online to find a definitive strategy to beat the levels that dealt with that virus strain and how it works, I couldn’t find a solid answer. My guess is there isn’t one and even the developers don’t know exactly what you’re supposed to do. It was these levels in particular that I found the most difficult to get through. They weren’t fun and, even when I finally did beat them, it didn’t come with a feeling of satisfaction, since I wasn’t sure exactly what I did, or if I could do it again if I had to.

.Another poor design decision is having your operating instruments wear out on you. For example, if you’re using tweezers to extract a bunch of tumors that you’ve just scalpeled out of a patient’s body, your tweezers will become unusable if you use them for too long a time. The selection icon will turn red and you’ll have to sit there and stare at it or find something else to do for a few seconds until it becomes usable again. Not only does this add nothing to the game, it makes zero sense in the context of being a doctor and doing life-saving surgery on someone. Why would a metal instrument like a pair of tweezers wear out if you use them for longer than ten seconds–and then suddenly become usable again after not using them? It serves no purpose other than to make the game more frustrating, difficult, and tedious. It adds no fun-factor to the game and it doesn’t make sense in the context of being a life-saving surgeon who is supposed to be working with bleeding-edge medical technology.

The problem with Trauma Center at its core is that it’s a game that seems more interested in punishing you for what you do wrong instead of rewarding you for what you do right. Each level has a limited number of “misses”, or mistakes, that you can get. Every time you make a mistake, you hear a squelching sound, many times followed by your nurse yelling at you to pay better attention to what you’re doing. Of course, as you’re rushing trying to save your patient’s life, she doesn’t lift a finger to actually help you. She’s just there to scold you when you mess up. If you thought Navi from Ocarina Of Time was annoying, she doesn’t have anything on Nurse Angie from Trauma Center. You literally want to reach through the screen, tape her mouth shut, and toss her out of your operating room.

PREPARE FOR SURGERY!!!

PREPARE FOR SURGERY!!!

While I understand that this is Atlus’ first Trauma Center game, and really the first game of its kind on a system with a touch screen like the Nintendo DS, it doesn’t excuse the flaws. The flaws are there and they only become more glaring the more the game ages. Trauma Center: Second Opinion on Wii is pretty much the same game, but with a more polished presentation and Wii-mote controls that don’t suffer from the inconsistency that the DS version of the game has. If you have a choice of which version to go with, I would say definitely go with the Wii version. The control issues I talked about are pretty much non-existent and feel more polished; not to mention that most of the other issues with Under The Knife have been remedied in the Wii game. However, the downside is that you don’t get the portablilty with the Wii version that you get with the handheld version.

What kept me going in Trauma Center is that I’ve never played a game like this, and I could see what it was trying to do, but was being hampered by some bad execution and design choices. Your mileage may vary–every gamer is different and you may be able to overlook these flaws easier than I was able to. I credit Atlus, who normally makes RPGs, for trying something new and innovative, and I’m glad they stuck with it in several Trauma Center sequels, but this original game was really tough for me to swallow at times, in spite of its originality and innovative spirit. If I had reviewed this game back in 2005 when it first came out, I probably would have been more forgiving of the game’s flaws since it was such a breath of fresh air of creativity on a new system with a technology not seen in a game system before. After 10 years and several more polished entries in the series, I’m not feeling very forgiving after the frustration this game put me through at times. There’s a lot to like with Under The Knife, but I had to wade through too much clunkiness and bad design choices to enjoy it as much as I wanted to.

6.5/10 OKAY

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In recent years, with the rising popularity of casual and Facebook gaming, it’s become the trend to merge different genres with the RPG.  Bejeweled and Puzzle Quest merged the puzzle game genre with the RPG (or elements of it). Farmville and Cityville on Facebook do something similar, merging farm building and city building with one of the oldest gameplay mechanics in gaming: leveling up.  And it works brilliantly.  However, in 1999, developer Camelot beat them to the punch by merging the RPG with the sports game genre.  Namely, golf and tennis on the Game Boy Color.  And in their first sequel to those games, Camelot may have perfected the formula.

In 2004, Camelot released Mario Golf: Advance Tour on the Game Boy Advance. If you’re familiar with Camelot at all, you may know them for their work on the Golden Sun and Shining Force series.  They are probably best known for their work with Nintendo on the Mario Golf and Mario Tennis series though, and Advance Tour is probably the best example why.

While Advance Tour is a golf-RPG, it is light on story and heavy on actual golfing, so don’t go into it expecting some kind of Final Fantasy adventure merged with golf.  Expect a Mario-themed golf game that is deep and encyclopedic in its knowledge of the game (in fact, there’s an actual golf glossary built into the game for you to reference golf terms you may not be familiar with).  As well, don’t assume that because it has Mario and the gang in it, that it’s catering strictly to a younger audience or that this is a dumbed-down game of golf.  It is not by any stretch.  Advance Tour is as good and deep of a golf game as you’ll most likely be able to find on any system, handheld or otherwise.

A relaxing game of golf in the Mushroom Kingdom. Thankfully, none of the piranha plants are deadly.

There are two basic modes: Story and Quick Game.  Quick Game is just that, for when you want to quickly jump into a game.  And Story mode is the actual full RPG part of the game where you rise through the ranks to try and become the golfing grandmaster of the Mushroom Kingdom and beyond, defeating your rivals while gaining experience points with every victory.  While Story mode is where the meat of the game is, you can also gain XP in Quick Game mode as well.  In fact, you may find yourself spending as much time in Quick Game as you do in Story if you want to max out both your character’s (you and your doubles partner) XP and do everything in the game.  And believe you me, there is plenty to do.

There are a variety of different types of golf you can play.  Of course, there’s the standard game of golf where you can do Match Play or play a full tourney with either singles or doubles.  In Quick Game mode, you can pick who you want to play against in Match Play and the game will keep track of which opponents you’ve beaten.  In fact, the game will keep track of just about everything you do during your play time and how well you do it.  Detailed stats are kept of all your golfing endeavors and accomplishments.  Other types of golf challenges will have you hitting balls through star gates (go-go gates), speed golfing, golfing with clubs chosen from a slot machine, golfing entire courses with one club, defeating custom-made courses made by a cocky elf who berates you for every failure, and others.  The variety is good and helps the game not get monotonous.  Plus, every course has a ‘star-course’ version that adds Mushroom Kingdom touches like warp pipes that you can hit your ball into, chain chomps that will eat your ball if you get too close, giant stars you can hit your ball through to change the elements or give you extra power or XP, and giant mushrooms that will bounce your ball in an undesired (or desired if you’re really good) direction.  Every playable character also has a ‘star-version’ with boosted stats that you can play against in Match Play as well.

The gameplay could be described as ‘easy to learn, hard to master’.  The actual golfing is measured by a bar at the bottom of the screen, with lines on the bar to measure power and accuracy.  After lining up your shot on the map screen, it’s simply a matter of lining up your shot on the bar to get the desired power and accuracy that you want that determines where the ball will go.  You get a variety of clubs and woods to choose from just like in real golf that can help make or break a shot.  Accomplishing certain challenges in the game on various courses will earn you a ticket to upgrade your clubs which can make a big difference in your golf game.  Weather plays a big part as well as you will oftentimes be having to compensate for wind that can be blowing in any direction, sometimes blowing upwards of 20 mph.  You also can control what part of the ball you want your club to strike the ball by using the d-pad to hook or draw your shot, giving you another layer of strategy and options in your game.  And lastly, you can put spin on your shot, using forespin by hitting AA or AB (AB gets you a lot of spin), or BB or BA for backspin (BA gets you a lot of backspin) that can get you that few extra feet after your shot lands.  You have to use spin with discretion though, because too much spin on a nicely placed shot might put you farther from the hole.  In all, the golfing mechanic in Advance Tour has a nice balance of strategy and skill that determines what kind of golfer you’ll be.

That would be a go-go gate. I have no idea why they just didn’t call it a star gate.

As well, if you have a GameCube (or Wii), a copy of Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour, and a GBA/GCN link cable, you can play your leveled-up characters in Toadstool Tour and earn even more XP that you can then transfer back to Advance Tour.  It’s a nice feature which I hope Nintendo expands upon in future installments of the series.  It almost makes Toadstool Tour feel like an expansion of Advance Tour.  Crushing a long drive with your leveled-up characters on the Toadstool Tour courses feels very satisfying.  Or if you just have a link cable and two GBAs, you can link up for some multiplayer.  Or if you only have one Game Boy and no link cable and are really desperate for some multi-player, up to four people can pass around a Game Boy and take turns.  It’s not the ideal way to play, but this game came out in 2004 when Nintendo was still sticking their fingers in their ears whenever anyone mentioned anything about their games being online.  Plus, the GBA just didn’t have the capability.  You’ll spend the vast majority of your time in the single-player mode with this one.

The games visuals are not a ‘mixed bag’.  They’re what you’d expect if you’ve played either of the Golden Sun games on GBA.  In essence, Advance Tour is one of the prettiest GBA games out there.  Everything is colorful and vibrant and animated.  Yes, you do get the trademark Camelot emoticons above character’s heads when they’re having conversations, which is either a positive or a negative depending on how much this annoyed you if you played the Golden Sun games.  Personally, I always found it kind of charming, but I know a lot of gamers didn’t.  So your mileage may vary with that.  There is some slowdown in the framerate when your computer opponent is charting their shot, but since you’re not actually playing at the time, it doesn’t affect gameplay in any way.  Also, on the map screen, on a few occasions, I had a hard time seeing where my shot was landing on the course because of the angle of the map (which you can’t rotate) and because the numbers telling me how long my shot was were in the way.  This only happened a few times when I was trying to pull off a precision drive in a very specific part of the hole though.  A minor annoyance, but worth mentioning.

Level-up! You’re going to be doing a lot of this.

Musically, Advance Tour has a lot of what I would call synth-driven, Mushroom Kingdom-style rock.  Basically, if the band Rush were to do a concept album about the Mushroom Kingdom, I think it wouldn’t sound too dissimilar from what is in Advance Tour.  Lots of synth and drums.  If you have no clue who Rush is and have no inkling to find out, let’s just say the music is good and completely appropriate for the activity and setting of the game.  But if you completely hate it, you can turn it off in the options menu.  Sound design is sharp as well.  The sound of your clubs hitting the ball on a massive drive is spot-on, followed by lots of ‘Nice Shot!’ encouragement from the game as the ball hurtles hundreds of yards through the air to its destination.  Characters speak in classic Camelot garble-speak which, again, may be a positive or negative depending on your taste in Camelot’s style with that stuff.  And then you have all the classic Mushroom Kingdom sound-effects with warp pipes, chain chomps, giant bombs, etc. which never misses a beat.  All very appropriate for a Mario game.  Good stuff here.

If you’re looking for a handheld golf game, look no further.  Not only is Advance Tour one of the best golf games out there, it’s probably one of the best handheld games I’ve played, period.  It’s that good.  Nintendo gets criticized for releasing too many Mario spin-offs and milking the IP, but when they’re this good, I say bring them on.  I can’t wait to play the 3DS installment.  Advance Tour is fantastic.  Buy this game.

9.8/10-EXCELLENT