Lifesigns: Surgical Unit


Review by · September 29, 2008

I can describe Lifesigns: Surgical Unit in five words: Phoenix Wright in a hospital. Transforming Phoenix Wright into Lifesigns: Surgical Unit only requires a few simple steps. Replace Phoenix Wright with Dr. Tendo. Replace gathering evidence with diagnosing patients. Replace interviewing witnesses and examining crime scenes with conferring with hospital staff, tending to patients, and generally walking around the hospital following peoples’ dramas. Replace the courtroom with the operating room. The final step would be to change the game’s name to Tendo Dokuta- Ace Physician. And there you have it. As with any good visual novel, there is fun dialogue, interesting characters, and involved storylines. As with Trauma Center, a game Lifesigns is often compared to, there are interactive surgeries to perform, but the majority of the game involves actively following the interpersonal dramas of hospital staff and patients leading the game to feel like an anime version of television shows such as Grey’s Anatomy, House M.D., or Scrubs.

You play the role of the amiable Dr. Tendo, a second-year intern at a top hospital in Japan. As mentioned in the instruction manual’s backstory, Dr. Tendo had a rough time last year. It should be noted that Lifesigns: Surgical Unit is actually the second game in the Kenshuui Tendo Dokuta series and the only one released outside of Japan with Dr. Tendo’s previous year chronicled in the first game. But I digress. Although Dr. Tendo is more confident now, he still has a strained relationship with the hospital’s headmaster, Professor Sawai. In addition, patients don’t always take him seriously because his youthful, boyish looks make him appear unreliable to them. Speaking of patients, Dr. Tendo tends to a colorful variety of them, such as the Happosai-esque Heikichi “Quick Hands,” a sprightly elderly cancer patient with a penchant for pinching the pert posteriors of the pretty women. The hospital staff is colorful as well and represents a variety of character types. Brilliant but eccentric surgeons, a frazzled new intern, a disgruntled anesthesiologist, and a head nurse with an ear for gossip are among the characters Dr. Tendo will interact with in the game. The dialogue is solid, but sometimes the English phrasing is slightly awkward. In addition, there are a few instances where lines of dialogue are attributed to the wrong person. For example, Dr. Tendo may be talking to a patient and a line of dialogue that should be said by Dr. Tendo may have the patient’s name preceding the line. It is easy to figure out what’s going on based on context, but these kinds of editing mistakes should not be in conversation-intensive games such as RPGs and graphic adventures.

The game has four stories to follow and a fifth one that opens up after successful completion of the first four. The first story starts out seemingly routine with a young woman coming in for appendicitis, but soon becomes a hairy drama involving her younger brother’s gang involvement. The second story has Tendo protecting the privacy of a famous male pop star while also tending to other patients with unorthodox concerns. The third and fourth stories take place away from the hospital on an island resort. Tendo has some time off and spends a week’s vacation with his half-sister Hikaru. The two make friends with a local family on the island and aim to enjoy the tropical scenery and local lore. Of course, there’s really no vacation for a doctor, especially since the populations of venomous snakes and poisonous jellyfish have been inexplicably increasing. Oh, and since construction is underway for the island’s annual festival, there are plenty of mishaps waiting to happen. And, yes, drama surrounds the aforementioned local family, and Dr. Tendo finds himself in the thick of it. Depending on your actions during key moments, each storyline yields one of multiple endings, either good or bad. The good endings are what players will want to strive for, but the game will continue even if you reach a bad ending. And believe me, the good endings are much tougher to get than any of the bad endings.

A healthy portion of the game is spent clicking on various locations within the hospital and talking to various people to move the story forward. As Dr. Tendo learns more about people, places and events, he may have to bring up these facts during future conversations. Key portions of the game require Dr. Tendo to use gathered items or facts from prior conversations to successfully convince characters toward certain actions. Oftentimes, failure to convince them will close out the good endings. Luckily, the game can be saved at any time, and the game always prompts players to save right before a surgery. There is only one save slot, and I wished there were more so I could go back to various points in the game to see the other endings.

When the storyline has a new patient come in, Dr. Tendo has to interactively diagnose them using a stethoscope, palpation, and observation. All this is done with the stylus, and when it’s time for surgery, there’s plenty more stylus activity to do. Dr. Tendo will engage in a variety of surgeries such as a routine appendictomy to more complex ones such as delicate brain surgery. Some actions such as slicing and suturing are easy enough, but actions involving precise stylus movement can be tricky. Some examples of these precise actions include sliding a guidewire through a hollow needle (it gets stuck easily) or guiding a catheter through a blood vessel. If this doesn’t make it tense enough, Dr. Tendo is under a time limit to successfully perform a surgery and any mistakes will reduce the patient’s life bar. Running out of time and/or killing the patient naturally result in a game over. There are also a few mini-games throughout, such as helping a man gather up the fruit that’s falling out of his truck, playing air hockey, or even fishing. The game is far more forgiving than the more finicky Trauma Center, but it certainly wasn’t a cakewalk for me since I can be clumsy with the stylus.

The graphics are not amazing, but are clean, crisp, and a definite step above those of other visual novels. Where most visual novels feature static character portraits atop still backdrops, the characters here animate during conversations. Their mouths, eyes, heads, arms, and bodies actually move. Character designs are in a more realistic anime style than an over-the-top one, meaning there are no characters with neon-colored, gravity-defying hair. However, some characters do dress in fancier outfits than others. The best graphics are reserved for the surgery sequences. There is some blood and guts, and although these visuals do not look super realistic, the game is not for those who are ultra squeamish. On the other hand, the static Grandia-style point-and-click overland showing the various locations that Dr. Tendo can visit looks rather plain.

The synthesized music is generally innocuous, reasonably melodic, and mostly serves to accent the scene or event. The title track is solid, though. Sound effects do not sound realistic, but do sound appropriate. To give two examples, manual scalpels sound appropriately “slicey” and electric scalpels sound appropriately “sizzly”. There is no voice acting in the game; only conversational sound effects of different pitches depending on who’s speaking.

The Nintendo DS has proven itself a great platform for visual novels and Lifesigns: Surgical Unit is another solid choice. I liked this game because it wasn’t just cutscene, then surgery; I actually had to spend time guiding Dr. Tendo through his daily life, talking to people, and guiding conversations toward plot points. If you want a sim style game that focuses primarily on interactive surgeries and would be just as meaty a game without the cutscenes, then check out Trauma Center. However, if you want a Phoenix Wright style visual novel that’s set in a hospital where surgeries are there to accent the character interaction, then definitely check out Lifesigns: Surgical Unit.

Overall Score 83
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Neal Chandran

Neal Chandran

Neal is the PR manager at RPGFan but also finds time to write occasional game or music reviews and do other assorted tasks for the site. When he isn't networking with industry folks on behalf of RPGFan or booking/scheduling appointments for press events, Neal is an educator, musician, cyclist, gym rat, and bookworm who has also dabbled in voiceover work and motivational speaking.