I love it when a medical game offers you the warning that 'the surgeries preformed in the game are different from ones performed in real life and should not be attempted at home.' To me, it means that the game is so realistic as to merge reality with the gaming world, or, it means that the game is trying to set the bar high and ends up falling far short. Unfortunately, Lifesigns: Surgical Unit for Nintendo DS is the former, not the latter.
In Lifesigns, you play as the industrious Dr. Tendo, a second year medical intern who is terrible with the ladies. As patients come into the hospital, Tendo must diagnose and treat each one, with occasional advice from his colleagues. Each patient has a different personality and Tendo must find a way to connect with each before heading to the operating room.
Though the title suggests there will be surgeries aplenty, the game is surprisingly talkative. Before even touching the patient, Tendo will have to criss-cross the hospital speaking to everyone he happens to come across. The game does make it simple to locate people, by showing which locations have characters waiting to be spoken to. Conducting conversation is easy: the player must reference a clipboard full of 'notes' taken by Tendo, which are stored as icons at the top of the screen. Simply drag the relevant icon onto the screen and the person you are speaking to will babble on about that subject. This creates a virtually foolproof system of communication. If you become stuck, you can just utilize every icon in your possession until something happens.
I say virtually foolproof because the game seems to, on occasion, ignore the rules it created. Sometimes, none of the icons will work because you haven't yet been to a specific location or spoken to a specific person. I managed to get stuck for an hour because I hadn't visited the deserted courtyard for a moment of silent observation. This painfully annoying standstill happens way too often for this kind of text-based game.
Though the characters can be amusing on occasion, the game is seriously lacking in actual gameplay. Diagnosing a patient falls somewhere between frustrating and throw-the-DS-through-a-wall infuriating. Using touch, sight and your stethoscope, you must find a pre-determined number of problems with each patient. While it seems simple in concept, there are times when I spent hours trying to find the last issue, only to have it be nearly impossible to find. A tap on the wrist with the stylus, instead of a harder palpation to check for pulse. Visually inspecting a minute part of the face instead of running your eye all over the patient's head. It becomes so precise you wonder if you should be playing Where's Waldo instead.
Once you make it through the diagnosing stage and a half-hour more dialogue, you finally get to the operating room. Don't get excited folks, there isn't much to see or do. Before each step, you are handed the correct tool and are told exactly what to do. There's no possible way to mess it up. They even include a "concentrate" option, where you hold down the L and R buttons to see exactly where to cut, drill, slice or stitch. Again, it is simple in concept, but the game is maddeningly picky in how you execute certain procedures.
To insert a drain or remove a foreign object, you must move it with your stylus. Go too fast, you hurt the patient. Go too slow, you hurt the patient. Go right in the middle, you'll sometimes hurt the patient. There seems to be no set standard for not hurting the patient. The game works against you, and it isn't playing fair.
Visually, the game looks like any other anime, with no actual animations. The characters don't really move, simply go from one facial animation to a drastically different one. It seems like the majority of the game's developing time was spent on the storyline, which normally involves Tendo being awkward with girls or Tendo being angsty with his father. So exciting.
There are occasions where Tendo will spend time outside the hospital. Mid-way through the game, he takes a vacation with his little sister. During this time, Tendo is awkward with girls and is angsty with his father. Such a diverse storyline. Though the change of visual scenery is nice, it's not at all different from the time spent in the hospital, and is just an effort to introduce more characters that you never see again.
I'll admit, there are a few amusing mini-games, and feeling up your patients during diagnosis can be fun (oh come on, you were thinking it). The typically anime characters are great for a laugh, and you occasionally learn a medical term or two with which to impress your girlfriend, but overall, playing LifeSigns is like being operated on by a chimpanzee without anesthetic. Twice.