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February 22, 2012

Trauma Team: Gonna Be Here

I’ve made a lot of mistakes when it comes to gaming.  I chose Final Fantasy XIII -- a game where you run down hallways and mash the A button to win battles -- over Resonance of Fate -- a game where you somersault through the air and hammer enemies with gunfire while dashing about.  I never got into PC gaming, and because of it my experience with Half-Life and Team Fortress is incomplete at best.  I willingly rented Superman 64.  But in the summer of 2010, hot off the heels of a brutal spring semester, I knew I had to make the right decision.  I had to make a stand.  So I pooled my money together and headed to GameStop with by brother.

I bought Trauma Team for the Wii.  And I haven’t regretted that decision one bit.

Until that point, I’d only played one game in the Trauma Center franchise -- that game being the original Trauma Center for the DS.  It had gotten solid review scores across the board, and at the time I was starved for a DS game that didn’t have Ping Pals in its name.  I got it one Christmas, and it succeeded my expectations; I still remember how I almost shouted “What the hell?!” when I first encountered the GUILT tearing through Linda Reid’s lungs, and how I stopped time in order to exorcise Savato.  The game wasn’t perfect, of course (I only got the magnify tool to work 20% of the time), but I enjoyed it.  Yet I never picked up any of the sequels.  Not Under the Knife 2, not Second Opinion, not New Blood…why, I can’t begin to wonder.  They just slipped off my radar, I guess.

But when I heard about Trauma Team, I knew I had to fix that.  A new cast, unhindered by the canon I’d missed out on; realistic operations, and a refusal to get bogged down by the silly trappings of GUILT (demon heart spiders!); Wii remote action, offering me a chance to put those motion controls to good use.  And multiplayer to boot?  I was in, regardless of what reviewers said.  (Though I did feel a bit of satisfaction when the positive numbers started coming in.)

Imagine my surprise when I find out that the realism that was so touted beforehand was, for lack of a better word, BS.  Sure, you weren’t shooting parasites with a laser, but in exchange the playable characters were a red-eyed genius doctor/criminal who starts in an iron mask, a ninja girl who can teleport and swing a naginata like she’s a Last Blade mid-boss, and a super-strong, super-durable orthopedic surgeon who can use his body as an electrical conduit and moonlights as a superhero.  One wonders if this is what House would be like if it was handled by an anime studio.

But those were broken promises I learned to deal with.  The gameplay brought me back to my days of virus-busting on the DS, and the sense of satisfaction that came from knowing you were literally tearing it up in a patient’s body with style and grace.    And the Wii’s boosted power only made the proceedings more potent.  Hearing assistants gasp in awe as you A-ranked a surgery; listening to the upgrading music as you built up a chain bonus in Orthopedics; knowing that you could handle three, four, even five bodies at once in First Response -- and do so without losing a single life.  You were four distinct, yet equally skilled doctors all rolled into one.  And if that wasn’t good enough for you, there were still two other modes that practically turned you into Phoenix Wright -- one for diagnostics, to find out what ailed a patient before going under, and one for crime scene investigation (which, in a total display or realism, allowed you to listen to the dead).  It was the most satisfying and substantial game I’d played in a while.  It would have taken me about five back-to-back playthroughs of Gears of War 3 to match what Trauma Team offered in terms of replay value (multiplayer aside), and even then it would never match the style and substance.  Ignoring the fact that Trauma Team was colorful, had a diverse soundtrack, a multitude of characters, a much more palatable tone and more, it was just more substantial.  More complete.  More satisfying.  Opinions may vary, of course, but if you asked me to choose between a triple-A title and another Atlus budget release, I think it’s obvious what I’d choose.  Hint: it’s the one without Marcus Fenix’s guttural screaming.  I know that doesn’t narrow it down too much, but I hope that pushes you in the right direction.

And then came the game’s final scenario.

After much teasing throughout the six characters’ scenarios (including ghosts -- realism!), the story comes to a head as a deadly illness takes root.  The quarantine is formed, people die out in droves, and you see the frightened townsfolk gathering outside your hospital HQ.  Memories are returned, threads are connected, breakthroughs in medical science are made, and horrible secrets are revealed.  Make no mistake, I’m not saying that the final scenario is bad; it takes the elements of the other six scenarios -- uncovering the truth, finding one’s passion, serving justice Asklepios-style, connecting with your patients -- and hyper-charges them.  The lessons learned in character arcs get put to the test; Maria’s desire to be a hero puts her right in the middle of the action, trying to save patients afflicted by the young epidemic in spite of not having a cure (and she goes on to lend her aid -- a lesson she learned the hard way in her scenario -- to Naomi on a recon trip).  The convicted CR-S01 puts the pieces of his past together to find the clues they need, and cast would-be villain Albert Sarte as a good man who merely opened Pandora’s Box.  But I have to give the highest acclaim to Gabe Cunningham’s part of the scenario -- one of the most emotional moments I’ve ever seen in a video game. 

During the scenario, Gabe gets taken to a government facility, where he’s allowed to take an in-depth look at one of the latest victims: a young military officer named Samuel Trumbull.  As a doctor -- one who helped a government bigwig earlier in the game -- he’s proven himself to have the analytic mind needed to get to the bottom of the mystery.  But at the same time, Gabe’s changed; once a man prone to sarcasm and professionalism, he’s started to branch out thanks to a grim diagnosis of his estranged son.  In other words, he starts to form an attachment to Samuel, most notably because the young soldier just became a father.  But as fate is wont to do, disaster strikes; over the course of Gabe’s testing (and your gameplay), Samuel gets worse and worse.  One of his arms swell.  He’s afflicted with jaundice.  Gabe can move from one room to another, just to run a few scans -- and when he comes back, he’s gotten even worse. 

And then you get to a certain point of the diagnosis -- a point when you realize that this illness, and this game, is not messing around anymore.  He’s coughing up blood.  He’s struggling to breathe, and even speak.  His eyes are practically bloodstained slabs of charcoal.  Gabe is frantic, and rendered speechless; the music shifts to one of the most foreboding tracks in the game; reminiscent of my first encounter with GUILT all those years ago, but far more chilling and mysterious.  In fact, my response was the same as Gabe’s: “What the hell?”  It all culminates in one of the most gut-wrenching moments I’ve ever had to play through: Samuel knows full well that he won’t be making it out alive, and is resigned to his fate.  But Gabe refuses to give up; with newfound passion for his craft, he (or rather, the player) uses the dialogue on-screen to give him a reason to live on.  Somehow, Gabe pulls it off, and gives him the strength he needs to soldier on.  Except he doesn’t.  It’s implied that Samuel died in a later conversation.

So what was the point?  A life might have been lost, but the team gained something just as valuable.  Not just evidence.  Not just materials.  Not just data, or lab scans, or surgical tools.  What Gabe gained -- what the team gained -- what YOU gained -- is a reason to see the fight through to the end.  It’s not just to say “I beat this game” or to add a few points to your Gamerscore, or to unlock a new skin for multiplayer; by the time you reach Trauma Team’s final levels, you’re in it for the long haul.

And what a haul.  All six team members come together, lending their skills to put a stop to the madness.  Operating on a cat to find a clue; taking on the virus as it affects the people in town; heading to a remote retreat to find the missing piece of the puzzle, and the reason for the virus’ spread (an answer that’s been in front of you the whole time); creating a weapon that can fight against it, and administering it en masse.  These characters -- main and victims alike -- may just be drawings with voices attached, but like any good story they draw out more of an emotional response than half the games this generation.  And just when you think it’s over, one of your won gets infected by the virus…only to have it mutate into a super-virus.  The surgery that ensues puts your skills, patience, and steady hands to the test -- and when I say that it has a heart-stopping finale, I mean it.

Now, you may be wondering what this all has to do with the ending.  Nothing more than gushing about one of my favorite games, you chide; take your fanboyism somewhere else, you scold.  Fair enough.  But the ending brings all the game’s ideas and themes together into one cohesive, satisfying package.  When you see the good you’ve done…when you’ve seen the tears of joy you’ve drawn out of souls that have lost all their hope…when you’ve brought people together, knowing that they’ll live to see brighter days together…you know that Gabe’s last words -- the game’s final, parting words -- ring true.

“Your heroism places us all in your debt.  You truly are the 7th member of the trauma team.”

We live in an interesting time, us gamers.  It’s easy to grow jaded and cynical -- to think that games are just getting louder, and dumber, and shorter.  It’s easy to think that there’s nothing special left; it’s all about money, or there’s no story left to be told.  But every once in a while, there are games like Trauma Team that, with a few choice words, reminds us of just what it means to be a gamer.  To experience and live lives that we never would have thought possible -- to know that what we’ve done made some small difference.  To put a smile on someone’s face, be it a virtual one, or even our own.  To know that one way or another, we have what it takes to be heroes.

If VGChartz is to be believed, then Trauma Team sold about a hundred thousand copies in the U.S.  There are times when I wish that its numbers were ten times that, so that more people could have experienced the action, the comedy, and the drama within.  But as it stands, I can’t complain.  I’m happy, in fact; not everybody played it, but those that did know that they, too, are members of the team.  They got to play through something special, all the way to that heartwarming ending.

"The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.”  A quote from novelist Don Williams Jr.  Truer words have never been spoken.

You should probably go play the game, is what I’m trying to say here.  Go track it down.  I'm not going anywhere.

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