In her 2005 book, Born to Buy, sociologist Juliet B. Schor asserts that parents are very likely to honor a child’s request for any educational-related product. The cascade of ‘edutainment’ software for the Nintendo DS and Wii, would seem to support Schor’s claim- nearly every week, a title that purports to have some educational facet, is released on one of these platforms.
Last E3, we veered away from the halls of the Los Angeles Convention Center to visit Legacy Interactive. The company publishes a line of veterinary titles, as well as a myriad of television licenses. The friendly representatives at Legacy demoed Pet Pals: Animal Doctor for the Nintendo Wii for us. After watching a play-through of the game, we were fairly optimistic about the title, which was still in its beta stage. Unlike many of the ‘edutainment’ games that fill store shelves, it appeared to be a title that offered pre-teens an interesting and engaging veterinary simulation. Now, five months later, Pets Pals: Animal Doctor is starting to appear at retail.
For assistance in reviewing a title geared toward the tween set, I employed the services of my ten year old niece. Elizabeth is a consummate gamer, with five years of videogaming experience. Having pored hours into Mario Kart and New Super Mario Bros, she is a skillful player that was very excited at the prospect of evaluating a new game targeted at her demographic. She seemed to enjoy the colorful box-art, and sat quietly as the game loaded.
As players start the game, they are shown a brief cinematic that sets the game’s context. Players are in the role of a lead veterinarian who is responsible for the diagnosis and treatment of 30 different animal cases. Legacy stressed that each of the cases were developed by six veterinary consultants, and range from minor lacerations to tumor removal. After a detailed text-based instruction screen explains Animal Doctor’s controls, players are ushered to the waiting room. Here, players will find a queue of five ailing animals, along with their respective owners. Clicking on any animal brings up a patient chart showing symptoms and any health-related abnormalities. Clicking again will bring the animal onto the examination table, where the core gameplay begins.
Similar to the Trauma Center series, players have a multitude of medical tools that range from a magnifying glass, to a syringe, and a scalpel. The tools are organized in a collapsible menu in the bottom left corner of the screen. Unlike Trauma Center, which opted for a two dimension patient perspective, Animal Doctor requires the vet to work in a full three dimensional space. Players can look around the examination room with the analog stick on the Wii Nunchuck. Additionally, they can move around the room if they hold down the “Z” button on the controller while moving the stick.
While Elizabeth has the hand eye coordination to dismantle a Boom Blox tower, and is a fierce competitor at Wii Tennis, she continually struggled with the Pet Pals controls. Her first patient was a guinea pig; the game suggested she examine the rodent’s anterior with the magnifying glass. Although Elizabeth tried to change the game’s perspective, finding an accessible elevation and angle for the game’s camera was no easy task. Once she did select the proper area on the animal to examine, using the magnifying tool felt rather clunky. In lieu of depicting a realistic abnormality, players must search for a blue spot on the animal that appears only when the analog stick is moved to a specific, rather tiny range. In practice, the blue spot resembles a gameplay glitch as much as it does an external ailment.
Even on the easy setting, the game places an excessively short time limit on the player. Although players can leave the diagnosis and procedure section at any time, they must finish treating the animal in the allotted time. Therefore, play becomes a shallow exercise in memorization instead of teaching the basics of scientific inquiry. After failing to get beyond a few steps with any animal, Elizabeth became frustrated and quit the game.
With nearly thirty years of gaming experience, I was certain I would fare better- I was mistaken. The learning curve is surprising steep for the game; while the controls of each medical tool are unique, that are all relatively cumbersome and unresponsive. When the game told me to apply a stethoscope to a cat’s chest, I tried in vain, before the game’s timer ran out. With practice, I became marginally better with each instrument, as I learned the idiosyncrasies of the game’s controls. I took solace in the game’s four mini-game offerings- a match, jigsaw, trivia, and library game. While I couldn’t save an indisposed feline, I could solve a 5×4 jigsaw puzzle. The painless difficulty of the minigames seems strangely juxtaposed to the insurmountable challenge issued by the core gameplay.
Graphically, the title strives for photorealism, but broadly misses its mark. While most of the game’s animals look acceptable, humans in the game look both crudely modeled and textured. Elizabeth was amused at the loading screen- a frequent occurrence that would show a crazed iguana quickly circling a table. The game’s voice work seemed aimed at a much lower demographic that the gameplay, and is often awkwardly phrased.
Overall, Pet Pals: Animal Doctor is a title that aims to incorporate a substantial amount of medical simulation into the trappings of a Trauma Center-like title. Sadly, it is constrained by inaccessible controls and a game design that favors memorization over the complexities of diagnosis and treatment. If the developers could remove the tumor of clunky controls, Pet Pals may have a chance of living on through a sequel. As it stands, our prognosis puts this game on critical condition.