A few hours in
Yeah, turns out I called it pretty much entirely. I’ve played through just about 50% of Heart’s Medicine at this point — 29 of the 60 available levels at time of writing — and it hasn’t significantly moved away from the entire last page. The main narrative attraction is doctor-driven drama cutscenes; the main ludic attraction is an often-changing, never-quite-evolving set of dexterity-based minigames. And some mild medium-term planning. And guinea pigs to hunt.
If you’ve ever watched any medical drama serial for more than three episodes, you probably have a good idea of the kind of story Heart’s Medicine has to offer. These nurses are (secretly) in love. This doctor has a strained relationship with his adoptive father. A sudden struggling patient evokes traumatic childhood memories in the resident medical student. The hospital manager has to juggle medical and financial responsibilities. And also has a strained relationship with his father, why not. I could go on, but I’m worried that if I keep random-generating storyline examples, at some point some of them are going to end up true. There’s not… a whole lot of possibility space here.
And once you’ve played one or two levels of Heart’s Medicine‘s gameplay core, you’ve pretty much seen it all. Every level is a collection of minigames, tied together in a time-limited planning challenge. Patients slowly trickle in, and it’s up to Allison (who is you) to assign everyone to the right treatment station, collect the right ingredients, do the minigames correctly, and ensure that everyone is invited, helped, and checked out correctly and quickly.
This puts me in the unenviable position of not having a great deal to talk about.
Sure, I’m underselling the gameplay by some degrees. When I say that Heart’s Medicine‘s ludic component is ‘a collection of minigames’, I don’t necessarily say that to dismiss. It’s minigames all the way down, sure, but that doesn’t mean that Heart’s Medicine‘s is trivial or easy. The minigames themselves can be pretty demanding dexterity-wise: stuff like hooking the right cable up to the right machine, or picking out the right medicine from a row of identical-looking boxes, is sometimes legitimately challenging. And while not all patients actually ask for minigames, even the act of assigning patients to treatment stations and making sure you have everything is place can be taxing on the ol’ hand-eye coordination. Particularly in the later levels in each ‘room’, patients tend to come hard and fast, and there are many moving parts to keep into account.
I actually quite enjoyed being good at Heart’s Medicine. It’s partially a ludic trick: I’m pretty sure that being bad at Heart’s Medicine‘s requires almost willful devotion to failure. But fully completing every level… The core success metric is stars, of which each level has three: these are handed out based on how many patients you helped, and how accurately and quickly you did so. That can be tricky enough in its own right, but every level also has an associated optional ‘challenge’. These can range from ‘don’t walk more than 800 steps during this shift’, to ‘spend enough shift time preparing meals’, to ‘check out at least two patients who are down to three hearts or less’. I think it’s probably possible to redo levels with different focuses — once to get the stars and once to get the challenge — but obviously it’s much more engaging and interesting to do both at once. And if you do, Heart’s Medicine can — at times — involve a lot of mental effort as well as quick fingers.
I also appreciate how the minigames evolve within rooms, and change across them. Certain parts of the Heart’s Medicine experience are constant: patients always walk in and sit on a chair, there are generally two or three treatment stations (at first), and participants either need you to carry an item to help them, play a minigame, or just spend some in-game time. But the games and challenges themselves are thematically appropriate to the room you’re in — grabbing medicine in the pharmacy, or removing glass shards in the emergency room. And over time, in each room, new games, items, and treatment stations are introduced. It’s fairly trivial at first to be prepared and focused on everything, but later rooms often ask for quick reflexes just to figure out which patient you want where and what order you want to treat them in.
There’s even two meta-game elements to encourage doing well — you nominally only need one out of three stars to pass each level, but come on. Come on. The aforementioned diamonds are used to buy entirely optional decorations for the entirely optional new hospital wing, which… does nothing? I think? As far as I can tell. And every level also awards you with money, which I think is based on the number of patient stars you gain (i.e. how well you treat everyone). The money can be used between shifts to upgrade parts of your room: a better chair means patients lose hearts slower while waiting, better fans make Allison walk faster, a fancy TV makes eye exams take less time, and so on. They’re never game-breaking, or even particularly noticeable, but I like the mechanic from a Skinner Box-point of view. And since your money supply is constant across rooms, it actually poses a neat little adaptive difficulty mechanic: you can redo old levels to get more cash, letting you upgrade more and lower the challenge, or you can power through the later levels in a room to save cash for the next room, letting you get a head start on that one. I appreciate any game that lets me feel like I’m cheating the system by being skilled, no matter how big of a lie that feeling might actually be.
Oh, and you can also catch one guinea pig per level, like I hinted at. It’s like a little time-driven hidden object game wrapped into your hospital drama. This also does nothing, as far as I’m aware, save function as input for one of the unlockable achievements.
And that’s it, mechanically. As a ludic experience, this is what Heart’s Medicine purports to be: a collection of timing- and dexterity-based minigames wrapped around a simple resource input-output stream. It works for what it is. I had fun with it, and I might even go back more later if I want to play something simple to unwind. It’s a pretty decent podcast game, for instance, if you turn the sound off. And if you don’t mind missing bits of the story.
As for the story…
It’s… what you’d expect. It’s what I expected. It’s a medical serial. Characters that work at the hospital have hopes and dreams and motivations, they fall in love, they fail and doubt, while all the while an endless stream of faceless patients provides a cheap source of instant drama gravitas. Unless it serves the story better for them not to be faceless, obviously.
There is genuinely nothing of insight I can say about the story. It works? It’s entirely what I expected and what I signed up for: overwrought hospital drama schlock, emotions and situations writ large for comedy and drama situations. And then put through the time-distorted blender of video games writing, meaning that it’s even harder to get a grip on what is happening to whom and what context I should be imagining than it is on TV. The hospital is in some form of perpetual renovation, except when it isn’t. Allison is an intern in different departments because she couldn’t get the surgery internship she wanted, except by the time she’s done three different internships, the guy who got her intended place is still working the O.R.? At one point a major character is discovered to be addicted to amphetamines, at which point the game plays a Trainspotting-esque inspirational cold-turkey drug rehab scene — entirely between two consecutive levels, implying that the character kicked the habit literally overnight.
It’s not a bad story by any stretch, it’s just… not great either. It’s on par for video games writing. I guess my only complaint would be that it stays relatively light at all times: the drug addict kicks the habit easily, the old man recovers and reaffirms his love for his adopted son, the man with the mysterious illness is saved through his daughter’s love. You get the idea. Don’t shows like this usually have some darker turns too? I wonder if Heart’s Medicine is ever willing to go to places like that.
At the end of the day, Heart’s Medicine is nothing more and nothing less than what it signals to be at the beginning: timed dexterity games and mild planning challenges that tie together B-grade medical serial plots. And that’s actually fine! I respect games that know what they want to be. I can’t say I’d immediately recommend Heart’s Medicine to anyone, but I wouldn’t turn anymore away from it either. If you like speedy point-and-click challenges, and/or you like so-bad-it’s-good video game level comedy dramas, Heart’s Medicine might well be worth thirteen Steam dollars. And if you don’t, no skin off anyone’s nose. Decide for yourself if this game strikes your fancy, and then apply or discard accordingly. And call me in the morning.
Jarenth hasn’t been in a hospital for like two decades, so he’s a little unsure if Heart’s Medicine’s portrayal is in any way accurate. Follow him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam to never ever tell any contemporary hospital stories, please, keep those to yourself. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?