Thankfully not a tie-in to a certain 90’s TV show starring he-who-shall-not-be-named, Animal Hospital is far cuter than that. It’s the opportunity to see what it’s like to be a veterinarian, just without the eight years of medical schooling that comes before it.
Animal Hospital has a truly weird story that excuses all the vetting. You have inherited an animal clinic from your now deceased grandmother. You’re a qualified vet, so that’s not the bizarre bit. What’s strange is that, as the story develops, it’s clear that you might have made an assumption: you were sent the key to the clinic by someone other than your grandmother. And that person is leaving sparkles in the rooms, and may or may not be human…
Honestly, the stacking ludicrousness was one of the reasons we kept playing Animal Hospital (although it frustratingly dripfeeds the story to you, with one particular git refusing to reveal tidbits). Finding out more about grandma was just too juicy.
It is, of course, an excuse to start pushing thermometers into bottoms. Animal Hospital has a dead-simple structure: the game is split into days, and ill animals turn up on each of those days. The bell rings, which is an indication that you should travel to the lobby and meet your next patient.
Animal Hospital is wonderfully eccentric about this step. Animals turn up on their own, sidling up to the desk and asking for your help. They’re not just pups and kittens either. Soon, you will be drowning in ocelots, tamarins and llamas. This is far from a real-world simulation, and we’re all for it.
They very politely wait one-at-a-time. Accept them, and you will be immediately whisked to a ward. Animal Hospital is very good at cutting out the makework: there’s very little travelling from place to place, even though there is a full hospital to explore. It will teleport you with a wave of its wand.
Each animal has its problem to discern and solve. This take the form of a process: more often than not, the first step is a use of the stethoscope. This automatically reveals the prognosis. Then you are working through a number of treatments, all tied to the disease. Lice will require you to move the animal round so you can see it’s back, then you will use a magnifying glass to spot the lice. Finally, you will apply some lotion and -bang- the lice are gone.
We’ve played a fair few of the Imagine simulations and games like Animal Doctor, which this resembles, but there are some key differences. One is that the actions are shockingly simple. The most complicated thing you get to do is move a slider on a weighing machine until it’s balanced. The vast majority of actions are a tap of the A button or a movement of the analogue stick in a single direction. Even for this brand of My First Simulation, it’s stripped of complications.
There are also virtually no choices to make. You’re not making the diagnosis yourself, nor are you choosing medication from a wealth of options. It’s impossible to fail, and you’re merely following a process. Accessibility for all ages is clearly the mantra here. Animal Hospital’s priority is making sure that no one gets left behind.
The litmus test for that approach is letting kids play. Our eight-year old gave it a go and, after twenty minutes or so, gave up. It was too benignly easy for her. In her words ‘it’s just the same thing over and over’, and she’s not wrong. Because there’s a third surprise in these treatments: while you might be treating dandruff, heart disease or lacerations, the actions and buttons you press for each are all remarkably similar.
The counterpoint is that there’s something soothing about following these processes. They may not be involved or varied, but they are brainless, and that can lead to a trance-like state as you heal alpaca after alpaca. We still find ourselves returning to Animal Hospital to heal a few more fluffy patients, and we really have no excuse other than ‘it’s relaxing’.
We were less taken with the overnight stays. More diseased or traumatised animals will need to stay in one of your wards, and – to earn the big bucks – you will need to ensure they are well catered for. You need to wash, water, treat, feed and cuddle them to get full-stars, and that needs to be done on a per animal basis. When you have four wards at the end of the game, it’s a bit of a chore. Not that we didn’t want to help a sad-eyed sloth: it just got boring after the fourth one every day.
There are some odd quirks to these overnight stays that could do with ironing out in future patch notes. If an animal moves into a ward that previously housed another animal, then they will also be served their food. You can’t get rid of the food, so a lemur is left with dog food in their tray, for example, when a poodle was in there before. You get one star for feeding the animal well, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Missions wake you up occasionally, asking you to engage with the game’s extremely limited customisation systems (hotspots let you drop down bookcases and rugs). These missions level you up, unlocking more rooms and patients. Soon, you will be performing x-rays and ultrasounds on increasingly outlandish animals. We’re not sure where the hospital is situated if sloths and ponies are just as likely to turn up for a thorn-pull.
These additional systems don’t amount to much. It’s possible to explore the grounds to find coins and parcels of drugs (oh great, we found some antibiotics behind the hyacinths!), but it takes too long and isn’t rewarding enough to make it worthwhile. The customisation is purely cosmetic, and the missions keep a tight handle on what you can or can’t unlock. So, it’s all about that patient treadmill. Get on and keep healing.
We’re conflicted about Animal Hospital. We’d say that our daughter was the core demographic, but she bailed on it almost immediately. It’s too timid, afraid that the younger players will hit a wall and bounce out, removing any obstructions whatsoever. The result means a lack of variety, strategy or interest. It’s almost inexcusable that a wolf with heart disease is treated near identically to a kitten with dandruff.
We’re conflicted because we keep playing the thing. Even with its flaws and timidness, we find it cosy. We put it on occasionally, dealing with the queues of animals, looking to beat those NHS waiting times. Perhaps we were just glued to where the idiosyncratic story went next.
Treat it as a warning: if you’re looking for a deep simulation, or something that will keep budding vets glued to a pad then Animal Hospital won’t satisfy. But if you’re the kind of player who gets lost in easy routines, wiling away hours on simple processes, then there’s something inexplicably addictive to Animal Hospital. Perhaps we’re the ones who need treatment.