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ROMper ROOM: Animal magnetism

- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 6, 2008

Pet Vet Healing Hands (THQ for DS, $29.99).

The latest in the Paws & Claws series moves to Nintendo's hand-held system where the player takes control of a new veterinary practice set outside a small town in the expansive countryside.

With barely any instruction, youngsters are tossed into work. They take control of the female doctor and move her around a main building to find the waiting room, where pet owners are already lined up.

As soon as the doctor accepts a case, she is taken to a first-person view of an examination table with a fairly realistic-looking furry friend resting on it. The player examines the patient with five tools, including a hand, magnifying glass and ultrasound scan, using the DS' touch-sensitive screen to discover areas of concern.

A hexagonal shape appears when a problem area on the animal is found and text in the upper DS screen clearly explains the treatment required. Treatment uses more touch-screen manipulation as a menu appears with everything from a neck collar to bandages to tweezers to antiseptic ointment.

My first patient was the feathery budgerigar (parakeet) that had encrustations on its back. A quick inspection determined it had a vitamin A deficiency and the cornification disorder dyskeratosis. I cleaned the area, gave the bird a shot of Vitamin A and charged $102 for my time, a pretty penny that adds up quickly. (Later, I charge $212 for a rabbit's inoculation against miximatosis.)

Seven types of animals are diagnosed, from rabbits to puppies and fawns, with more than two-dozen types of afflictions.

Just like in real life, after you take care of enough animals, the medical supplies run low and it's time to take some cash and pick up more supplies in town. The locale not only offers a pharmacy (load up on the disinfectant and cotton balls), but also a bank to take out loans, a cafe (to learn tips), a marketing company (to set up faux Internet promotions), a feed merchant and a department store.

It's enough to treat the constant barrage of pets, but the game keeps piling on more tiers of activities to keep the player as stressed as a real doctor on her own. Players also must occasionally board animals and take care of them, more like a virtual pet simulation (they feed and play with them and also can say the word "file" into the DS to access their treatment regimen).

The player can purchase decorations for the living quarters, must get sleep (a day is about 30 minutes of game time), eat and can even take a break from the heavy workload by riding a horse (the player purchases all of the equipment and the animal.)

Learning time: Besides the multitiered levels of resource management and the lessons on caring and compassion, players study and take tests to improve their skills and expand the client base. The doctor accesses her office computer to find an encyclopedia offering detailed text entries on all of the animals she can treat. Knowledge culled from these virtual books is then applied to quizzes delivered at the local academy.

The doctor pays her examination fee and takes the test of multiple choice and true/false questions. If she passes the test, her knowledge bar rises and new types of animals are brought to the practice.

Age range: The initial learning curve is steep and the number of multisyllabic symptoms and diseases means pre-tweens and even tweens will need help with reading and some instruction on the flow of action from parents.

Final advice: The player spends many hours building up a practice and I was blown away at the amount of activities and minutia built into the program. Overall, Pet Vet Healing Hands is an excellent game for youngsters to not only appreciate the complexity involved in caring for a business and animals, but the lessons also translate nicely to real life.

Game Bytes

Here's an abbreviated look at some multimedia items for the entire family:

Guitar Hero: On Tour (for DS, Activision, $49.99 with guitar grip) - The premiere guitar-playing simulation has been downsized to Nintendo's premiere hand-held gaming system to help spread tendonitis across the known universe.

It's not really that dangerous, but this portable music mimic strains the wrists and slightly frustrates as it attempts to duplicate the fun of its big brother.

A miniature fret board adorned with four colored buttons fits into the GameBoy cartridge slot of the DS. The player straps his left hand in and uses a stylus pick cleverly stored in the board's base.

Now, holding the DS sideways, he hits the board's buttons and strums along with the cascading note highway on the touch-sensitive DS screen to match the rhythms and leads of two dozen or so songs.

Tunes are varied enough - including "China Grove" from the Doobie Brothers, "All Star" by Smash Mouth and "Rock and Roll All Nite" by Kiss- to please most demographics in the family.

A wireless multiplayer option extends the potential of the miniature ax challenges.

The game also incorporates screaming into the DS' microphone to activate Star Power (a welcomed point multiplier in the standard Guitar Hero) and some other occasional touch-screen tricks (such as signing a T-shirt for a fan) to keep the action interesting.

However, folks with big hands will be really hurting after about 10 minutes of continuous action.

My tips are use headphones for a great-sounding experience and don't get too excited. A couple of my testers had a hard time keeping the board fully attached in the slot, which abruptly ended a song.

Wall*E (for Wii, THQ, $49.99) - A player controls the fates of a pair of lovable robots in a new third-person adventure based on Pixar's latest animated effort currently in theaters.

The game faithfully follows and enhances the movie friendship of Wall*E and Eve while giving the player a chance to do a whole lot of jumping, throwing and collecting. Action mixes controlling either character, or even both at times, through nine levels that take them from the desolate wasteland of Earth to massive starships.

Wall*E can zip around at a good clip, compact various types of trash to throw at enemies or trigger events (open pathways, release ramps, etc.) and can roll up into a cube to protect himself.

His constantly airborne counterpart is equipped with a laser to blast bad bots, can unleash a power surge and can carry Wall*E to unreachable locations.

A variety of puzzles, battles, racing and platforming (seemingly unavoidable in the cartoon to video game adaptation) permeates the effort, which should still dazzle younger fans.

Despite the beautiful look of the game, the background soundtrack on some of the missions is migraine-inducing. Also, handling the flighty Eve (even with the motion-sensing Sixaxis controller), especially during frenetic timed challenges, is a bit too difficult.

Adding to the title's limited replayability is a set of split-screen multiplayer arcade-style games to let up to four gamers join in the Wall*E universe.