Despite what the name may suggest, the Cell Surgeon app is neither a penitentiary medic simulator or an examination of Microsoft Excel protocol. Rather, this new game from InJoy Labs is yet another addition to the ever-growing, extensive catalogue of match-4 games available on portable devices. “Mon Dieu!” your inner French-self must be lamenting. Well fear not, mon enfant, this is anything but a candy crush rip-off.
Coincidentally, another area of interest that boasts an extensive catalogue of disease and some French references, is virology. Virology is the scientific study of viruses and the infections they cause. From the late 19th century, notable names like Louis Pasteur, Felix d’Herelle, and Adolf Mayer (admittedly, not French) contributed to the viral literature through their groundbreaking scientific experiments, and ultimately provided a foundation for the development of life-saving vaccines for diseases such as Influenza and Polio.
Enter Dr. Ethan Rylus- space-based virologist, contender for next saviour of the world, and protagonist of Cell Surgeon. Yes, finally a match-4 game with an actual protagonist and a real plot! Now I understand how Anthony Epstein and Yvonne Barr felt when they discovered the Epstein-Barr virus. Ok… maybe not quite…
Fortunately, you do not need to have any of this virology contextual knowledge, a bachelor’s degree in science, a year 9 credit in biology or chemistry, or the ability to spell the word virus, to understand the basic principles of Cell Surgeon. The game is probably as scientifically accurate as anti-vaccination propaganda (i.e. not very). However, unlike the latter, it doesn’t pretend to be.
Cell Surgeon begins with a cutscene that establishes a space research lab as the setting (a la 2005 Fantastic Four), and Dr. Ethan Rylus as the protagonist. After a meteor-like object collides with Earth, a deadly virus begins to spread, which threatens the population of the world. It is up to you (as Dr. Rylus) to develop a vaccine that will save the human race.
Cutscenes are a feature that persist throughout the game, popping up every 5 levels to progress the plot. It is so refreshing to play a match-4 game set against the backdrop of a plot that isn’t aimed to please 5-year-olds. The space setting, lack of candies and farmyard animals, and the ‘Living up to the dead father’s legacy’ and ‘Save the world’ tropes really drew me in. Further, the developers should be applauded for the excellent score and high-quality voice acting in cutscenes. Unfortunately, the cutscenes are undermined by the presence of stilted animation with polygon graphics.
The match-4 component of the game, the actual gameplay, is also approached in a novel way. Each of the 26 levels in campaign mode involves connecting or locating 4 or more of the same type of virus on a 3D sphere, with different kinds of viruses demanding different mechanics to defeat them. The levels become more complex with the gradual addition of new viruses, and items (known as plug-ins) that can be used (intermittently) to assist with level completion. Playing the game makes me feel like a scientist in a futuristic film, and I am vaguely reminded of the Neopets game ‘Beginner’s Guide to Chemistry’- both positives.
Unfortunately, if I really were starring in my own futuristic film, it would be over relatively quickly- more of a futuristic ‘short’. 25 of the 26 levels in this game were incredibly easy to complete with a score of 2 or 3 (the maximum) stars on the first attempt. The 26th level (the final boss) was the only level I had to replay in order to complete it, and this had more to do with the combination of time sensitivity and occasionally poor touch discrimination.
Even the post-campaign mode, Arcade mode (essentially, timed free-play), in both ‘normal’ and ‘hard’ difficulty is painfully easy. I reached a chain of 100 virus clears relatively quickly. It is in this mode that it becomes apparent that the plug-ins are a touch too powerful- perhaps progressively longer regeneration time would help to balance them. Choosing to play the game without the use of plug-ins (i.e. by using self-control) would make the ‘Hard’ Arcade mode challenging, and is the only way this game has any replay-ability.
My only other concern with the actual gameplay is the inability to play in landscape mode. On an iPad in particular, portrait display did not feel natural for this game.
In terms of design, the characterisation is an interesting element. If only all virologists were as slick as Dr. Ethan Rylus, the man who maintains a keen sense of style even though he is in space with no-one else. He reminds me of a Doctor Who crossed with a Dragon Ball Z character- probably Vegeta. His witty (almost 4th wall breaking) statements at the conclusion of a successful level are one of the highlights of the early portion of Cell Surgeon. Rylus’ rhetorical questioning- e.g. “Why do I even need to do these basic processes?”- after the first few levels, are a clever way for the developers to acknowledge the impatience of more experienced players during the tutorial levels.
However, what appeared to be a hit, turned out to be a miss. Approximately halfway through campaign mode, the grammar and syntax of Rylus’ dialogue takes a turn for the worse. The character turns from Super Saiyan to Watcha sayin’? e.g. “These cells have answers to diseases we haven’t been able to find a cure of” and my personal favourite, “I guess saving the world with these could add me some browning points to this year’s Nobel prize!” At first I thought this reference to “Browning points” might have been an esoteric virology pun that went straight over my head, but upon research, my suspicions were confirmed- the phrase is just lost in translation. This poor grammar and syntax are consistent across cutscenes and pre/post puzzle dialogue, and really detracts from the experience. I would highly recommend that InJoy labs invest in a script editor. The character of Dr. Ethan Rylus has too much potential to give up on!
With an update to the textual elements, balancing of plug-ins and the inclusion of some actually challenging levels to complement the novel mechanical and narrative approach to the match 4 system, Cell Surgeon will be a cool little game. However, unless the graphics and animation are significantly improved, and the level difficulty is increased as a whole, it will never go viral. As is, this game is a diamond just waiting to be polished. I hope the developers at InJoy Labs provide some updates soon!