Last week I learnt two things. One, it only takes five minutes for an award-winning hospital to become a bug-infested hellscape, and two, Two Point Hospital is so much fun it's even enough to cure the misery of a devastating World Cup loss.
The last time I played the hospital simulation game the preview was limited to the first level Hogsport, a sort of toddler pool of minimal catastrophe and manageable diseases. This time around I got to explore three new hospitals in the game's campaign, and each one came with new skills to learn and challenges to manage. It all started well, with a tidy reception area, some lovingly built toilets, and ended in a catastrophe of ghosts, monobrows, and radiators.
The game's campaign runs across Two Point County, which the development team describes as a whole world smashed into one map. There are tropical hospitals, like Sweaty Palms, hospitals near nuclear reactors like Melt Downs, and alpine regions where the cold will start to bother patients. All of them lovingly laid out across a map that looks like a little toy town begging to be played with.
Aiming for the stars
"What we're trying to achieve is that it feels like a real place, and different challenges will come with being up in different areas." says lead artist Mark Smart. "We wanted each region to have its own characteristics that would impact on the gameplay."
You progress through the levels thanks to a star system, one star will let you move on, but if you really want to prove you've got medical management skills you can go for the full three. You'll do that by curing patients, building up the hospital's value, and earning cash, and you can always go back if a third star is proving tricky.
"The whole idea of advancing through the map of Two Point County is that you can come back. You're not just burning what you've done," says Smart. "That was the intention, to make it feel like you're progressing, to challenge you - because it gets very challenging at the end - but to build it up and give you a sense of urgency. "
The dog's bullocks
He isn't joking about the end game. At the moment the final level is in an urban region, Croquembouche, and there you'll need to cure 200 patients to earn even one star. I couldn't even manage to keep patients happy in Lower Bullocks, the second of the cheekily named towns. I was dealing with a couple of outbreaks, one where people thought they were rockstars and needed doctors with a special psychiatry skills, and another where people were running around with skillets on their heads. These people could only be cured with a pricey device called... wait for it... Pan's Lab.
All the time you're watching your bank balance, considering a loan from the bank, trying to save money, but there's a secondary currency that quickly starts to feel more important than your profits and loss. Kudosh can only be earned by completing challenges, and can be used to unlock different cosmetic items - anatomy figures, posters, plants - and special items to keep patients happy, like salty snack machines.
It took awhile for me to hire enough psychiatrists to treat everyone, and to figure out how to keep my doctors happy so they stopped quitting. But once there were three TVs in the staff break room, a Sega arcade machine, and pretty paintings stuck on all the available wall space, everyone seemed happy enough that I could progress onto the next hospital guilt free.
Medical schools and monobrow
At my next stop, Flotternig, the challenge is a lack of staff, so you need to get a training licence and try and transform a frankly lacklustre bunch of medical chancers into super doctors. It was satisfying arranging all the little desks in the training room, sending my doctors off to school, until I quickly realized that while my staff were twiddling their pencils in expensive lessons, they weren't treating anyone. Profits fell. Patients suffering from Freudian Lips started filling the corridors, raving about a lack of toilets, inconsiderately dying right in front of the newspaper stand. I had to hire extra janitors with ghostbusting skills - because death is not the end in Two Point Hospital - just to cope with all the spirits hanging around. Just when I thought I had things under control, there was a sudden attack of monobrows.
Unlike my own monobrows, that can usually be kept under control with some $20 tweezers and a prayer to the holy virgin, these ones were small bugs that hid under vending machines and scuttled across floors, freaking out my already pretty unhappy clientele. While I can't say I was happy to have the infestation, it was a perfect example of the little surprises tucked beneath the many layers of Two Point Hospital.
Curing the common cold
Somehow, with some loans and some luck I progressed far enough to try my management skills at Mitton University Hospital, an establishment specializing in research, but afflicted with a cold climate. Let's just say I have a whole new respect for the art of radiator management.
That's the magic of Two Point Hospital, a game that squeezes delight out of everything from disease, to death, to finances, and even central heating issues. No matter what you're doing there's a smile just tugging at the corners of your mouth, and a warm baked potato glow of satisfaction in your stomach everytime you master a new hospital. There's plenty of great simulation games out there for PC, but none of them quite have the charm or magic of this Theme Hospital spiritual successor.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the whole day? The game will be out on PC on August 30, which is only weeks away. "It's stressful," laughs Smart. "There have been gasps in the room when we've said that's when it's coming out, and occasionally we've gasped too."
Two Point Hospital will be available on Steam for PC from August 30. Are you going to be playing? Let us know in the comments below.