While nobody could (sanely) call the Saw movie franchise a shining high point in horror films, it stands to reason that it has a fair few fans out there; enough at least to justify having just released its sixth installment, with a seventh currently in production. To be honest, I’m almost surprised that we’ve gone this long without a game based on the series.
Developed by Zombie Studios, Saw was originally due to be published by Brash Entertainment. However, Brash folded last year, leaving the rights to get picked up by Konami instead. Konami have been vocal about their plans for Saw, positioning it as a franchise to sit alongside their flagship horror series, Silent Hill. Will the game grow a procession of sequels rivaling its cinematic sibling? Or will it be unable to escape a deathtrap more deadly than the worst Jigsaw has to offer – being a horrible licensed tie-in? We’ll take a look on the other side of the jump.
In the timeline of the series canon, Saw takes place after the first film. The game casts players in the role of Detective David Tapp, (played by Danny Glover onscreen, though he provides neither the voice nor likeness for his virtual counterpart) having survived the seemingly fatal gunshot wound he suffered near the end of the movie. Tapp awakens in an abandoned asylum with the series’ iconic, jaw-splitting reverse bear trap attached to his head, now himself in the clutches of the Jigsaw Killer. After disarming the device, Tapp will have to navigate the asylum’s halls, solving puzzles and saving some of Jigsaw’s victims, while dealing with the others, who’ve been told their only means of escape lies in his murder, a bit less kindly.
What follows is a tedious, uneven trek with no real scares to speak of. What little tension the game manages to muster up and the few good ideas it presents are marred by the rest of the experience. It’s a lot like hunkering down in a darkened movie theater seat and opening a box of Junior Mints, only to find out after popping a few into your mouth that three-quarters off them are stuffed full of human feces; sure, the rest may be tasty and sweet, but what sane person would still willingly keep eating in order to find them?
The majority of the gameplay involves a lot of fumbling your way around the darkened hallways of the asylum and being funneled from puzzle to puzzle, with occasional bouts of stiff, unresponsive combat tossed in, almost as an afterthought. While the puzzles are at least of a better caliber than the typical fare you see in most survival horror games, there’s a bit too much repetition; by the time you see your tenth circuit junction rotation box, the fun has worn a bit thin. Likewise, the “stick your hand into X to grab Y” segments – where X equals toilet full of used hypodermics or corpse full of razor wire and Y is generally a key of some sort – were potentially cool concepts that completely failed in execution by being far too easy. Many parts of the game feel like this – neat concepts buried in a mountain of failure.
But let’s return to the combat for a moment. Calling the game’s combat slow with clunky, cumbersome controls is an insult to games with slow combat and clunky, cumbersome controls; Saw makes Silent Hill look like Batman: Arkham Asylum by comparison. There’s a delay that sometimes feels like seconds between pressing a button and seeing it actually trigger, assuming your opponent’s attack doesn’t interrupt you first, that is. The game world is strewn with improvised weapons, from pipes to mannequin arms to scalpels. Most are good for four or so hits before breaking (don’t worry – assuming you connect, the average enemy drops after about three), while a few (scalpels and syringes) are only good for one, but also are insta-kills.
The pacing at which weapons and other consumables are meted out to you doesn’t match the flow of the game. Good horror is elicited when fear of pain and death arise, but these items are virtually heaped upon you at the start, whereas you’ll only face a couple of enemies per section in the game’s early stages. They do increase the instances of combat a little the deeper you get into the game, but you still will never lack for things with which to beat wandering homicidal minions to death. In fact, the main deciding factor in picking your weapon of choice will be “have I already gotten the achievement for this one?”, as the game dishes out awards for making a kill with each individual implement at your disposal. It’s kind of like playing a metagame in itself, searching around to find each weapon and holding on to it until the next fight occurs; Lord knows I had to find fun in the game somewhere, so I decided to make my own.
On the plus side, Tobin Bell’s work as Jigsaw is excellent and spot-on creepy (even if the rest of the voice actors feel like they’re phoning it in) and the atmosphere of the game is appropriately oppressive, which is helped greatly by the game’s use of lighting and ambient sound. The ability to disarm and re-rig deadly booby traps throughout the levels was also nice, but sadly limited by the small scope of options available. The large setpiece traps that end each section are definitely the highlight of the game. It’s just a shame that so many of them are simply larger, more complicated versions of the puzzles you’ve already been solving – more unique ones along the lines of the poison IV or the magnetic sliding block puzzle would have been great.
I wish I enjoyed this game more, but the pluses simply don’t stack up to the overwhelming negatives. Saw contains a handful of good ideas, but overall, the game is just rote and boring. I’d even be hard pressed to recommend this one to any but the hardest of hardcore Saw fans. Achievement farmers may find something worthwhile, as I managed to unlock all 1000 points just by being methodical in my weapon selection and taking advantage of the game’s checkpoint system to reload prior to the final section so I could see both endings. Give it a rent if you absolutely must, but you’d be better off with a cage of starving rats strapped to your face than you would be spending $60 on this game.
Things We Liked: Visual presentation is pretty decent. The gory tableaux of those who didn’t escape their deathtraps in time are a nice touch. Setpiece traps are appropriately nerve-wracking. Puzzles are fun (at first). Tobin Bell earns his voiceover paycheck. Cheap, easy achievements.
Things We Disliked: Would it be harsh to say “everything else”? Fine – Combat, controls, non-Tobin voice acting, poor pacing, super-linear level design, too much puzzle repetition, poor item distribution, poor checkpoint distribution, the totally-useless-as-a-light-source camera flash, distracting occasional flat textures… I could go on, but my fingers are getting tired – I think you get the point.
Target Audience: Gamers into self-punishment. The most hardcore fans who think Saw is the greatest thing EVAR! Achievement whores.
(Saw – Developer: Zombie Studios. Publisher: Konami. Available on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 – Xbox 360 version reviewed. Buy it Now at Amazon.com. New to CFD!’s reviews? Read our explanation here.)