There’s a razor-fine line between genius and madness, and anyone familiar with the Saw movies will be aware of the possible repercussions should one bleed into the other. The films’ odd appeal lies in the creatively gruesome and torturous games to which the evil genius Jigsaw submits his victims, using his engineering prowess and cunning to force them into acts of self-mutilation, suicide, and murder. Labelled by critics as “torture porn”, some of the games are so disturbingly well thought out that they can surely have only come from someone with the dangerous combination of a slender grasp on sanity and too much time on their hands. Well, everyone needs a hobby!
When I first heard about Saw’s video game adaptation, I must admit my main concern was how the format would translate into a game, particularly in terms of story progression, and exactly how Jigsaw’s traps would come into play. Well, that was one of my main concerns; my other main concern was whether or not I could make it through this review while resisting all of the potential saw-based puns. Right, now to get my teeth into Saw to see if it does or doesn’t quite cut it. (Sorry)
The story could be regarded as a sort of Saw 1.5, picking up part way through the first movie, and placing you in the shoes of Detective Tapp, whom we last saw deserted with a gunshot wound to the chest. The game hits the floor running in true Saw style, hardly giving you time to draw breath as you regain consciousness embroiled in one of Jigsaw’s infamous reverse-bear-trap gizmos, which is poised to split your head in two should you fail to press the corresponding commands. This superb and tense introduction leaves your heart racing, setting the anxious tone that resonates throughout.
Your ordeal takes place in an immense and derelict 19th-century asylum for the insane. You are not alone, however, but one of a number of victims trapped in the abandoned institute, each with his own “game”. The twist is that the key to their survival lies within you – literally – making you popular with desperate psychopaths who lack the surgical knowledge to remove it humanely.
The story is broken into lengthy chapters, each littered with diabolical traps and challenges as you make your way around the colossal building as a pawn in Jigsaw’s depraved game. Forced to make moral decisions, on which the lives of others are dependent, you must survive the test of will and work your way towards one path of a bisected ending. Ultimately, each chapter leads towards a violent game involving someone from Tapp’s past. These set pieces are your reward for arduous persistence, drawing an entertaining and dramatic conclusion to each chapter and sub-plot. If you are a violently curious individual, you will find yourself failing these challenges just to see the victim’s grotesque dispatch.
The cinematic qualities of the films lend themselves surprisingly well to the video game; the erratic camera and unnerving ambient audio are ever present, as is the convoluted sense of morality and justice that remain the backbone of Jigsaw’s antics. Saw’s dynamics and environments are reminiscent of Silent Hill – Konami’s other survival horror series – while the sense of panoptic surveillance and Jigsaw’s omnipresence evoke the same paranoid fear that was the bedrock of Manhunt’s chilling atmosphere.
Given that the genre is almost as old as the asylum, some traps and puzzles that make up the bulk of the title are very inventive. This is because the creators of the first movie, James Wan and Leigh Whannell, were hired to write the story and design exclusive traps. The asylum is also punctuated with some old “favourite” traps from the franchise, which allow for the story to feel more intertwined with the movies.
The majority of the game’s dramatic traps involve timed explosives, poisonous gas, or other such fatal favourites of the perverse antagonist. Lighting and perspective play a dynamic role, forming the basis for many of the more interesting puzzles. Such challenges require you to manipulate objects or light sources so that information may be visible from certain angles. What may look like a nondescript scribble from one perspective may show you the combination to a lock from another. You are also able to carry one of a number of light sources, each with its own merits and foibles, so choose wisely as it may just save your life.
A number of staple minigames provide Saw with substantial filler. To open certain doors, for example, you are often required to decipher basic puzzles or perform timed button combinations. There are also simple puzzles involving cog selection, the rotation of pipes or wires to reroute poisonous gas or electricity, and the manipulation of Tapp’s hand to find keys in toilets full of hypodermic needles. Whilst these provide some early fun, the frequency and repetition of these puzzles do dull Saw’s edge slightly.
The game’s biggest flaw, however, is undoubtedly the slow, unresponsive combat. It is a simple enough setup: block, light attack, and heavy attack; but blocking provides little protection, and the heavy attack is impossible to land, leaving you no option other than to simply press light attack rapidly in the hope that you get your enemy stuck in a loop before he does it to you. With around 20 weapons, it’s a shame that in this respect there is little physical difference between them. Perhaps they ignored the combat’s ineffectiveness in an attempt to persuade players to use more interesting means of incapacitation, such as tripwire traps, barricades, or the various mines that can be assembled from ingredients found within the asylum.
The game looks like it’s been lifted from the movie set, with dank, windowless corridors, trademark tiled bathrooms, and floors painted with blood. All of this is rendered in graphics that won’t blow you away, but are certainly adequate given the murkiness. However, stalking around tiled, labyrinthine corridors may be apt in the feeling of claustrophobia it creates, but you will find it a little relentless, and you crave alleviation with a change of scenery. This also makes navigation difficult, as it’s nigh on impossible to remember where you’ve been, and, strangely, you begin to rely on the linear format just to get around.
Distant, screaming victims and the reverberating echoes of indistinguishable horror make up some rather chilling audio. Oddly, though, the ominous “Hello Zepp” theme, which has become synonymous with Jigsaw’s trickery, isn’t used at all, but a number of similar versions set at different tempos accompany the more intense moments. On top of this, out-of-tune pianos and violins – the staple of suspense horror – heighten the discomfort, all of which gel together well with the ambient audio and superb voice acting.
The game isn’t too difficult, but you will be given the instant kiss of death by a shotgun should you walk through a tripwire or door that’s been rigged with an unpleasant surprise. Thankfully, it autosaves regularly, for which you find yourself very grateful when you have your skull swallow up a shotgun shell from one of these traps, or get a heroin needle in your eye.
Saw will likely take around 20 hours to complete, but the replay value is marred by a lack of multiplayer and simplistic achievements/trophies, the majority of which you will get in one play through. While a solid single-player may have been sufficient for survival horror once upon a time, we have come to expect a little more bang for our buck nowadays. Given the shocking combat, multiplayer could only really have worked as a modern-day Spy vs. Spy, but without any real reason to come back to the game, it is perhaps one to rent, despite it being a thrilling experience.
The visuals won’t blow you away, but they are certainly adequate and provide intensely atmospheric environments that remain faithful to the movies.
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A unique and varied title, but the repetitive formula begins to wear out its welcome. Otherwise, an engaging story and some well thought-out puzzles provide an entertaining experience.
The chilling ambient audio complements the tense musical score to provide genuine suspense and fear. On the whole, the voice acting is fantastic, particularly from Tobin Bell (Jigsaw).
Basic achievements and no multiplayer give the game relatively little replay value, but around 20 hours of story is by no means a brief affair. The game's movie feel is also plumped out with some nifty features.
Thrilling, chilling, with a whole lot of blood spilling. A deeply intense and enjoyable single player game, marred slightly by a lack of multiplayer, clunky combat, and some repetitive gameplay.