Video games based on movies. We know a thousand opening paragraphs in a thousand reviews have been written to re-iterate this fact, but it's a fact that most of us know - games based on movies have a richly deserved reputation for being amongst the worst to hit any system they land on. So it's normal to treat a game based on a movie series which has already had six instalments in as many years with some trepidation. Saw takes the, perhaps obvious, survival horror-game route with an experience that sees you solving puzzles, battling insane drifters and running around darkened corridors. Obviously cribbing notes from superstars of the genre, does Saw manage to stand up to these titles and become a worthwhile game in its own right?
It doesn't help that Saw wears its influences on its sleeve. As you shuffle through an abandoned insane asylum, you'll find yourself attacked by disgruntled men wielding melee weapons, heavily recalling similar experiences in the Condemned games. As you explore your surroundings, you'll occasionally catch sight of a hulking, disturbing figure. He watches you from behind barred-off hallways, can be seen brutally torturing other inmates, and has a disturbing mask covering his face. That's right, riffing off of Silent Hill's Pyramid Head is Pig Head, and while we are aware that he was in the films, his role in this game is pretty much exactly the same as our trapezoidal friend.
Saw appears to take place soon after the first film, as you take on the role of Detective Tapp. That's right, the character originally played by Danny Glover (although in addition to healing his wounds, Jigsaw may have conducted some plastic surgery on Tapp to make him look twenty years younger). As you may remember from that film, he botched an attempt to catch Jigsaw in a raid that saw his partner killed. He wakes up in the asylum strapped to a chair with the now famous 'reverse bear-trap' mechanism on his head. His nemesis, Jigsaw, has kept him alive so that he can participate in a 'game', one that all of his victims endure so that he can 'fix' them. As Tapp escapes from one trap to the next, he edges closer to discovering the identity of the Jigsaw killer. It's an effective and authentic narrative, but one that doesn't necessarily make a whole lot of sense, as Jigsaw seems to be exacting revenge upon Tapp rather than challenging him to better himself and appreciate life, which is usually his modus operandi. It's also not especially forgiving for non-fans of the franchise, with little explanation given for the nature of the Jigsaw killer (although a few clues are strewn about in the form of notes in the asylum).
That's not to say there aren't clever ideas in this game. After exploring the asylum to an extent, Tapp is captured by Pig Head and outfitted with an explosive collar. This collar is sensitive to any others which come within range, and Jigsaw has captured a whole mess of other people and given them similar devices. If they come within range of you, their collar is activated, and the only way for them to de-activate it is to kill you and extract a key from your body. This lends an interesting twist to combat, because it means in some cases you don't have to fight a person, you can just run and try to put as much distance between the two of you as possible, while you wait for your opponent's device to go off, and Tapp can bolt and barricade doors to this end. It's a good idea, and helps a fair bit because the regular combat is slow, sloppy and imprecise.
If you've seen the films, you'll know that traps will abound in this game. The most annoying traps are trip-wires, which will kill you on contact, and are incredibly hard to see if you're not moving at a snail's pace. Mixed with the fact that the game's checkpoint system is good, but not as frequent as you'd like, and you're faced with a trial-and-error situation of memorising where traps are in the level and avoiding them over and over again. Luckily, you can find materials to reload these traps, as well as create your own, and re-purpose them to shoot, electrocute or even set fire to your enemies. And it wouldn't be Saw without some hideously convoluted 'boss traps' which occur at the end of every level. Tapp comes across several people trapped by Jigsaw, and is tasked with solving various puzzles to save them. There are about three main mini-games which repeat in these traps, and throughout the game they get very complicated, very fast. It doesn't help that Jigsaw's a fan of imposing ridiculous time limits and severe penalties. While these mini-games are fun, others like an obtuse 'pig-rack-moving' puzzle fall flat. If you hate puzzles, this is perhaps not the game for you.
While there are a lot of good ideas in this game, we still can't help but feel that there are more missed opportunities. For instance, Tapp is brought to the asylum barefoot - which is a problem since there's broken glass strewn around the ground almost everywhere, making you careful where you step. He's also required to delve into toilet bowls filled with syringes, and vats filled with skin-burning acid, to retrieve certain objects. How interesting would it have been to make Tapp's goals to find items like shoes, or gloves, items which are so commonplace and mundane in our world, but take on a whole new level of importance in Jigsaw's, tying into his objective to make Tapp appreciate his life more? Unfortunately, there's not a lot of thought which has gone into the thematic elements of the game beyond 'this looks painful'. We should also mention that this is not an experience which lasts. It can be comfortably finished within a day - six to seven hours or so.
One area which Saw nails is the atmosphere. It is perfectly evocative of the repulsive, decaying and gory world of the films, although at no point could we actually call this game 'scary' (although perhaps we've been desensitised by too many other, better, horror games). Everything looks quite authentic, and Tobin Bell reprises his role as Jigsaw to lend his throaty, menacing tones to the game as well. The music is recalls the films' score, but thankfully doesn't re-use the overplayed ending theme of the first movie.
We can think of no better way to describe Saw than a 'mixed bag'. On the one hand, you've got inventive ideas such as the explosive collars, traps and completing puzzles within horrific time limits. On the other, you've got poor combat, some derivative elements, and some really cheap tricks like the trip-wires which force you to repeat sections. How much you enjoy the game really depends on your tolerance for repetition. For us, we felt that in the end the good outweighed the bad, and were swayed by the game's authenticity and atmosphere of despair. It feels like a very lean game, short in length and not as fleshed out as we perhaps would have liked, but then again it's a cut above most other movie-based video games. If you're a fan of the franchise, and don't mind puzzling your way through situations, then by all means give this game a look, but perhaps wait until it hits the bargain bins.