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Review

Review: Saw

I want to play a game, just not particularly this one.

Saw, the original horror thriller released in 2004 and itself based on a short film a year earlier, was a masterful, suspense-filled story laced with a compelling plot and one hell of a twist at the conclusion.  In retrospect, it still stands up strong as an exercise in filmaking on a budget, and although its sequels have been peppered with shaky retcon and ambigous open endedness the series as a whole has held a grip over me for the last six years.  Eagerly awaiting the next in the series each Halloween (and rewatching the previous ones a week before) has become something of a ritual.

When I heard Brash Entertainment were making a Saw game based on the first film, around the time of Saw III, I was nervous.  The movies were starting to lose their grip and surely there wouldn’t have been that much to do with the first without veering too far off the track.  As it happened, years of troubled development have seen the game change hands continuously and, thankfully, the story has been rewritten from scratch by the duo behind the original script, making this a stand alone, absolutely canon entry into the Saw series – surely something of a must have for Saw fans, then?

Well, the game is set directly after the events of Saw: Amanda Young is unknown to the player as being far more integral to Jigsaw’s overarching plan and the player character, David Tapp, shot by Zep Hindle, has been healed and locked away in a mental asylum with only the omnipresent (and still rather spooky) TV dwelling doll, Billy, for motivation.  Tapp, as fans will remember, went mad in the first film after losing his partner during Jigsaw’s devious escape and Jigsaw’s mantra of ‘helping’ those who don’t cherish their life is now centred around the former detective.  Thus: a story.

To be honest, though, due to the game’s rather strict attention to the Saw universe, there’s very little room for maneuver with the characters and plot: your first meeting with Amanda is tainted by the knowledge of what she’ll become both later in the series and the game and elsewhere you’re only really going to meet people who’s history will fit in with what happened in films one and two: Melissa Sing (the wife of Tapp’s partner), Obi Tate (who will play a major part in the events of Saw II) and bit part player, if you’ll excuse the pun, Jeff Thomas, who Sing saved from Jigsaw’s drill trap.

When the game invents characters, such as a news reporter who coined ‘Jigsaw’s’ monicker and a guilty CSI officer, the game performs much better.  Free from the iron shackles of the Saw canon these sections of the game, of which there are roughly six, deviate from the norm and offer something a little different, even though the sense of involvement is higher when it’s based around characters that you know.  Still, at least eventual developers Zombie had a little flexibility with some aspects of the game, because that’s really where the good stuff ends.

If there were only six other characters roaming the asylum the game would be a rather dull one, but at least it wouldn’t have been as odd as having former inmates trying to kill you because you possess the only key for the whole building.  Instead of just asking you for it (I’ll concede that it is rather hidden, at least) this single notion is the set up for the dozens of poorly animated criminals swinging all manner of sharp objects at your head.  And like that most famous of Konami’s survival horror series, Silent Hill, in-game combat is shockingly poor and mishandled.

Hold down L2 to raise your weapon (or fist) and then press X or Square for a fast or powerful hit.  Except neither of them are ‘fast’ and it’s next to impossible to actually get a hit in when you’re under attack such is the ridiculous charge time associated with most blunt instruments.  Likewise, turning (and even movement) is tardy, so it’s a blessing that the enemies don’t attack in large numbers, and actual battles are few and far between, the developers instead opting to concentrate on the game’s puzzle aspects instead, which come off a little more convincingly.

Your inventory soon fills up with all manner of nails, keys and so on, all of which are either used to create traps to ensnare your fellow asylum inhabitants, or shove into locks in an attempt to open doors and cabinets.  The game switches perspective when you do this to present the interface as a timing-based puzzle, which it also does when you’re doing almost anything else that doesn’t involve running around in the dark: searching through needle-infested toilets, rummaging around in acid for a key, even cutting to a side-on x-ray view when fiddling around inside a human torso.

It all sort of works – in the context of the game it’s hard to imagine another way of doing any of the above better, but a lot of the sections simpy feel like filler, and the consequences are nulled by an instant restart (and even a Trophy) when you die.  So, rather than being a tense test of skill some of the game’s numerous puzzlers are degenerative exercises in trial and error – a real missed opportunity for branching paths and long term effects based on your actions would have been a real treat for gamers wanting to play through the title more than once.

As it stands, though, most people won’t.  The game doesn’t really offer anything that similarly themed games (including the likes of Condemned) have already done much better – the third person, torch lit viewpoint is pure Survival Horror 101 and without the traps and familiar characters could easily have been based on anything at all, let along adhering to the events post Saw I.  Saw, the video game, could have been a triumph, the potential is there, the graphics engine (powered by Unreal) is competent enough and the audio just about right, but it’s just missing that special something.

Pros:

  • For Saw fans, there’s a far bit to enjoy storyline-wise here.
  • The graphics are fine, although never jaw dropping.

Cons:

  • Combat is risible.
  • There’s almost no replayability.
  • There’s no “Hello Zep” track.
  • Fans looking for closure not covered in the films will be disappointed – there’s still no mention of Doctor Gordon.

I so wanted this to be much more than it ended up being: I’ll happily rewatch all of the Saw movies back to back each year, but probably won’t head back into the video game unless Konami patch in better combat.  Disappointed on a person level more than anything, it’s hard to imagine anyone not a Saw fan will get nearly as much from the game as I did, and even I came away feeling like the whole thing didn’t really need to exist as a canon piece.  I really, really hope there’s a sequel though, because that could be brilliant.  6/10

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