In theory, games based on existing properties such as books, film or comics should be better than original titles created by game designers from scratch. After all, the effort required to come up with the hook, characters, general plot and overall premise has already been taken care of. Freed from this nettlesome time-sink, game designers can therefore channel this exhaustive effort into the game itself, honing a superior product already given a head-start thanks to some other creative person’s hard work.
In theory. Of course, in the real world, the opposite to this quixotic ideology is true. Instead of building on the solid foundations of a working premise, game tie-ins are more often than not rushed out, the brand recognition alone serving to get the game made in the first place, the franchise’s cross-media fans depended upon to purchase the shlock product regardless of quality or any semblance of aptness to the series it’s bastardising.
Saw II: Flesh & Blood is the paradigm of bad movie tie-in games. It’s as if the game was almost an after-thought; the aborted output of some vacuous meeting held by people who care little about gaming and less about any modicum of loyalty to fans of a franchise. It has all the hallmarks of a rush-job, churned through a tired and dated mill in record time to meet a release window dictated by a movie rather than the concept of producing something that conforms to logical project planning or good game design.
But we don’t make games. We’re not privy to the politics or economics of what goes into making a movie tie-in title that absolutely, categorically must launch within two weeks of the film it’s promoting. We do review games, however, so here’s our chance to address Zombie Studios’ attempt at improving on the first Saw game and failing on multiple fronts.
Saw II: Flesh & Blood features Michael, the son of Danny Glover’s character David Tapp from the films and first Saw game. Investigating the cause of his father’s death, Michael comes into contact with the twisted villain of the series, Jigsaw, and the goon-faced one’s meticulously planned games of death. Forced to enlist in the serial killer’s macabre trial, Michael uncovers case files about his father’s apparent suicide and a wider plot regarding a drug cartel and corrupt cops.
As stories go, it’s serviceable; keeping in sync and coherence with the wider Saw mythology. In fact, Saw fans will likely enjoy the numerous titbits scattered around Saw II’s world: audio files and reports expanding on the universe, material offering different insights into some of the occurrences of the movies. Non-Saw fans will wonder what the hell they’re reading and listening to, however, as the game takes no prisoners when it comes to your knowledge of what has come before. There is no build-up, no handy flashback scenes. You start in the series’ signature reverse bear trap facial Iron Maiden (as addict Campbell, who’s practically only used in the prologue) and quickly proceed to cut your own face open to obtain a key. You go from there.
As a scene, it sits well with the perverted content of the piece, and if the game does one thing well it’s its appropriateness in terms of grisly deaths, sick decisions and the general uneasiness of a grinning puppet-faced clown suddenly appearing on multiple TVs more often than Louis Walsh.
Unfortunately the game’s overall presentation doesn’t match the authenticity of its content in any shape or form. Visually it’s dull, as if the designers gingerly lifted the Unreal 3 engine from its Styrofoam box, delicately turning it over in the harsh light of day like a new, proud parent before declaring: “Yes, we love you just the way you are.” There’s little optimisation, very few graphical effects, and graphically it barely looks “this-gen” in terms of textures and overall aesthetics. It’s blocky, often poorly animated and relies too much of the absence of light to mask its shoddiness. Thankfully you won’t be spending much time stumbling around in this cloaked abyss, as the action is practically on rails.
There’s a map. It’s never used, however, as the game’s linearity is resolute. Players follow a rigid path from one area to the next, coming across locked gates of which the necessary key is usually within a radius of five metres. It smacks of a pressurised development cycle, the designers literally having neither the time nor the leeway to create a world with much depth. Often when an area is completed its access will be cordoned off through a suspiciously handy cave-in or collapsed floor. Hence, there is little back-tracking to locations you have visited previously, a new tool or item to utilise now in hand. There’s practically nothing of an inventory system at all for that matter; simply because you don’t need one.
The game’s key feature, the mini-games and challenges Jigsaw forces you to suffer through, do work at times. Unfortunately, though a few of the traps and games show some signs of acuity, the majority of the snares and puzzles are shockingly simple, often surmounted by simply pushing things around before something unexpectedly and haphazardly unlocks. There are some good head-scratchers presented, though, the “lights puzzle” in Case Three in particular well thought out and requiring some grace under pressure.
Alas, there’s nothing graceful about the combat. Revolutionising the first game’s clumsy fighting mechanics, Saw II’s face-offs come in the form of Quick Time Events. Heavy Rain it isn’t, in its stead pure austerity in execution, with defensive manoeuvres accomplished by pressing a button at the right moment, while attack moves are dispensed when tapping one of the face buttons as two icons collide on screen. It’s monotonously simple, with the only shred of satisfaction gleaned from sticking a nailed bat or similar instrument of death into an opponent’s cranium when you get it right. Which you will, practically without fail.
These QTEs are also called upon at times to make sure Tapp is dutifully paying attention to his precarious surroundings. Axes swing through doorways upon opening, rigged shotguns firing through peep-holes with the intent of taking your head clean off if you’re not on your toes, while the aforementioned strategically crumbling walkways will often require the player to quickly tap a button or watch Michael swan-dive to his umpteenth death. Dying is almost expected in a Saw game, though considering how long it takes to reload, and throwing in some baffling choices on the designers’ behalf regarding check-point locations to the deadly mix, death and, worse still, instant failure when cocking up a challenge, will invoke a fit of controller rage most players won’t have experienced since gaming’s 8-bit age.
Whole chunks of Saw II’s development life-cycle appear to have been either removed or seriously curtailed in the game’s sprint-like dash to get it out in time. Play-testing assumedly one of the first casualties.
- Faithful to the films’ style and execution.
- Voice work is solid; especially Tobin Bell, the voice of Jigsaw from the movies.
- Some clever mini-games.
- You get to stick a scalpel in your own face.
- Linear, derivative, unimaginative game-play.
- Visually as disjointed as a jigsaw puzzle mashed together by a blind drunk.
- Little to no replay value apart from finding case files and Billy dolls. There is an insane mode. You’d need to be.
- Combat a massive let-down.
The Saw movies are workmanlike disturbing shock-flicks that don’t necessarily need or even support the concept of a game treatment. Saw II: Flesh & Blood is a shameless tie-in with the minimal amount of effort undergone to get the title out the weapon-fitted door. Fanatical Saw fans will likely get a kick out of what is admittedly a faithful chapter in a series that is starting to repeat itself without the need for other mediums to stick their oar in. Everyone else should avoid.
It is a budget title and, perhaps appropriately, has all the characteristics of one. Even at a bargain bin price, however, Saw II: Flesh & Blood can only be recommended to gaming masochists. If you enjoy sticking a blade in your eye, go on ahead, you’ll love this. Sicko.