SAW II: Flesh and Blood
Genre: Survival Horror/Adventure
Release Date: 10/19/10
Last year’s SAW was a surprising game. A game based on a movie that’s primarily based around the idea of watching people die in elaborate and violent methods doesn’t seem like it’d be a successful product, but developer Zombie managed to make the game work surprisingly well. SAW took elements from survival horror and adventure games and molded them around the concept, making a lengthy game that was reasonably fun to play and surprisingly well designed, to a point where the game literally had no right being as good as it actually was. Granted, the combat was a pain and the puzzles tended to become overly simplistic or repetitive towards the end, but for the most part, the game did a very good job of conveying the bleak and terrifying atmosphere of the product, and was quite playable all around. Konami has since stated that they feel that the SAW franchise can be their next big survival horror series and can co-exist with Silent Hill, and since they appeal to different sorts of gamers, in theory, this is not an unfair assessment. As such, while another Silent Hill is still a ways off, Zombie has brought us SAW II: Flesh and Blood to keep us occupied in the meantime. Surprisingly, Zombie has seen to it that many of the issues of the first game have been corrected, and the experience is better for it. Unfortunately, the game is still not without its flaws, and while a better product than the first game, still isn’t quite where the series needs to be yet.
The storyline in SAW II picks up almost immediately after the first one, and is specified in canon as taking place between the second and third films. The game revolves primarily around Michael Tapp, the son of the first game’s protagonist David Tapp, and his dealings with our old friend Jigsaw. Shortly after discovering his father’s fate, Michael is invited to play a little game, as Jigsaw wants Michael to see exactly what his part was in causing his father’s ultimate fate. As the game progresses, the story explains why Michael is, in part, at fault for what happened to his father, while also introducing several other people who knew the David and Michael and have their own scores to settle with one or both. The plot for SAW II is as solid as the first game, and once again does a very good job of presenting a story showing how the events of one man’s life can effect so many people in good or bad ways. It also does a good job of referencing the franchise history, fleshing out the history of Jigsaw and his various kills as the previous game did while also giving him motivation for what he’s doing in this installment. Some of the sub-plots work better than others, mind you, as one involving various members of the police force who are looking for Michael for their own reasons doesn’t really seem like it fits into the game as well as it wants to, but most of the plot elements and such are generally solid enough that they overcome that, and the story elements as they are come together well as a result.
With one exception, that is. Now, I didn’t notice this when reviewing the first game as I’m honestly not a huge fan of the film series, though I like them well enough. After doing a good amount of watching of the films and research on the series, one thing that sticks out as obvious to anyone who actually cares about the plot of the series is the fact that Jigsaw, in these games, comes across as something of a killer, someone who willingly condemns others to their own deaths. This is fine in the sense of trying to make a villain for the player to hate, but the problem is that this is not how the Jigsaw character is portrayed in the films. Jigsaw’s whole MO is that he abducts people who he thinks are wasting their lives or who are bad people and puts them into traps to teach them the value of life by making them fight for theirs. His intention isn’t specifically to kill them, but rather for them to escape and live their lives anew, if they can. Whether that’s a sick mentality isn’t the point, however; the point is that the game’s version of Jigsaw does the opposite. He sets up traps for many of the people Michael faces that will FORCE someone to die. The various criminals and such that Michael faces at different points throughout the story are basically informed that they MUST kill Michael to survive, and Michael, in turn, must kill them in kind. This is antithetical to the Jigsaw MO, and while the player could say “Oh, well, these people are shown to be murderers and pedophiles and other people beyond redemption”Â, that is still inconsistent with how the character operates. I get that the game needs antagonists… wait, actually, no it doesn’t. There are a metric ton of traps around the different locations you explore, so there isn’t a requirement for your character to have to kill anyone at all in combat. The fact that the developers have incorporated this into the game a second time, especially since their combat system didn’t work anyway and could have safely been excised altogether, seems like a fundamental misunderstanding of what the character is about, and as such, the story is really only going to please people who don’t actually care about the movie franchise… which seems counterproductive.
SAW II generally looks good, as its predecessor did, though it’s obvious that the game is built on the same engine as the first game, making the visuals somewhat repetitive as a result. The character models have been improved a bit over the first game, and not only do the characters look better in general, they tend to animate well, in life and (more commonly) in death. The developers, having realized their target audience long ago, have obviously taken great pains to make every death sequence quite involved and graphic, and the end result is appropriately well done, if, y’know, gross. There are still some obvious repeated character models, however, so not everything is improved from the first game. The environmental graphics look fantastic and different enough from those of the first game to be interesting, the game uses lighting effects in an outstanding and atmospheric fashion, and the environments are very lively, featuring rats and little bits of movement that keep up the atmospheric visual style of the first game. The music is just as full of creepy set pieces as the first game, and as before, they fit the mood nicely and keep the needed atmosphere alive as the game progresses. The sound effects are, once again, powerful and really sell the experience as well, as you’ll discover the first time you accidentally set off a shotgun trap and your heart nearly stops as you hear the blast. The voice acting is also generally well done, as the various characters are brought to life nicely by their respective voice actors, though Tobin Bell is the only actor from the films to contribute anything to the game this time around as well. The generic thug voices repeat a bit too frequently, as before, and while the voice work is still nice in those instances, it’s repetitive.
The gameplay in SAW II, as with its predecessor, is neatly divided up between puzzle solving and combat, and it does a fairly decent job of balancing the two elements. You control your protagonist, usually Michael Tapp, from a third-person, behind the back view in most cases, with the left stick moving him around and the right stick moving the camera. The A button, and in some cases the X button, interact with the environment, allowing you to open doors, flick light switches, and other expected and useful things. The left bumper has been assigned healing item duty this time around, as Tapp will take damage from attacks and the environment. You find Health Hypos around the environment, and when you press the bumper, Tapp will brandish one and inject himself to heal up. This takes time, of course, so using such a thing from safety is ideal. The Y button uses your flashlight, as the other light sources from the previous game have been removed from this game, and as they weren’t very good, that’s perfectly fine. You can pick up weapons in the game world, which are generally your basic baseball bats and axes and such this time around, by pressing A near them, though unlike the last game, you needn’t arm them to use them. Instead, the game uses active time events for its combat system. When an enemy comes into range, the game will prompt you to attack them if you see them by pressing X. Depending on whether or not you’ve initiated combat, you’ll either be prompted to attach by pressing the button that pops up on the screen or to defend by pressing X when the moving bar reaches the yellow zone, ALA Mario Golf. Weapons no longer have durability, and simply break once you’ve killed the enemy or used them for whatever puzzle they’re needed to solve. Instead, weapons now reduce the amount of time you spend in combat. Punching an enemy to death will take about six properly times ATE’s, while a normal bat will take three, and a nail bat or a fire axe will take one, thus making more powerful weapons ideal in all cases.
You won’t just be expected to take on enemies you can fight, however. The game world is also full of active traps, like the aforementioned shotgun traps, that you’ll have to deactivate unless you want to cut your adventure short early. About a third of the way through the game, you’ll also be outfitted with your own personal trap that you’ll have to be mindful of, as when you come in range of various alarm boxes in the area, your trap can activate, and by staying in close proximity of said box you wear your timer down until, well, you die. Painfully. You’ll also encounter killers who have been put into traps meant to end your existence painfully, boards you’ll have to balance your way across, rooms filled with explosives, gas, or other hurtful objects designed to kill you in a hurry, and glass covered floors, which injure you since you’re barefoot through most of the game. Some of these instances will be timed on top of that, requiring you to make fast decisions and actions in order to survive… or to make you sloppy so you mess up and die. Either way, the game makes it very apparent from the get-go that it is in your best interests to be as cunning and brutal as possible in order to survive, and it’s in your best interests to be mindful of the environment at all times to ensure your survival. The game does not carry over the ability to make traps to use against enemies, as the first game did, but considering the amount of combat sequences as well as the difficulty of said sequences has been reduced, this isn’t a terrible thing, and for the most part, you won’t miss it.
A sizable portion of the game is about solving Jigsaw’s puzzles as well as trying to survive, and these sections of the game are often quite mentally taxing and enjoyable for folks who love puzzle solving. The puzzles get surprisingly creative, and can range from something as simple as looking at the reflection of a number in a mirror and lining it up with paint on the mirror to reveal a combination to something as complex as finding the right place in a room to see three numbers lined up as a timer ticks down to a massive explosion, and they can get incredibly hectic and intense in some situations. There are also a few returning traps, such as having to shove your arm into a toilet full of syringes to retrieve a useful item while your character screams in agony, as well as new ones, such as picking locks by dodging around the tumblers with the nail you’re using to pick the locks. You’ll also have to solve some good old-fashioned puzzles along the way, such as lining up pipes to stop a steam leak, connecting continuous circuits to open doors, lining up gears to open locked boxes, and other things. Each of Jigsaw’s kidnapped victims also has a puzzle Michael will have to solve to free them, which is usually unique to their predicament, and can test your mental acumen quite heavily. Fans of puzzle solving and the first game will enjoy these segments quite a bit, as there’s a decent bit more variety to the puzzles this time around and the repetition, though it exists, is significantly less obvious than it was in the prior game.
You can make it through the game in about eight to ten hours, depending on your puzzle solving aptitude and active time event abilities. There are two endings to unlock in the game, and this time around, the choice that decides the ending you get happens fairly early on in the game, so you’ll have to play through the game to see both endings. The game once again offers two difficulty levels to pick from, though the only difference between the two is how hardy Michael is, which should appease those looking for more thrills and close calls, but it still doesn’t increase the difficulty of the puzzles otherwise, so those looking for more challenging puzzles won’t find a difference between the two. There are also a great deal more collectibles to unlock as you progress, including puzzle pieces hidden in out of the way places, files and audio tapes that flesh out the story, and Billy dolls hidden by particularly devious puzzles, with various achievements tied to each. In general, there are plenty of Achievements to earn between collecting things, saving prisoners, and completing puzzles in the fastest time possible, and you can also go back at any point to missions you’ve already played if you enjoyed one a bit and want to replay it. That said, while the game offers more to do after it’s been completed than its predecessor, it still doesn’t offer a great deal of reason to return to it after you’ve completed it unless you enjoyed the game enough the first time to run through a second, as the puzzles only feature minor changes that don’t add much challenge, and the hidden items don’t do all that much on their own. There is a video you can unlock by collecting all of the Billy Dolls, mind you, but it’s basically an E3 featurette, more or less, and as such isn’t… particularly exciting or anything.
Aside from the lack of replay value in the game, SAW II still has a few other issues that hamper the experience somewhat. While the combat system is a big improvement over its predecessor, that’s because the combat in the first game sucked out loud. When active time event-based combat is an improvement, that’s NOT a good thing, and frankly, while a good combat system overall might have improved the tension of the experience, and the absence of one might have helped the game overall, the combat system in this game is simply SIMON with violent death attached. It’s not horrible, but it’s not great either, and it adds nothing to the game. In fact, the game seems to rely a lot more on ATE’s in general, as several sequences pop up throughout the game where the game basically says “Press A or eat a death”Â, or in some cases, “Press A and then X or eat a death”Â, and it gets annoying in a hurry. The stripping out of the ability to build traps to use against enemies is also regrettable to a point, not because it was a great system, but rather because the game doesn’t add anything in to compensate for this. Streamlining the combat mechanics is a great idea, certainly, but removing elements instead of replacing them with something ends up leaving the game feeling less involved than its predecessor. Now, yes, I’m aware I have suggested that you could remove the combat entirely and be fine, but you could fill that space with more puzzles and the game would still be fine because there’d still be things to do. But if you’re removing aspects of the combat and not replacing them with other elements, I’m just playing SIMON every half hour or so in-between puzzles, and really, while that’s better than what the first game had to offer, that’s kind of bare bones in comparison.
The game still has an issue with repeating its puzzles, though at least this time around it spaces the repetition out so you won’t get so annoyed by this thing. Several of the puzzles from the first game make a return this time around, mind you, including the memory puzzle and the drug tipping puzzle (after a fashion), so you’ll still have somewhat of a feeling of deja-vu once again, though not as bad as you might expect. That said, the game has developed a wonderful, by which I mean terrible, habit of forcing the most annoying puzzle sequences imaginable on you because someone on the development team thought they were great. For example, there’s the “spiked mask”Â guys. You’ll meet several of these guys throughout the game, and the name pretty much sums it up: they wear spiked helmets, which they use to try and kill you. Now, you’ll have to solve the puzzles surrounding them in different ways, but the basic concept is usually “make them charge at something that kills them”Â, which would be fine except that 1.) this happens way too often, 2.) the controls and mechanics aren’t good enough that you’ll be able to complete these puzzles without dying a few times, and 3.) the puzzles simply aren’t fun. The game later trades these guys up for guys in spiked helmets AND chestplates, which makes the puzzles worse, since you now have to make them hit something they stick in before killing them in a time-consuming and difficult fashion, which, unsurprisingly, makes the puzzles WORSE. The balance beam sections also have a steep learning curve so you’ll see them a lot, you’ll spend several sections dodging bullets that aren’t particularly fun or exciting, and there’s a puzzle toward the end with red lights that set off your shotgun trap that borders on sadism, to be honest. Put simply: when the game focuses on detective work and puzzle solving, it succeeds, and when it focuses on action and fast movements, it doesn’t.
That all having been said, I managed to blow out the Achievements for the game entirely inside of five days, of which three days were spent playing through the game the first time, and two days were spent playing through the game on Insane to 1.) clear the other ending, 2.) collect what I’d missed the first time, and 3.) beat all of the puzzle times on Insane, and the game wasn’t significantly more challenging in doing so. So, yeah, I blew out the whole game in less than a week. Just saying.
SAW II: Flesh and Blood is a solid improvement over its predecessor, as it retains the suspenseful presentation and thought-provoking puzzles of the previous game while removing the elements that didn’t make the game enjoyable, but between a lack of variety and replay value and some new and annoying additions, it’s not enough of an improvement all around. The presentation is still faithful to the films for the most part, from the bleak and hopeless story, to the spooky and dark visuals, to the haunting and powerful audio, though some elements, such as Jigsaw being portrayed differently from how the film portrays him, don’t work as well as they should. The game is as simple to play as its predecessor, and the puzzles are still interesting and engaging all in all, and should keep your interest through the whole game this time around. A great deal of effort has also been invested in trying to keep this from being a one-and-done experience by spreading out enough Achievements and collectibles to make you play the game more than once, and with the multiple difficulties, this isn’t a bad thing. That said, while the combat is BETTER than it was in the first game, that’s not saying a lot, and between the fact that the combat is nothing but Active Time Events and the fact that it’s been stripped down to the bare minimum, it’s not very exciting. The puzzles still repeat, though nowhere near as badly as they did in the first game, the game has now developed a habit of making you do incredibly annoying things every forty-five minutes or so, and you can blow out all of the Achievements in two playthroughs with little difficulty, as the “Insane”Â difficulty is only the most marginal of challenges and you often won’t even notice. SAW II is an improvement over the first game, but not to a level that makes it a must-own product, and while it’s enjoyable enough all in all, it’s not quite where it needs to be to make it a compelling purchase unless you’re a fan of the series who doesn’t actually care that the plot doesn’t actually follow the concepts of the films.
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
Miscellaneous: ABOVE AVERAGE
FINAL SCORE: ABOVE AVERAGE GAME.
Short Attention Span Summary:
SAW II: Flesh and Blood ends up scoring the same as its predecessor, less because of a lack of forward movement and more because of a one-step-forward-two-steps-back development mentality that doesn’t actually allow the game to get any better as a result. The presentation is still as thematically and artistically accurate to the franchise as ever, though Jigsaw comes off more like Mark Hoffman than John Kramer, which makes the plot hard to appreciate as a result. The gameplay is as interesting as ever, as the combat has been improved, the puzzles are more diverse than before and spread out in a fashion that makes them feel less repetitive, and the game feels like it works better than its predecessor in a lot of ways. The replay value has also been improved somewhat, motivating the player to really want to go through the game a second time, to unlock added achievements and see the other ending that will take longer than thirty seconds to earn. However, the combat has been scaled back to a point where it’s essentially a string of Active Time Events rather than actual combat and it’s been stripped down to the bare bones, the puzzles are still somewhat repetitive, the game features annoying and frustrating puzzles that are in no way fun to solve, and you can blow through all of the content in two playthroughs as the “Insane”Â difficulty is anything but. SAW II shows that Zombie has an idea of where they’re trying to go with the series and is trying to improve the games, little by little, but it’s not where it needs to be yet, and only the more forgiving of SAW fans and survival horror fans in general will really come away satisfied with the experience all around.