Review: SAW (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Genre: Survival Horror/Adventure
Developer: Zombie
Publisher: Konami
Release Date: 10/06/09

SAW is one of those movie franchises that I always appreciated conceptually, but not in actual execution. The concept of a serial killer who kidnaps people whose lives are being wasted and tortures them until they die or escape with a newfound outlook on life is interesting in theory, but the films themselves have essentially birthed what has come to be known as the “torture porn” genre of films. You know what I’m talking about: films where the characters are essentially abused for the entirety of the film, where the death scenes are visceral and gory, and where there’s no real satisfying conclusion because no one ever learns anything, because they’re stupid and/or they die. The films, inevitably, are violent, gory affairs where no one ever learns from their mistakes and everyone keeps making the same stupid mistakes they made prior to being kidnapped, until they die from it or kill everyone they know because of it. Needless to say, making a video game based around what can best be described as a conceptually bleak franchise doesn’t seem like the best idea, but people like the movies, so I guess someone had to give it a shot. The end result, the game we’re reviewing today, actually isn’t a bad attempt at trying to make a video game based around the franchise, surprisingly enough. In fairness, the game isn’t without its problems, and chances are good that you’re not going to like it if you don’t like the films, but to be honest, SAW the video game has absolutely no right being as good as it actually is, and if you’re a fan of scary games it’s worth a look.

The storyline in SAW takes place sometime between the first and second films, and casts you as Detective Tapp, the police officer from the first film who was obsessed with bringing Jigsaw to justice. Fans of the franchise who are looking for authenticity will be pleased to know that as the game begins, you wake up in the reverse bear trap test and have to fight your way out of it before the real game begins, because Jigsaw is a bit of a prick. Jigsaw’s actual game is a bit more involved than that, of course. He’s set up a massive gauntlet of tests and puzzles for you to go through as you attempt to save six people from their own demise, with the intention of showing the good detective all of the damage his crusade against Jigsaw has caused. Oh, but that’s not all: Jigsaw has also rounded up a bunch of less than savory characters and set them in various places throughout the dilapidated asylum, and instructed them that they have to kill you to escape, as our fine friend has removed the bullet that was lodged in the good detective… and replaced it with a key that every hostile freak in the asylum wants to cut out of you. Good times. The plot of the game is surprisingly well written, and the various events as they occur in the game tie together well. It’s interesting seeing how one man’s life can affect so many other people, and the game does a good job of tying all of the events together as well as emulating the feel of the SAW franchise. On the other hand, SAW is a very bleak franchise, and this game is no different, so it should probably be mentioned here that the story is ultimately a very hopeless story and that, though there are two endings to the game, both of them are very depressing and bleak, so this probably isn’t a game someone looking for a happy ending should look into. Just so you know.

SAW generally looks quite good in most respects. The character models are probably the only less than stellar element of the game, as they look serviceable, but aren’t especially great looking, and most of the generic thugs repeat themselves several times throughout the game. On the other hand, the dilapidated asylum looks fantastic, the game uses lighting effects in an outstanding atmospheric fashion, and little touches like birds flying out of their homes in the wrecked building to snow falling in through the roof bring the experience to life nicely. The game is really about its atmosphere, and in that respect, the visuals shine. The audio holds up its end of the bargain as well here. The music is mostly creepy set pieces that change depending on the mood that needs to be conveyed, all of which generally fit the mood the game is attempting to convey at the time. The sound effects are quite 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. The generic thug voices repeat a bit too much for their own good, but the voice isn’t bad so much as it is overused, which is less of a problem, if not entirely forgivable.

The gameplay in SAW is neatly divided up between puzzle solving and either engaging in or avoiding combat, and it does a fairly decent job of balancing the two elements. You control 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 X button also allows you to use healing items when needed, as Tapp will take damage from attacks and the environment. You find Health Hypos around the environment, and when you hold X, Tapp will brandish one and inject himself with it as long as you hold X, until the item is spent. This takes time, of course, so using such a thing from safety is ideal. The Y button uses whatever light source you have at the moment, of which there are three. The lighter is the weakest of the lot, and goes out when you run; the camera illuminates the area for a second, but leaves a weird visual effect behind that can make it hard to see; and the flashlight is basically awesome and you’ll never want another light after you find it. You can pick up weapons in the game world, which can be obvious weapons like bats and guns or less obvious makeshift items like table legs and mannequin arms, by pressing A near them, and once armed, you can hold the left trigger to brandish them. Every weapons, except the gun, offers a weak attack, mapped to A, and a strong attack, mapped to X, and you can block by holding B. You can also press the left bumper to drop a weapon, which can be useful if you want to break a wall but don’t want to damage your weapon. Weapons, you see, have durability levels, which decrease as you use them, and when the durability fails, so does the weapon, making conserving that durability important. You can just punch enemies to death, of course, though that’s somewhat weak in comparison to a nail-filled baseball bat, even if you can use weaker weapons faster than stronger weapons.

Combat, however, is only one option you have when dealing with the various people Jigsaw has set loose upon you. You’re also given access to various items throughout the asylum, such as ammonia, drain cleaner, shotgun shells and other tools, which you can use to outsmart the killers. You can carry traps with you, which you can assemble at Jigsaw’s workbenches, provided you have the materials and schematics to do so, and each has its own uses. Dropping a Stun Trap allows you to briefly incapacitate a killer so you can line up a powerful strike or run away, while a Gas Trap exposes them to poisonous gas and an Explosion Trap sets them ablaze, allowing you to weaken or kill them without a fight. You can also use environmental traps to your advantage, by luring the killers into them to take them out without a fight. You can use a fuse to activate a fusebox that electrifies a puddle of water, for example, or use a shotgun shell and a tripwire to activate a shotgun trap that, when activated, blows the killer’s brains across the room. Some killers also come equipped with traps that activate when you get near, to inspire them to kill you faster, and by simply escaping them and letting their timer count down you can end them without doing anything as their trap goes off.

It’s advisable to take care in these cases, however, as the asylum 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 certain killers approach you, your trap can activate, and by staying in close proximity of said killer you wear your timer down until, well, you die. You’ll also encounter killers with traps that can easily end your existence, 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 the whole 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.

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 your electrocution, and they can get incredibly hectic and intense in some situations. There are also several instances where you’ll have to shove your arm into a toilet full of syringes or a vat of acid to retrieve a useful item, as in the films, and you’ll have to manage your pain level as you dig around to grab whatever items is needed from this location. You’ll also have to solve some good old-fashioned puzzles along the way, such as lining up pipes to stop a gas leak, connecting continuous circuits to open doors, lining up gears to open locked boxes and cases, and other things. Each of Jigsaw’s six kidnapped victims also has a puzzle Detective Tapp will have to solve to free them, which is usually unique to their predicament, and can test your mental acumen quite heavily. Fans of old-school adventure games like The 7th Guest will enjoy these sections of the game quite a bit, as they can be rather tricky and hectic, depending on the situation.

You can make it through the game in about six to eight hours, depending on your puzzle solving aptitude and combat abilities. There are two endings to unlock in the game, though you can load from the checkpoint prior to the choice and simply choose the other one, so that won’t divert much of your time. The game does offer two difficulty levels to pick from, though the only difference between the two is how hardy Tapp is, which should appease those looking for more thrills and close calls, but it 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 plenty of Achievements to earn, 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, but otherwise the game 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 don’t change significantly throughout.

Aside from the lack of replay value in the game, SAW also suffers from a less than optimal combat system that will hamper your enjoyment of the game a good bit. Basically, whenever you press one of the two attack buttons, Tapp will attack with either a light or heavy attack, but both the timing and responsiveness of this system are suspect. Part of the problem comes from the fact that, in several cases, pressing the button won’t actually generate an attack for no reason. It’s not a constant nagging issue, mind you, but the first time it causes you to take a hit, or even die because of it, you’ll be immediately aware of it. Further, the timing of the combat is weird to adjust to. Basically, heavier weapons, like bats, pipes, and so on take longer to swing than smaller weapons like scalpels, syringes, and such, which means they’re more risky to use. This is fine in theory, but in practice, it means that it takes something like five seconds to swing a baseball bat, and… well, aside from the obvious fact that this is not something that is realistic in any way, it means you have to goad an enemy into swinging, move away, then swing at them and hope you connect. What this means, for instance, was that it was more pragmatic for me to beat the final (and only, really) boss, Pighead, to death with my bare fists than any sort of weapon, because your fists are the fastest weapons in the game and enemies tend to flinch before them as well as any actual weaponry. The fact that the game makes it easy for you to combat enemies in other ways is good, because the combat is awkward, simply put, and you won’t enjoy your time spent with it.

The game also runs out of tricks about halfway through, unfortunately, leaving you to face the same puzzles and tricks over and over again. After the tenth time you see a toilet filled with syringes, for instance, you kind of start asking, “What, couldn’t you find some razor wire or razor blades or something?”, and the fact that you’ll see the syringe-filled toilet ANOTHER ten times on top of that doesn’t make the idea any fresher. It’s understandable that the Jigsaw boxes, electrical boxes, door locks and other such mundane puzzles remain consistent, because they’re standard across the game, but the game is about fighting against a master planner like Jigsaw, so some more variety in the abnormal puzzles would have been nice. For example, of the six victims you have to face, three re-use puzzles you see throughout the asylum (rotating pipes, fixing circuit breakers, and placing gears), only with a time limit. Of the other three, the first, a puzzle about medication distribution levels, is interesting, and the second, a sliding block puzzle, isn’t unwelcome. The third, however, is a memory game, which just literally smacks of the developers completely running out of ideas and winging it as they came closer to the finish line, and it’s almost embarrassing. Granted, the later puzzles are still challenging, and they CAN be fun, but the game literally seems to run out of steam a little over halfway through, and it never manages to recover the momentum from earlier in the game from that point forward.

The bottom line is that SAW is a fun, suspenseful game with some real brain-twisting puzzles contained within that is astonishingly good for a game based on what is essentially a series of mainstream snuff films (and I LIKE the films). The fact that the game could be better is to be expected, but the fact that the game was any good at ALL is commendable. The presentation is faithful to the films across the board, from the bleak and hopeless story, to the spooky and dark visuals, to the haunting and powerful audio and beyond. The game is simple enough to play, all in all, and the puzzles are interesting for the most part, enough so that they will keep your interest for a while, and the game makes a good effort of mixing things up through about the first half of the game, which should interest both adventure game fans and fans of the movie franchise. However, there’s no reason to come back to the game after you complete it, both because you can earn every achievement in one playthrough and because there’s nothing new after the first go except for another difficulty level. Further, the combat mechanics don’t work very well at all and are often counter-productive to your goals, and the game seems to lose steam about halfway through, repeating puzzles and presenting unimaginative tests to you and forcing you to take on the same puzzles you’ve already seen under harsher conditions instead of actually making the puzzles harder. The game is enjoyable enough to play through once, and if you’re a fan of the films it’s a fantastic attempt, but unless you love the SAW films or horror games a whole lot, this is better off as a rental.

The Scores:
Graphics: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Replayability: DREADFUL
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
Miscellaneous: MEDIOCRE


Short Attention Span Summary:
SAW is a surprisingly solid game that ends up being not bad for a first crack at the franchise, as the game is creepy and challenging enough to sell you for a while, and with a little more imagination and play-testing it might have been a real winner, astonishingly enough. The story, visuals and audio match up to the theme of the films well, and they’re bleak, creepy and disconcerting enough to please both horror fans and film fans nicely. The gameplay is interesting overall, and the puzzles thrown at you are diverse and complex enough to get you through the first half of the game with few complaints. However, there’s absolutely no reason to go back to the game once you’ve finished it unless you want to try the other difficulty level or miss a couple achievements as you play. Further, the combat system is unwieldy at best and broken at worst, and while it’s great that the game gives you numerous ways to deal with assailants WITHOUT fighting, this does not make up for having broken combat mechanics in the first place. The game also loses its imagination about halfway through the experience, choosing to subject you to the same puzzles under harsher penalties instead of coming up with new puzzles to test you, which makes the second half of the game drag a bit more than it should have. As a first attempt at making a game of the franchise, SAW is a solid effort, and with some more imagination and development time the inevitable sequel should be a good game overall, but as it stands, this game will only be worth the cost for fans of the genre or the series. Everyone else can rent it or wait for a price drop.



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