With Saw VI on the way, Konami has decided to quickly sorta dump their Saw game onto shelves (I joked that it was given the non-Saw Lionsgate horror release - no ads, hard to find, no pre-release reviews). Not sure why they have seemingly abandoned the game; it was initially conceived as the start of a new survival horror franchise. Having played it, I could definitely see areas for improvement for future installments, but also fail to see HOW they could make any further games as long as the film series is still running.
(NOTE - This review reflects the Xbox360 version of the game.)
Considering the films’ incredibly dense mythology (and the die-hard, nitpicky fans who can spot even the tiniest discrepancy in it), any game developer would have to face a pretty difficult series of obstacles in order to tell a story that would fit in the mythos without drastically ret-conning anything, but also present a story that wasn’t already told in one of the films (since the Saw films live and die by their twists and surprises, simply re-telling one of the films’ stories would be anticlimactic). That said, the Saw game manages to do just that with few “Hey wait a minute, in the FILM...” reactions in the proceedings. But whether they could manage to do that again and again seems unreasonable. With the films’ timeline growing ever narrower (with at least two of the films taking place at the same time), there isn’t a lot of unaccounted for time in the lives of these characters.
Unless we thought they were dead, of course. Detective Tapp (played by Danny Glover in the first film) died easier than any other character in the entire series (merely shot), so it was easy enough for the game developers to show that Jigsaw extracted the bullet and saved his life. So you play as Tapp (looking/sounding nothing like his cinematic counterpart - a distraction I never got used to), at some unspecified time in between Saw 1 and II (judging by Amanda Young’s appearance and the fact that John Kramer is still unknown to the police force). Jigsaw has trapped you in an abandoned asylum, and the game more or less plays out like Saw III, with your character making his way around a confined area, hunting for clues while occasionally saving the lives of people who had wronged him in some way.
Of course, this being a video game, we need more than just one enemy, which is where the “minions” come into play. Seems Jigsaw has sewn a key to the exit inside of Tapp, and the 30 or so anonymous minions will do anything to get the key from you (and by anything I mean, every now and then one will come out of nowhere and hit you with a bat or pipe). It’s a nice diversion from the core of the game, but the rather clunky controls and dull combat (you have two attacks, but the stronger one takes so long to execute you’ll probably almost never use it) renders them largely annoying. Every now and then you’ll find a gun to use, and you’ll welcome its strength and precision over the various implements you’ll find over the course of the game’s seven levels.
The bulk of the game, thankfully, is spent solving mini-puzzles and using your brain. There are five different match up type puzzles, similar to the ones seen in games like Bioshock and Lost: Via Domus. They all involve spinning things around to make a path, so your ability to do them largely depends on your logic skills and common sense. As the game progresses two of them get far more difficult (thanks to larger circuit boards), but the difficulty is never too unforgiving. Also, the layout of the puzzles is randomized, so if you’re stuck on a particular sequence, you’ll probably get an easier one once you reload.
There are also a few puzzles that only come up once, usually in relation to saving someone’s life from a trap (I must say that I am a bit disappointed with the traps in the game - they’re almost all repeats of ones we saw in the films). One is a Memory type game, and at one point you actually get to put together a jigsaw puzzle. These are far more engaging, due to the fact that they are unique (it’s a disappointment when you reach the end of a level and you have to do one of the usual puzzle types, albeit with a time limit) and largely more original. The Memory game, for example, isn’t the usual “match two like objects” type, but rather a group of pairs - a hammer goes with nails, a saw goes with a bloody foot, etc. These are randomized as well, so don’t bother with consulting Gamefaqs if you’re stuck.
There are also a few generic game elements tossed in for good measure, though their actual point was either lost in the usual game developing process or never really hashed out to begin with. For example, throughout the game you find notes from the hospital staff, but they never really amount to anything or tie into the story in any meaningful way. You’ll find notes about “Patient X” but you never learn his/her identity, and there are some out there references to MK Ultra and shock therapy that never pay off. One of them has a cute little reference to Resident Evil, but otherwise they seemingly serve no purpose, other than to net you an achievement for finding one (don’t bother hunting around for all of them - there’s no checklist to see which ones you missed, nor is there any reward for finding them all anyway).
There’s also a camera in the game that’s even more useless. Ostensibly introduced as an alternate light source to the flashlight and lighter, it simply makes a sort of echo on the screen that won’t help you find your way, and it takes so long to take another picture that it will just slow you down more than anything else. My advice? Stick to the lighter. Not only does it provide the widest arc of light, but it’s also useful to light Molotov cocktails. Its only drawback is that it flickers out when you run, but you shouldn’t be running much anyway.
Why? Because of the goddamn trip-wires that Jigsaw has placed everywhere. Get used to the sight of your head being blown up, because I guarantee that you will die more from these things than anything else in the game. It’s a little unfair of Jigsaw (read: the game designers) to expect you to be constantly looking at the floor while you’re running around trying to find a key (especially during timed sequences) or a valve to shut off the poisonous gas that is rapidly depleting your health, but that is precisely what he does, time and time again. You can disarm these traps, of course (and re-arm them if you happen to be being pursued at the time - another way to avoid the lousy melee system), but more often than not you’ll probably only know they are there because you just reloaded the last save after getting killed by one again.
As for the story, well, like I said, there is only so much room for the designers to work with, due to the films’ pretzel like timeline. As long as you buy that Tapp survived (again, he’s the only one in the series to die without having his fucking head ripped apart or whatever), only the most nitpicky fan will find holes with regards to the canon (this is my careful way of saying, as someone who has only seen each film twice, I didn’t see anything out of place). Apart from a new character named Jeff (of all the names in the world, why use one that’s also the name of one of the series’ protagonists?), the new characters don’t seem completely un-movie like, and those who do return (Amanda, Obi) fit in with their characters’ journeys at this point of the narrative.
I just wish the game had allowed you to let some of them die. Obviously Amanda and Obi need to live, but why does the reporter who blamed Tapp for the killings need to go on (and by keeping him alive, why not make him the reporter character Carlo Rota played in Saw V?)? He’s not in any of the movies. The films are built around ‘choice’, but the game never gives you one. There are only two moments in the entire game where you can choose a certain path (one has no consequence, the other is the game’s ending), and there are a couple of puzzles with two parts (you can do the right side first, or the left side first... but you still have to do both parts), otherwise everything is rigidly structured, even moreso than some other survival horror games. It’s strange that they would go out of their way to make the plot fit into the series, but disregard the franchise’s main theme.
Such a system would also allow for the game to have some replayability, a trait it is sorely lacking (even the achievements are all possible in one playthrough). You could aim for “100% Savior” or something along those lines, had the game given you the choice to save someone (i.e. redo the sequence until you get it right) or simply let them stay dead and proceed with the game. None of the characters stick around for more than a minute after you save them (some even instantly get themselves killed in the next room), so again, it’s a bit strange that they would force you to keep trying until you save them, when most of the characters have no impact on any future part of the game (or films, for that matter). And you can get the other ending simply by reloading the last save (the game autosaves at designated checkpoints), so again - there is no reason for you to replay the adventure. They don’t even have the standard achievement for beating the game on harder difficulty levels.
Acting-wise, only Tobin Bell returns to voice his character (Shawnee Smith was too busy being a terrible reality show host to come in for an hour and record some dialogue, I guess), and he is just as menacing here as he is in the films. His face is never shown, but the voice is unmistakably Bell’s, and gives the game an extra sense of class. The other actors are fine, but other than Bell they only have a couple of lines a piece anyway. The sound design is suitably creepy, with surround effects adding atmosphere throughout the 8-10 hr game. Only real flaw is the lack of Charlie Clouser’s famous (and awesome) “Hello Zepp” music, which is (badly) ripped off near the end of the game. They shouldn’t have bothered at all; this low-grade karaoke version is laughable. The graphics aren’t particularly eye-popping, but the color scheme and overall LOOK of the game matches that of the films, which is all that matters. I recently played the Terminator Salvation game, and it was appalling how unlike the film it looked (and how shitty it was, but that WAS in line with its cinematic counterpart). The surprisingly few cut-scenes also match the films’ ramped up editing style, which is a nice touch.
All in all, it’s a decent game that fails to really dive into the films’ thematic concepts. Without the elements of choice, or even a twisty narrative (the requisite surprise at the end is hardly jaw-dropping, since it involves a character you don’t care about), it feels like a missed opportunity (some team-work based multiplayer, a la Saw II and V, would have been nice too) to do something really interesting, instead settling for another survival horror game that largely feels just like Condemned or last gen’s Manhunt. It’s certainly better than most movie-game tie-ins, but considered how easily the source material (mythology aside) lends itself to a game, I can’t help but feel that it couldn’t have been better (I wouldn’t be surprised if the game that James Wan and Leigh Whannell had designed would have been far more ambitious; they were more or less dropped from the proceedings early on). Some more creativity would have elevated the game from “Rental” to “Buy”, and given Konami’s rather low-key release of the game, I think we’re going to have to get future Saw fixes the same way we always have - in theaters, every Halloween.