The horror genre is at a strange stage of evolution in the entertainment industry. Hollywood films continue to skew towards what critics disgustedly refer to as "torture porn," a type of movie most recently popularized by the Saw franchise. These movies are meant to shock the viewer through mutilation and graphic depictions of death and pain. Meanwhile, horror videogames have turned into shoot'em-ups with far flung sci-fi settings (Dead Space) and muscle-bound, invincible protagonists (Resident Evil). Saw partially succeeds in bringing a taste of Hollywood horror to your console by grounding itself in the gritty and depraved world of the popular film series.
Saw breaks out of the gates hard, introducing us to the protagonist Detective Tapp as he regains consciousness and struggles to release himself from a deadly trap. A metallic helmet has been affixed to his head that will bisect his cranium if players don't quickly press the corresponding buttons that flash on the sides of the device. The puzzle isn't complicated, but from the outset the presentation strikes the right chord by giving us a high tension, nerve-racking experience.
Detective Tapp soon realizes that he is one of many people trapped in an insane asylum and has become a pawn in the deranged plans of a serial killer. His captor is the man he has spent his life pursuing, a brilliant psychopath labeled "Jigsaw" by the press. His claim to infamy is that he's never "killed" anyone, he simply presents them with a choice of actions. Unfortunately for his victims, the decision making process involves self-mutilation, suicide, or murder. They also involve brain teasers and puzzles that require players to act quickly under pressure. Considering Jigsaw often asks his victims if they'd "like to play a game" it's pretty amazing we haven't seen an interactive version of his exploits until now.
Without spoiling anything, I can say that the plot and progression of Saw the videogame is something of a "greatest hits" montage from the film series. Fans will find the scenarios, characters, and violent set pieces extremely familiar. You'll get everything from barrels of pig guts, to limb twisting, to improvised surgery. None of the gross-outs are as gut-wrenchingly realistic as the film, but the graphics have just enough kick to induce queasiness. In this way game puts the best ideas from the franchise to use. Unfortunately the films only provide enough material for a few hours of interactive horror before the formula starts to repeat itself.
Jigsaw acts as a kind of evil god in the game. His voice and image is omnipresent through the use of well placed television sets. He controls all movement in the facility through magnetic doors and cages. It forces the player into a series of bottlenecks and ever deadlier areas of confinement. The asylum is a maze of dirty bathrooms, dirty hallways, and dilapidated stairwells. The décor is fittingly bleak; just don't expect much variety.
The game is broken into chapters, and cleverly the achievements and number of chapters are kept secret to maintain a level of suspense. In each section Jigsaw has imprisoned a person from Detective Tapp's past and he must reach the victim and release them from one of the killer's intricate deathtraps. For example, you partake in the goriest game of Memory ever conceived to free a man from a metal rack. Every wrong move causes his body to be perforated with steel spikes. How's that for motivation?
These set pieces are the big payoff at the end of a level and the most enjoyable part of the game. You'll lose just to see the trap sprung and the victim creatively disposed of. I found myself wishing there were more of these "big" kills and less of everything else, but to maintain a respectable length, the path to each victim is long and arduous.
Jigsaw's smaller traps appear in a few different incarnations. First off, the asylum is filled with small but deadly barriers to slow Detective Tapp's progression. These include doors and tripwires rigged with shotguns that can turn any room into a slaughterhouse. It keeps players on their toes because these traps don't wound, they kill, every time.
Then there are more complicated traps that involve gas leaks, timed explosives, and locked doors that require players to participate in simple mind benders. These require an item hidden in the asylum in a desk or locker. Once you have the proper tool you'll participate in a mini-game like rotating the wires in a circuit box to reroute power, or rotating twisted sections of pipe to drain gas from a room. Slightly different variations of these puzzles appear at regular intervals and eventually this causes Saw to lose its edge.
To make matters worse for Detective Tapp, he isn't the only player in Jigsaw's game. The asylum is filled with prisoners who have been instructed by their captor that the literal key to their survival is inside Tapp's body. Most of them will try to get it through aggressive means. Enter Saw's weakest element, perhaps its Achilles heel: the combat.
Tapp can arm himself with a variety of makeshift weapons scattered throughout the asylum, but fighting off foes can be difficult and unresponsive. There is a block button, a quick attack, a heavy attack, and a health bar. There is even some manner of counter attack and a work bench that allows Tapp to construct damaging mines. He can also trick enemies into following him into environmental hazards like the aforementioned trip wires. These concepts are sound, but Tapp's movements are sluggish, the blocking is only somewhat protective, and the melee weapons are mostly the same in terms of effectiveness.
You could argue that Tapp, being injured and disoriented, shouldn't be much of a fighter in his condition, but if you've played Condemned, you know that hand-to-hand combat when done correctly can be intense and visceral, especially in a horror game. In this case, fighting through the asylum takes a backseat to the puzzles and infrequently serves as a satisfying diversion.
The only combat element that hits the nail on the head is the occasional revolver. Tapp doesn't have to fill his enemies full of lead to take them down. A single well-placed shot will obliterate most targets. Life is a fragile thing in Saw, as it should be in any horror game.
Dealing with enemies is more engaging when they act as walking bombs due to explosive elements that have been sewn and soldered to their limbs. The only way to save themselves is to get at the key in Tapp's gut so they'll stop at nothing to get to him. In these situations a player's only hope is to turn tail and run or hide behind a locked door until Jigsaw's timed traps run their course.
The experience is far more enjoyable if played in chunks, taken one chapter at a time. It detracts from the supposed terrifying genius of Jigsaw when he presents player with the same life-or-death scenario multiple times. It also chips away at the already shaky metaphors that he uses to justify his actions. It was creepy the first time I was forced to reach into a syringe filled toilet to find a key. The third time… not so much.
Saw is built on the Unreal Engine 3 and it shows. The visuals are mostly detailed and at times very disturbing. However, there are some characters and objects that look less realistic than others. There are also slight texture loading issues that are apparent as visuals slowly become sharper when loading a game. Saw takes itself very seriously, so when there are visual flaws it can act as a break in the tension or interrupt the mood.
Where the visuals fail, the audio succeeds with excellent voicework by Tobin Bell portraying the creepy antagonist. The asylum echoes with moans and cries for help that successfully dim the mood even further. The soundtrack mostly hangs back as an ambient accompaniment except during the big puzzles when it kicks in to heighten anxiety. I would recommend playing Saw in the dark with the volume turned way up. I tried experiencing the game at mid-day and it just didn't have the same appeal.
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