Released: October 2009
Developer: Zombie Studios
Also Available For: PC and PlayStation 3
In 2004, writer Leigh Wannell and director James Wan brought us Saw, a psychological horror film in which two men find themselves trapped in a grimy bathroom, victims of the twisted John Kramer, also known as the Jigsaw Killer (Tobin Bell), and forced to play a demented game of survival where one must die or both must cut through their feet to escape their shackles. Saw was a surprise success; produced on a budget of $1.2 million, it grossed over $100 million at the box office, making it (at the time) the most profitable horror film in about eight years and kick-starting not only an ongoing horror franchise but also inspiring a whole other sub-genre of horror cinema, the “torture porn” genre. By 2009, Saw’s success had translated into six sequels that continued the story, each of varying quality. This, apparently, was the perfect time to capitalise on the franchise’s success with a puzzle-based, quasi-survival/horror videogame. While the game was initially announced in 2006, development stalled somewhat despite the creators of the franchise working closely on the game’s narrative, aesthetics, and gameplay elements. Konami eventually took over the production of the game, viewing it as a potential spiritual successor to their Silent Hill (Various, 1999 to 2012) franchise; however, while the game did well enough to get a sequel in 2010, it received little more than average to mediocre reviews at the time of release.
Disgraced police detective David Tapp, who ran afoul of Jigsaw in the first Saw movie, finds himself trapped in a former mental asylum at the mercy of the Jigsaw Killer. Forced to confront his mistakes and the demons of his past, he must solve a series of gruesome traps and puzzles in an attempt to earn his freedom.
Saw is a third-person action/puzzle game with an emphasis on puzzle-solving, collecting items, and evading or smartly dispatching of a few foes similar to other survival/horror titles. Players are put into the shoes of a familiar character from the franchise who looks and acts absolutely nothing like the character as portrayed by Danny Glover; here, Tapp is far from the broken, semi-insane former cop with a grouchy voice thanks to a scar across his throat and is, instead, more like a desperate, guilt-ridden cop.
The game’s story is pretty standard Saw fare; Tapp must try to survive the asylum, which is filled with traps and other victims looking to kill him, solving puzzles and freeing victims chosen specifically to test Tapp’s morals and conscious. Unlike in the movies, though, you must past these tests and free these victims; they then promptly flee through means apparently unavailable to you and you continue on, learning a bit more about Tapp’s character and backstory as you go through Jigsaw’s cryptic taunts, audio tapes, and various documents and clippings found strewn throughout the asylum. However, while this does a lot to flesh out the Saw world beyond the movies and the game does a decent job at recreating the aesthetics of its source material, it’s tough to really enjoy it since Tapp controls like a lump of clay; slow, sluggish, and awkward, your options for exploration and combat are made needlessly complicated thanks to the game’s janky, tank-like controls (Tapp literally walks in reverse when you could back on the analogue stick) that see you jogging around the asylum at a listless pace as though the ground is made of sticky mud. Collision issues will see you sometimes clip into the environment or clip onto of it (the closest Tapp ever gets to jumping) and it can be difficult to navigate thanks to the grey, nondescript surroundings and next-to-useless map.
In true Saw fashion, your field of view is limited thanks to ambient, broken lighting, dark corners, and the asylum being little more than a blood, trap, and debris-strewn environment. To help with your navigation, you can acquire three different times to light your way; a lighter (which lights the immediate area a little bit, can cause certain barrels to explode, and goes out when you move too fast), a camera (which illuminates the immediate area in a burst of light but for such a brief period that it’s next to useless), and a flashlight (easily the best source of light as it lights up the largest area and is far more reliable). You can to manually activate these with the Y button, and have to do so every time you restart from a death, but often automatically lose them as the story progresses. Although Jigsaw saved him from the bullet that clearly killed him in the first movie, Tapp must still be feeling the effects as he’s quite a fragile man. A few blows from enemies will send him crumbling to the floor like a ragdoll, you need to constantly be alert from shards of broken glass that will drain your health, and he constantly runs afoul of Jigsaw’s many booby traps scattered throughout the asylum. If you don’t disarm the traps, you’ll get your head blown off, and if you can’t keep your balance you’ll plunge to your death at numerous points.
Luckily, there’s a generous autosave feature and you can simply retry from your last checkpoint and Tapp can pick up bandages, a sewing kit, or bottles of water, or water fountains to instantly refill his health or carry around five syringes to heal your wounds. Combat, however, is a diabolical affair; luckily, there aren’t many enemies to engage with and they usually come at you one at a time because Tapp is a poor fighter in every sense of the word. Tapp can punch with his fists, swing destructible weapons, or shoot at enemies with limited ammo, or lure his enemies into traps to dispatch of them but you better be well prepared for when enemies come at you as they generally attack faster than you can “block” or “dodge” and faster than you cans wing, too. It also doesn’t help that the camera zooms in and kind of freaks out a bit when enemies appear, making it way too easy for you to get trapped in the environment or stuck behind a door or some piece of scenery. Most enemies go down pretty easily, which is helpful, and you can knock them down to finish them off or use the proximity alarms on their collars to blow their heads off but, more often than not, you’ll be trying to land a few strikes as quickly as possible and then backing away to clear some room. Often, I found fleeing from enemies caused them to either stand around aimlessly or despawn completely, which can be helpful, and you’ll often come across a number of enemies fighting with each other so you can sneak past or take care of whoever’s left.
In place of fighting hoards of enemies, you’ll be tasked with exploring your surroundings (carefully, to Jigsaw’s many instant-death traps), solving a few rudimentary puzzles before tackling Jigsaw’s more gruesome “games”. These range from shoving your hand into barrels of acid or toilet bowls fill of syringes to grab keys, attaching different-sized gears to access better weapons, pressing A, X, B, and Y at the right time or aligning certain screws to unlock doors and such, and (my personal favourite) aligning pipes to stop Tapp being gassed to death. Most of the time, solving these leads you to items and things of interest but you’ll also have to endure a few timed puzzles to progress further; these involve moving racks of pig carcasses before you freeze to death, shutting off steam valves, finding fuses to open doors of shut off electrified floors, bashing down weak walls and slipping through, trying not to get crushed to death, and rewiring fuse boxes.
While many of these puzzles are found throughout the game, some see you battling against the clock; linger too long and you’ll be caught in an explosion, which does help add to the tension and immersion of the videogame but the puzzles are always the same at varying levels of difficulty, meaning it all gets very monotonous very quickly. You’ll also often be tasked with using and exploring your environment to find clues, such as codes and keys for doors or other items to unlock sealed doors, which is very much in keeping with the movies but, again, these generally amount to you visiting a new area (that looks strikingly similar to other areas of the game), maybe navigating a few traps or variations of these same puzzles, dispatching the odd enemy or two, and then getting back to where you need to be. It’s not massively difficult since you pretty much see everything the game has to offer within the first hour or so and it’s not too difficult to find your way around, which is helpful as the game’s map is absolutely rubbish.
Graphics and Sound:
While Saw does a pretty good job of emulating the dismal, gritty, dank visual style of many of the Saw movies, in particular the first three films, and the environments look suitably “lived-in” and dangerous, the game really doesn’t look all that great. Character models are hopelessly low quality, using none of the voices or likenesses of any of the actors save for Tobin Bell, and resemble little more than flailing puppets at times. Cutscenes are little more than simplistic cutaways from the main action and all utilise the in-game graphics and models which, while giving the game come consistency and, again, aligning very closely with the fast-paced, frantic cuts of the movies, serve to only emphasise how lacklustre and mediocre the game looks.
Where the game excels, as with the movies, is in its depiction of graphic and gruesome death traps and the gravelly, alluring tones of Tobin Bell’s Jigsaw. Thanks to Bell providing near-constant commentary throughout the game, there’s a continual feeling of dread and suspense as you wonder what is waiting around the next corner or in the next area. While many of the puzzles do outstay their welcome, they’re always punctuated by Bell’s distinct voice and his presence definitely elevates the quality of the game…but not quite enough to ignore its many failings.
Enemies and Bosses:
Tapp isn’t alone in the asylum; he’s been trapped with other victims of Jigsaw’s game, all of whom have been told their only way to freedom is to kill Tapp and retrieve a key from his body. These enemies are few and far between but do have some variations; some have the reverse bear trap on their head, some have metal boxes over their heads, others wield weapons, some have explosives attached to their wrists or shotgun neck braces on that will explode you if you don’t keep your distance, and some toss Molotov cocktails at you. the fact that they can easily attack you without mercy and either kill you outright or knock you to your death makes even the game’s standard enemies a tough obstacle to overcome as you need to be well-prepared before engaging in combat, which helps make every enemy a meaningful encounter but also frustrating thanks to the game’s janky camera, collision detection, and combat controls.
In terms of actual bosses, though, Saw only really has one encounter that could be deemed as a true “Boss battle”; as you progress through the story, you’ll catch sight of the infamous Pighead, an apprentice of Jigsaw, who haunts the asylum, trapping others in death traps and stacking the odds against Tapp. Eventually, you’ll have to battle the Pig head to get a key to progress; armed with a nail bat, Pighead can be a formidable foe but it’s just as easy to rush past him and lure him into a metal cage, lock him in, and then activate a switch to fry his ass alive.
In place of traditional boss battles, each chapter of the game ends with Tapp having to same Jigsaw’s victims from death traps; the first of these is another familiar name (though not a familiar face), Amanda Young, and straight away this trap sets the tone for how annoying Saw can be. Amanda and Tapp are both strapped into a machine and the player must cause red or blue antidotes to correctly drop to the left and right, respectively, using the shoulder buttons. This can be a tedious task as it’s not very clear how to do this and you only get about three chances to make a mistake before you fail and must retry from the beginning. The trap’s difficulty spikes in the second stage where you’ll have to sometimes guide two blues and two reds to the same pathway, which means a lot of forward planning and trial and error.
To rescue Melissa Sing, you’ll have to solve three magnetic maze puzzles before she’s chopped to pieces. If you had one of these games as a kid, this trap isn’t too difficult, especially compared to the previous two traps, but it can be tricky to find a safe path to the spiral symbol that is your goal as it’s often not possible to avoid moving over an x strike and speeding up the threat to Melissa’s life. Three of the victims require you to solve increasingly-difficult variations on common puzzles found throughout the game; the gear puzzle, the fuse box puzzle, and the pipe dial puzzles. How difficult you find these traps will depend on your skill at solving these different puzzles but the ones found in these traps are of considerable difficulty, at times, thanks to being much more complex than those you’ll find elsewhere in the game. While they aren’t massively difficult, it can be tricky to remember the order and sequence needed to quickly solve each part and move on to the next mini game before time runs out; it also doesn’t help that the game constantly cuts away from the mini game so you can see the victim suffering further or edging closer to death the longer you take.
The final victim can only be freed by matching up items on television screens; shotgun shells must match with a shotgun, for example, and a severed foot with a saw. While this isn’t as difficult or as stress-inducing as some of the other traps, it is frustrating as you only get some many chances to make mistakes and the images are randomised with each retry, making it a tedious game of trail, error, and luck as you’re all-but-guaranteed to make at least one mistake when solving this puzzle. Once you complete this test, though, the final test is yours as you must choose between two doors, “Freedom” and “Truth”, with each one leading to a suitably bleak ending for Tapp and the game in general.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
Tapp certainly has the odds against him; in keeping with the game’s close adherence to the source material, you won’t find anything helpful like shields or speed-ups here. Instead, you must explore and solve puzzles and search everywhere for health-restoring items or weapons. Though he can bash enemy’s heads in with his bare fists, Tapp isn’t much of a pugilist so it’s best to grab one of the many weapons found throughout he asylum; you can grab steel pipes, crowbars, shovels, bottles (and use your lighter to create a Molotov cocktail and set enemies alight), table legs, hatchets, mannequin arms, and nail bats to break and bludgeon over your enemy’s skulls.
These weapons will break apart the more you use them but, luckily, there’s often another weapon nearby or to be retrieved from a downed enemy. You can also obtain a revolver at a couple of points; you only get six shots, though, so it’s best to sue this weapon wisely as it’ll pretty much kill any enemy (bar Pighead) in one shot. You’re also able to cobble together traps of your own to stun, gas, and explode enemies though I found this more cumbersome and annoying than useful; it’s far more useful to simply rearm one of Jigsaw’s existing traps to blow or fry enemies away quickly and efficiently.
Saw comes with forty-six Achievements for you to earn; many of these are can’t be missed as long as you complete the game’s story mode while others require you to defeat a certain number of enemies, use every weapon in the game, and unlock a certain number of doors. They’re not especially difficult to get in one playthrough and you can always load up a previous chapter to get any you’ve missed by killing the same enemy over and over again. Although Saw comes with two difficulty modes, there’s no real reason to play the harder difficulty as there’s no Achievement tied to it. You can also go into the “Features” menu to view character, environment, prop, and trap concept art, if you like that sort of thing, but that’s about it.
I am a big fan of the Saw franchise; I find the character of Jigsaw intriguing and fascinating because of how skewed and warped his motivations and philosophies are and the gruesome death traps make for some of the most horrific pieces of horror cinema in recent memory. Sadly, while Saw does go to a great deal of effort to match and recreate the look, feel, and atmosphere of the movies it is based on and part of, it fails to really hold the attention for too long.
The game is average, at best, and a frustrating mess at worst; with a dodgy camera, janky controls, wonky physics, and a piss-poor combat system, Saw could have been a tense and atmospheric survival/horror game with a focus on numerous increasingly tough, imaginative puzzles but is, instead, an uninspiring experience that is over pretty quickly, adds little to the lore, and requires very little from you other than battling past the game’s screwy controls and mastering a handful of different puzzles until you reach which depressing ending you choose to indulge.
Did you ever play Saw; if so…why, and what did you think of it? Did you struggle with the game’s presentation and gameplay or did you actually enjoy it for what it was? Are you a fan of the Saw franchise? Which of the films do you think is the best, or how would you rank the movies? Whatever you think about Saw, drop a comment below.