When it was first announced, the Saw game was subject to much criticism among the gaming industry. Nearly everyone reported the news with a wink, asking if there was a point to the tie-in, and expecting the title to be shelved, never to see the light of day. While the film series is still making money in theaters, critics have blasted the past four movies, and it’s hard to imagine why Zombie Studios would bother with the IP this late in the series' life, especially when the track-record of movie tie-ins is factored in. This all changed once initial previews proved somewhat positive. After showing it to various members of the press over the past few months, it became obvious that they were on to something, and as time went on it became harder and harder to ignore Konami’s questionable endeavor.
Saw: The Video Game serves as a sequel to the first film and a prequel to the second, fitting in-between and putting players in control of Detective Tapp. For those who haven't seen the film, the character of Tapp was played by Danny Glover, who, at the end of the movie, took a bullet to the chest and was left to presumably die. A few films later, a memorial is shown for the Detective, confirming the suspicions that the character did, indeed, die. However, Saw's story follows the Detective David Tapp, who after a few minutes likely wishes he would have died in the original film.
Instead of regaining consciousness in a hospital bed, Tapp awakens in a metal chair with a Reverse Bear Trap affixed to his head. This trap has become an icon of sorts for the series, snaps open after a set amount of time, ripping apart the head of whoever it happens to be on. Instead of needing to gut a living person to retrieve a key for the device, as the character in the first film was forced to, a quick-time event is prompted, with the indicators actually showing up on the trap itself. By twisting the sticks and hitting the buttons, Tapp is able to remove the device, throwing it to the ground before it lets out a loud clank. A television flickers on and The Jigsaw Killer welcomes the tenacious detective to his base: an abandoned insane asylum.
Whitehurst Asylum serves as the location for the events that take place during the story. Tapp's goal: survive Jigsaw's games and take down the killer. It might sound straight forward, but with the Saw series, few things ever are. Jigsaw's asylum has been meticulously prepared for the occasion, and might be about as uninviting of a place as could ever be visited, filled with the bodies of those who have failed Jigsaw’s tests. Their remains can be found, still fresh, mangled in barbed wire and cut into pieces. Blinking timers sometimes sit above their bodies, recorders somewhere nearby, giving insight into why Jigsaw saw fit to take them out of their lives and test them. On the walls, blood coveys the killer’s message, and television screens flicker with the ghoulish puppet’s face. Every so often, a tripwire lays in wait, which triggers a shotgun blast that can take apart a head in one shot. To make matters worse, shards of glass litter the floor in some areas, and Detective Tapp apparently doesn't share a shoe size as any of the corpses in the building, meaning he occasionally needs to walk across the painful shards.
Even if it doesn’t feel entirely realistic, it fits within the Saw mythology stunningly well, and feels as much a part of the series as any of the films. The mood and plot are likely better than the most recent few Saw films, as well, portraying a more personal tale instead of trying to outdo itself in terms of gore and shock value. The Jigsaw Killer’s motive for capturing Tapp isn’t punishment or fear, but an attempt to teach him a lesson. It’s not a “don’t mess with me” message either; it’s philosophical, like everything else he does. On his path to capturing Jigsaw, Tapp has been sloppy, letting his obsession with the killer consume him. This is most evident with the death of his partner, Detective Sing, who died in the killer’s warehouse after Tapp refused to call for backup or wait for a warrant. Jigsaw wants Tapp to understand the lives he has ruined, and give him a clear understanding of why he does what he does.
While a compelling story and an immersive environment help, they can't really make the game on their own, and I don't think anyone doubted the ability to create a spooky, fitting setting for the Saw game to take place in. The real question was whether or not the franchise could be adapted to a game and, if it would play well. To be honest, I doubt there's a better way than how Zombie Studios handled it. Players control Tapp in third-person, moving him around the asylum and following Jigsaw's clues to reach different locations. His actions are somewhat limited, but fit in line with most survival-horror games. He isn't jumping from ledge to ledge or hurdling obstacles, he's moving slowly, shining his flashlight (or lighter, or camera) to try and find a way in the dark. The detective spends most of his time searching through cabinets and desks, finding objects that might make things a little easier on him. Health syringes, shotgun shells, trap components, and other collectibles are spread all throughout the institution, ready to be looted and used.
Case files, too, are scattered around, and give insight into Whitehurst's practices before it was shut down. Apparently, even before Jigsaw took over, it wasn't a place anyone would want to be. They instituted practices that would be considered barbaric even at the time, trying to "cure" their inmates by any means necessary, and accepting deaths as a necessary step towards progress. How bad was it? Their answer to their incredibly high mortality rate was to build their own incinerators so they could continue their tests. The setting of an abandoned insane asylum works wonders for storytelling, since the draconian “therapy” methods used in the early days of treatment are nearly indistinguishable from Jigsaw’s tests, drawing a nice parallel between the two.
While wandering the asylum is important, Saw is, at its core, about the tests. Jigsaw’s games and riddles all culminate in different puzzles that need to be solved in order to move forward. It doesn’t rely on any one type of puzzle, instead drawing inspiration from every action game to ever have a locked door. Some work like minigames, trying to get circuits to align or pipes to line up, while others are action-oriented or, in some cases, logic or perspective puzzles. Often, they're accompanied with a timer or other stipulations to make the situation more stressful. Even the simplest of objectives are much more difficult when the beeping of explosives or hiss of gas is heard in the background, and Zombie Studios took advantage of every tool possible to create tense experiences.
Early on, there’s a great variety to the puzzles, with only the slightest repetition. Generally speaking, a mechanic is repeated a few times before eventually paying off in a timed version, so the player is already familiar with the puzzle before needing to do it on a timer. By late in the game, however, redundancies can become trying, and it starts to feel like Jigsaw isn’t nearly as clever as he thinks himself. The reason for the repetition is tied into the lack of replayability in Saw. Like, a serious lack of replayability. Even among games that we’ve said have low replayability, Saw has low replayability, and it’s fairly obvious that Zombie Studios knew this when developing the game.
Instead of trying to fix this issue by randomly generating puzzle solutions or adding multiple paths or side-quests, they stretched out the singleplayer to give gamers more bang for their buck on the first play. This stretch didn't come with additional puzzles, though, so they had to start repeating the same ones over and over again. Even the climactic sections start dipping their hand into the same few tired mechanics over and over again, needing to work through the same electrical grids at the end of the game as the ones from the first hour of the game. Other elements of the game might have sounded good on paper, but fail in execution. Early on, Tapp needs to retrieve a key from a toilet filled with the syringes of drug addicts. Fishing out the object is disturbing, but ultimately as simple as hitting a button a few times. Later, repeating the act with a barrel of acid changes things up a little, but it's still the same mechanic, and isn't actually as entertaining as a gameplay element as it is in theory. When Zombie Studios ran out of creative ways to kill people they should have taken that as a sign that the game should end, not that they should start from the top.
Another instance of bad design comes with the combat. Though the asylum is "abandoned," it is far from empty. Zombie Studios didn’t throw Jigsaw masks on a bunch of thugs and make them cohorts, they stuck true to the series, shining a spotlight on the ugly face of humanity. When healing the gunshot wound , Jigsaw took the opportunity to sew a key into Tapp's stomach as well. Other stuck in the building are tasked with getting this object to complete their own game, and are willing to take down the detective to hope to avoid a torturous death. This gave them an opportunity to create combat different from what is normally in games, based around the desperation that would drive a man to kill. It goes halfway there by allowing players and enemies to use objects in the environment to fight with, but stops short.
I really have no idea what they wanted to achieve with the combat in Saw. Several elements are available, but none work all that well. To take down opponents Tapp usually has three options: use a mine, lure an opponent to a trap, or actually engage them in combat. Sadly, each of these have their own problems. After finding a schematic, mines are crafted using items found throughout the game (which, surprisingly, doesn't cue a minigame, no matter how fitting it might be). They are hard to effectively use and feel like an afterthought. Luring enemies into traps can often backfire, since there's no option to step over the tripwire, only to disable and enable it, which highlights the game's mediocre controls and overuse of context-sensitive buttons. Combat, however, takes the cake when it comes to poor implementation.
It’s a three button system, with a heavy attack, a light attack, and the ability to block, with different damage and speed depending on the weapon being used. If a blow is blocked at the correct time, a counter can be initiated. That said, it barely ever works, so trying to block is futile, meaning combat usually ends up looking like two cavemen hitting each other with clubs. It's not that it's hard, it's just a terrible system, and Saw would be a drastically better game if it was either improved or taken out entirely.
Because the combat is so easy but completely unfulfilling, the ability to use the environment to take down opponents seems much less important or necessary. Being able to electrocute enemies or lure them into shotgun traps might seem like interesting mechanics, but they're almost entirely for show, since almost every enemy, including the final boss, can be defeated by standing still and uppercutting them to death. The few exceptions come when the shotgun collar is introduced - a device that will detonate and kill Tapp when another collar is nearby for too long. Even then, it's usually easy to take down the charging foe, or simply outrun them until their collar explodes. Being able to bolt doors and block them to keep such foes out is an admirable addition, but suffers at the hand of the same poor controls that plague the game's trap-setting sections.
Running on the Unreal engine, Saw is a good enough looking game, though it struggles when compared to others in the genre. While Whitehurst Asylum itself looks fantastic, character models, with the exception of the protagonist, often look muddy and low-resolution, and animations aren’t all that varied. It’s common for characters to react poorly to objects in the environment, which is a shame considering exactly how good the asylum itself looks. Voice acting, too, suffers from similar issues, with both the main character (voiced by someone who most certainly isn't Danny Glover) and Jigsaw (voiced by the film's Tobin Bell) sharing fine writing and dialog, while nearly every other character spews uninteresting ramblings with unenthusiastic voices. After the tenth time a fat, shirtless man with a baseball bat yells "I want that key!" it becomes more cringe-inducing than reaching a hand into a barrel of acid. Clipping issues, occasional graphical glitches, and the Unreal Engine's signature texture pops also show up from time to time, but none ever take away from the game much.
While it's on the long side, there's literally no reason to play the game a second time. It actually autosaves right before the end of the game, where Tapp is presented with two doors (leading to alternate endings), so it's possible to reload an earlier save to check out both conclusions. Nevertheless, Zombie Studios has done a fine job with the property, and has succeeded more than most thought possible with the series. Saw, as a tie-in to the series, is wonderful. As a survival horror game, however, it's a much smaller success. A success, mind you, but a small success, and one that doesn't rely on any knowledge of the Saw series to enjoy. It isn't worth buying for anyone but the most die-hard of survival horror fans, and even then most would be best served simply renting the title.