LICENSE TO THRILL? #17: Saw (2009)

Jigsaw couldn’t finish his dastardly games without releasing one for the PS3 and 360. 

Who made it?: Zombie Studios (Developer), Konami (Publisher).

Genre: Survival Horror.

Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC.

Format: Blu-ray disc, Optical disc, Download.

Released: November 20, 2009 (UK).

When I first realised that now-defunct developers Brash Interactive were working on a Saw video game, I had hoped for the best but naturally planned for the worst. As much as I actually enjoy the Saw films (yeah, I’m in the minority), Brash weren’t exactly known for their quality titles. Among these games are movie tie-ins like Space ChimpsThe Tale of Desperaux and the abominable Jumper: Griffin’s Story. But when Brash folded near the end of 2008, development firm Zombie Studios took over the project and proceeded to both revamp and complete the title. With the publishing help of Konami, I really started to wonder if Saw: The Video Game, as it is sometimes known, wasn’t going to be the detestable monstrosity we first anticipated. Zombie Studios has only worked on a handful of games (including the fantastic PC military shooters Spec Ops and Spec Ops II: Green Berets), but if a well-respected company like Konami would risk their near-flawless reputation by releasing a movie-based game from an unknown developer, it had to be better than us rabid Saw fans were giving it credit for, right?

My most permeating thought was, “How is the movie universe and mythology going to translate into interactive entertainment?” Initial guesses from fans were that the player would take on the role of Jigsaw, create traps, and test unwitting victims while others anticipated it to be a mini-games-and-puzzles-based title that tied lightly into the Saw universe. I was happy (and quite relieved) to discover that Saw is almost none of these things.

You play as Detective David Tapp (Danny Glover’s character from the first film) in a story and script written by series creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell. It is revealed that Tapp was nursed back to health by Jigsaw after the gunshot wound he suffered at the hands of hospital orderly Zepp, and is thrust into a game of his own. Wan and Whannell’s script takes place between the first and second movies in the franchise and proceeds to answer previously unanswered questions whilst also delivering an all-new story.

Tapp wakes up to find himself sitting in the bathroom from the first movie – which is now located inside of an abandoned insane asylum – with Amanda’s bear-trap device on his head, no less. The television in front of him flickers on and Jigsaw proceeds to warn Tapp of the device strapped to him and that, if he should make it out of this room alive, there will be a slew of others in the asylum that have devices clamped to them as well. This wouldn’t pose much of a problem, but the obsessed Detective learns that the key to these devices has been surgically implanted in his body, making him highly sought by the asylum’s desperate inhabitants.

What a way to open a game! Not only are you immediately pushed into play, but there is a Quick Time Event following this extremely atmospheric introduction that forces the player to remove the trap from Detective Tapp’s head or witness a gruesome death animation if they fail. The Saw films usually open with a character being offed by one of Jigsaw’s devices, and if you so choose to let that happen the video game is no different.

I’m sure the biggest question I should address is, “How exactly do you make a Saw game?” The answer to that is very simple, actually; take one-third Silent Hill, one-third exploration, and one-third puzzle-solving, mix it up, and you have yourself a unique concoction that is nothing original but certainly better than any of the other movie tie-ins released in 2009. Couple that with the quick-cut editing and strobe-like scene transitions of the movies and you have yourself a visual treatment very faithful to the franchise.

But the visual authenticity is only half the experience. The gameplay is solid and offers up a vast array of fantastic, oft-challenging puzzles that need to be solved (some with time limits and some without) in order to progress, but exploration feels a bit stilted. You are usually led down a linear path with a mostly easy-to-understand way of proceeding if stuck. It’s obvious that the focus of Saw isn’t on exploration. The meat and potatoes lie in the aforementioned puzzles that you must solve. It seems like there are puzzles accompanying nearly every action you must perform; picking locks, escaping rooms, opening boxes, and saving Jigsaw’s victims (the ones that are important to Tapp’s game, at least). There are times, however, when exploring, that one almost feels as if the game is holding their hand. Whilst Saw has derived unarguable inspiration from Konami’s Silent Hill series, it is considerably easier in comparison.

As a matter of fact, the traps in Saw that even Tapp must avoid (like shotguns hanging in doorways, for example) are usually what will off you and not the various other puzzles/traps that you will encounter. Timed ones will result in your death if not solved fast enough, but players will undoubtedly learn that dying a few times is the best strategy in which to study them, restart them, and then complete them. All of the puzzles are sufficiently difficult, yet extremely logical.

I find the biggest complaint from those who have actually decided to purchase the game is that the combat system is unresponsive/broken, but I wholly disagree. Sure, swinging your weapon takes way too long and hitting an enemy sometimes depends on dumb luck, but that’s the point. The object of the game is to avoid direct confrontation as much as possible whilst still eliminating your enemies. The AI is decent and there are numerous ways you can defeat them without “melee-ing.” The traps that you disassemble can be re-activated to your benefit, such as the shotguns in the doorways. You can often lure the AI into these traps. You can even bolt doors to keep enemies away from you until their traps spring. I found this to be one of the coolest aspects of the game.

Saw runs on UnrealEngine3 technology and, considering the quality of most movie-to-video game adaptations, looks way above par. Some textures are blurry and the various areas of the asylum tend to look the same after a while, but that’s the Saw universe in a nutshell; grimy and dingy locales with victims who are practically interchangeable. Tapp’s character model looks good, but it’s sorely disappointing that Glover was not available to voice or be rendered for his character. The look of the game mirrors that of the films flawlessly with dark, decrepit rooms and quick-cuts galore.

Voice-acting is shoddy, but that too ties in with the movies. The Saw films aren’t known for their Oscar-worthy performances and have become infamous for their poor acting. Whether through intention or coincidence, the game is no different. I will say, though, that the music is an eclectic mix of original pieces and more familiar bits from the films composed by Alex Guilbert (sadly, the trademark “Hello Zepp” cue by Charlie Clouser isn’t used). Hearing some of the score put a huge, fanboy-ish grin on my face.

Saw: The Video Game was by no means a Game of the Year contender. What it is, however, is a shockingly solid experience that is significantly better than any other movie tie-in of recent vintage. It is faithful to the Saw universe whilst also being fun, challenging, and rewarding in its own right. I can’t recommend this to those who have no interest in the movies as that is half the fun: recognising similarities and parallels to the Saw films. Survival Horror fans may get some enjoyment out of it, but this is a game that was made with a lot of love for the fans and really is intended for them. So if the thought of a Silent Hill-lite experience set within the Saw universe gives you goosebumps, don’t hesitate to pick this up or, at the very least, consider a rental.

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