First off, full disclosure: I've never seen any of the Saw movies. I'm not sure why. I guess I just fail to see their appeal. Along those same lines, I'm not really fond of survival horror games, either. In this case, though, I have a very good reason. It's because I'm a giant wuss.
Scary movies don't creep me out nearly as much as scary games do. It's one thing to yell at the dumb blonde on screen about how bad of an idea it is to go into that dark basement. It's another to be the one controlling the character who's about to go into that dark basement.
In Saw, much to my dismay, you don't control a sexy blonde. Instead, you play as Det. David Tapp, a character from the first Saw film (played by Danny Glover in the movie but not the game), who awakens in an abandoned insane asylum and discovers he's a piece of a deadly puzzle created by the Jigsaw Killer: After suffering a gunshot wound, Tapp was saved by Jigsaw, who removed the bullet and, in its place, embedded in Tapp's body a key. Your goal is to solve Jigsaw's puzzles and free each of six victims related to Tapp's past, and then escape from the asylum yourself. Meanwhile, there are others trapped in the asylum, and, for them, the only way out is to kill Tapp and get the key inside him.
Jigsaw's Puzzles: Being a puzzle game, Saw would be in trouble if those puzzles were bad. Fortunately, they're not – well, not all of them, at least. The first half of the game keeps things interesting by throwing at the player a good mix of puzzles, the most complex of which occur at the end of each level, when you must save one of Jigsaw's victims.
Some of these are unique – in one, blue and red vials are dropped into a succession of tubes that pivot left or right; you must use gravity-related logic to make sure each colored vial ends up in its respective vat. (It's easier seen than explained.) Other end-level puzzles are more complex versions of those that appear in other forms throughout the game. For example, one puzzle comprises multiple concentric rings, resembling a bullseye. Along the outer edge, pointing toward the center, are two ends of a pipe. Inside each ring are various pipe pieces. The goal is to rotate each ring so that the pipe pieces connect to form one continuous path from one pipe end to the other.
To make things more interesting, these puzzles often have time constraints – Tapp is choking on poisonous gas, for instance, and must solve a pipe puzzle to shut the gas off before his health runs out. The majority of the end-level puzzles have such time constraints. What this means is you should get used to dying. A lot.
Plot: Fans of the Saw series will definitely get more from the game's plot than non-fans. Speaking as a member of the latter category, I thought the story, which fleshes out some of Jigsaw's background, held together fine, and I wasn't too confused by the numerous obvious references to the original film. (I believe the story's timeline falls somewhere between the first and second films.) The game also has two endings, chosen by the player – one of which reveals a twist and another that is far more disappointing.
Repetition: There are actually two complaints here. The first is that certain puzzles are thrown at the player over and over, seemingly for no other reason than to make the game longer. The pipe puzzle, described earlier, is one of these. Another involves circuits, in which each square of a grid contains either a red node, a piece of wire or a power source. The goal is to rotate the squares – and the corresponding node, wire piece or power source – so that all the nodes turn green, meaning they are connected by an unbroken path to the power source. I wasn't counting, but there are easily a dozen of these puzzles.
What complicates matters is the second part of my complaint: time constraints. Apparently, it's not enough that these puzzles occur multiple times over the course of the game. You also have to suffer death after death each time you come across one and fail to complete it in time. With the circuit puzzles, it's even worse – the pattern of circuitry changes each time, so memorization won't help. (At one point, I was so frustrated that I actually thought the game itself was some meta-puzzle where Jigsaw was real and was trying to make me kill myself.)
Combat: Forget the survival-horror plot – here was the true nightmare. What a mess this was. There are various weapons lying around for you to pick up – pipes, baseball bats, table legs. Press one of the face buttons for a normal attack, a different face button for heavy attack. Each weapon will degrade the more you use it, except for things like hypodermic needles, which have one-time uses. That's about it. Oh, wait, I forgot something: Turns out you don't really need a weapon, because your fists seem to do as much damage, and they don't break! The pistol is useful, but the problem is that, unlike practically any other game that uses a gun, you don't use the right trigger to shoot. No, the right trigger is used to place traps, which you can build using items you find and corresponding schematics. So when an enemy would come charging at me, my instinct was to shoot him with the right trigger, but, instead, I would inexplicably place an exploding trap at my feet, causing us both to die in a fiery blaze. One more thing: There are locked weapons cases in some rooms, and the only way to get to the weapon is to solve a puzzle involving gears, which you find in desks or file cabinets. In some instances, I would solve the gear puzzle, open the case and find …a baseball bat. Which I could've picked up in, oh, a million other places in the game. Thanks.
Other Annoyances: Despite the multiple ways you can die in Saw, I doubt any of them will be from simply running out of hypodermic health needles. Combat is too easy to worry about it, that's for sure. No, a much bigger concern are the tripwires, which are attached to shotguns that blow the heads off anyone who triggers one. Often, they're not really noticeable unless you walk around looking at your feet, so I grew accustomed to seeing Tapp's head disappear in a cloud of red mist. (You can disarm the trap, lure an enemy toward you and then quickly re-arm it, so they do come in handy.) Also, Tapp is shoeless throughout the game; walking on broken glass will cause him to lose health. This is explained in one of the game's first scenes, in which a shoe-wearing enemy taunts Tapp. In fact, just about every enemy Tapp kills in the game has shoes. You know what would've made a cool puzzle? ONE THAT INVOLVES TAPP TAKING SOME DEAD GUY'S DAMN SHOES.
As you can probably guess, Saw is not the game that turns me into a fan of survival horror. Yes, it has compelling puzzles, but, in the context of the game, it wasn't nearly enough. Perhaps it had to do with how relentlessly dark and violent the game is, but playing it just filled me with a sense of unexplainable dread. Then again, maybe that was the point. (It didn't help that the theme of Tapp's questionable morality is pounded into the player, so much so that I wondered whether the game should be called Hammer.)
Finally, one more reason against recommending Saw: Unless you're an achievement whore, there's virtually no replayability. I finished the game in about 13 hours, although I've seen some claim to have completed it in as few as eight. That's the definition of a rental if I've ever seen one.
Saw was developed by Zombie Studios and published by Konami for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on October 6. Retails for $59.99 USD. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Finished the game on the Xbox 360 on normal difficulty. There is no online mode.
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