SAW, the new video game based upon the film series, faces an interesting conundrum: it's a video game about a life-or-death "game" between a sadistic madman and his kidnapped captives, albeit one with virtually no video game-style conflict, opting instead for deep personal loss and sacrifice as an obstacle to survival. Ultimately, how can one successfully craft a video game based upon concepts that really can’t be conveyed in a digital medium?
Sandwiched in between the first and second films story wise, the SAW game follows Detective Tapp, who survived his gunshot wound at the end of SAW with the surgical assistance of Jigsaw. However, being the fan of games that he is, Jigsaw has stitched a skeleton key inside of Tapp that will open the traps strapped into a multitude of foes infesting an abandoned asylum, meaning that Tapp will have to survive a sort of SAW Olympics, killing those who would do him harm in order to escape their own traps. However, he is also tasked with saving certain others, from Jigsaw’s apprentice Amanda to Detective Sing’s widowed wife Melissa, despite the fact that he is hated by virtually all that he saves. It’s an appropriately SAW-like story, with Jigsaw ultimately hoping to teach his captive the importance of their life that they are wasting.
The look of the game, much like the story, is appropriately SAW-ish, with the abandoned asylum dressed in rotting floorboards and peeling paint, and housing Jigsaw’s clockwork nightmares. Graphics are decent and at times flirt with genuine artistic creativity, particularly in the sequences where you have to go fishing for keys, and the game goes into a fascinating X-ray visual as you paw through razors and syringes for a key to a door. There’s tons of fan service here, as virtually all of Jigsaw’s traps from the first three films make an appearance, from the reverse bear trap to the shotgun shell collar, and plans for other, nastier traps can be found, such as Amanda’s rib-ripping harness.
Unfortunately, all of this audiovisual accuracy to the SAW universe is wrapped around gameplay that really doesn’t stack up. The bulk of the game plays like a stripped-down Silent Hill, played from the now-standard slightly left of center chase cam (seriously, this is the new black for game perspectives) as Tapp explores the asylum. Occasionally, you will have to fight other captives, where you will have to fight just as much with the awful combat system as you do with your enemies. Here, the slight offset perspective becomes a liability, and the weird controls hamper you considerably as you face your enemies in hand-to-hand combat. There’s also a bland, tacked-on trap mechanic where you can lure your enemies to their demise, but these traps are a sparse option that a very rarely relied upon.
Of course, SAW has never really been about combat as it has been about puzzles, which the game does dole out in spades. Virtually every room has some sort of brainteaser for you to complete before you move on, although they feel very inappropriate and start to repeat very quickly. A few early examples stand out, such as Amanda’s poison machine, but are quickly replaced by countless circuit puzzles (which play like Pipe Dream or Bioshock’s hacking mini-game) and nonstop fishing for keys in toilets full of syringes. There is an attempt at logic to explain why Tapp has to go elbow-deep in Courtney Love’s trash every five minutes, but it doesn’t help explain why none of the puzzles really feel like the creation of Jigsaw.
Through the course of 5 films (soon to be 6), we’ve seen that Jigsaw’s puzzles are based upon how badly you want to survive. Amanda had to cut a key out of another living person to unlock the reverse bear trap, a man had to crawl through razor wire to escape his prison, and a rapist had to choose to be blinded or dismembered. These all represent a level of sacrifice on the part of the captive in order to survive, a concept of sacrifice that is lost on a game whose puzzles play out more like a bar game than a life-or-death choice. I don’t feel any sense of grave choice when I have to line up gears to raise a bladed pendulum, or solve a sliding-block puzzle to release someone from an iron maiden lined with circular saw blades. There is a sense of tension, but not one of stomach-churning consequence that the movies offer up.
Of course, in the developer’s defense, I really don’t see how a SAW game could ever truly work on the same level as the films. In a virtual world where health packs instantly restore lost life and death can be undone by loading up the previous checkpoint, the sort of tough choices that Jigsaw’s games thrive on simply don’t exist. Taken as a game outside of the SAW universe however, it’s a decently entertaining romp that’s worthy of a rental.