Back at E3, I played through the Saw demo with the (understandable) expectation that it would be lackluster, but was delighted and surprised to find that it did not, in fact, suck. I was eager to see if the full game could maintain the surprise and intelligence that the demo did, or if it would simply go the way of most movie-based games and be forgettably awful. Guess what? Saw still doesn't suck. In fact, it's kind of awesome, in its own way.
Saw (Xbox 360, PS3) the game takes place between the first two movies in the franchise and puts you in the sensible shoes of the Danny Glover character, Detective Tapp. Jigsaw is terribly disappointed with how your obsession with him has ruined your life, and is kind enough to give you the opportunity to redeem yourself. In true Saw fashion, he shows his concern by locking you in an abandoned asylum and forcing you to fight for your life. To keep you from getting too lonely, Jigsaw has trapped you with a number of other victims, each playing their own game with him. If you're thinking you can band together to find a way out, think again - the literal key to their survival has been sewn inside your chest and as Jigsaw so eloquently puts it, it's unlikely any of them have the surgical skill necessary to remove it without killing you.
You can pick up objects like pipes and table legs to use as weapons against the other victims, but it's usually a far better option to simply try and avoid them by locking doors behind you or setting traps. A fuse will help you electrify the floor; a wire and a shotgun shell will help you blow off the head of an unwary pursuer. The traps are easy to set and incredibly satisfying when they go off, which is good, because the hand to hand combat is invariably awful. It's so unresponsive, sluggish, and frustrating, I actually went back to double-check the instruction manual to make sure I was hitting the right buttons, that's how disconnected it feels from the controller. But really, which would you rather do: Bash someone's head in with a mop handle or blow it off with shotgun? Yeah, me too.
Though it's based on a series of horror movies and your main goal is to survive, Saw isn't a survival horror game in the traditional sense. It's actually more like a puzzle game. A very creepy puzzle game with a psychopath that's trying very hard to kill you, but work with me, here. As in the films, you'll spend most of your time in Saw playing head games with Jigsaw, trying to figure out his riddles and solve his puzzles before someone else falls victims to his whims. Some of the puzzles are intricate and tricky (hint: when all else fails, try turning out the lights), while others are basic minigames like unlocking a box by arranging a set of gears properly or picking a lock by lining up symbols. Many of the challenges are repeated and oftentimes don't make much sense - why put your hand in a barrel of acid when you could just tip the barrel over? - but they're completely in keeping with the spirit and flavor of the movies.
Though Saw makes a fair attempt at creating a suitably creepy atmosphere, it leans very heavily on your knowledge and appreciation of the films. You can certainly play the game without ever having seen a single installment of the series, but you'll miss the significance of small things like the corpse trapped in razor wire or the reverse bear trap. But even Saw virgins will be able to appreciate the vocal stylings of Tobin Bell, who brilliantly reprises his role as Jigsaw. His performance is Saw's backbone, setting the tone for the game and holding the entire experience together. It's a shame that none of the other actors in the game come close to delivering the same level of performance; Jigsaw's scenes are every bit as unsettling and creepy as anything out of the movies, but as soon as someone else opens their yap, you're taken out of the moment and reminded that you're playing a game. It's not just the voice acting that lacks polish, however. The graphics are disappointingly low-rent, and the controls are intermittently finicky, requiring you to stand in a very specific position in order to interact with the environment. None of these issues are game-breakers by themselves, but they do add up as you play.
So the controls are iffy, the combat sucks, the graphics are weak and only Jigsaw himself is worth listening to - why do I like this game, again? Because it forces you to slow down and use your head. You can't see very well, and if you go blundering around, you're going to die - by falling into a spike-filled pit, setting off your shotgun collar, opening a rigged door, something. The game's measured pace, combined with Jigsaw's taunting, gets in your head in ways that a faster, more combat-heavy game couldn't. Saw also respects its source material, staying true to their malevolent spirit.
Bottom Line: Saw isn't quite polished enough to rock your world, but if you're a fan of the movies, you'll find much to appreciate - nods to the films, clever puzzles, and most especially Jigsaw himself.
Recommendation: Only the most devoted of fans need to buy this game, but anyone looking for a Halloween thrill should consider giving it a try.
This review is based on the PlayStation 3 version of the game.
Susan Arendt is a big, big fan of horror movies. Her neighbors make a point of being very, very nice to her.