Saw: The Videogame Review

By Russ Fischer - Posted Oct 13, 2009

The Saw film series isn't exactly known for its subtlety. Rather, it's about ingenious traps and devices that cause pain and gore, ostensibly to pressure characters into improving their lives. The setup should work for gaming, but in playable form, Saw: The Videogame spends so much time maintaining tension that there's never any real release or payoff, and the experience feels like one very long flatline.

The Pros
  • Dense, sickly atmosphere
  • Great voice work from Tobin 'Jigsaw' Bell
  • A few good puzzle designs
The Cons
  • Controls are sluggish and imprecise
  • Energy level is a flatline
  • Puzzles and traps are too repetitive

The Saw film series isn't exactly known for its subtlety. Rather, it's about ingenious traps and devices that cause pain and gore, ostensibly to pressure characters into improving their lives, but really just to thrill the audience. The setup should work for gaming, especially when all the action is set in a seriously run-down mental asylum. But in playable form, Saw: The Videogame spends so much time maintaining tension that there's never any real release or payoff, and the experience feels like one very long flatline.

Saw: The Videogame

Are You the Keymaster?

You're Detective Tapp, last seen as incarnated by Danny Glover in the original film. Tapp awakens within the bowels of a hideously decaying asylum, only to be told by Jigsaw (via an array of TVs, as is the puppetmaster's M.O.) that a key is implanted within his chest. Problem is, there are a whole bunch of other loons also trapped in the asylum, and they all need that key to unlock their freedom. Jigsaw doesn't kill people so much as provide them, or others, with the means to their demise.

So Tapp is told to find and rescue a handful of people related to his history while avoiding the aggressive other “inmates” who want to crack him like a walnut to get that key. From there, Saw proceeds very much like a simplified version of the first film. Tapp will contend with traps large and small, ranging from a simple shotgun rigged to blow his head off after opening a door, to a swinging industrial axe blade threatening to cleave another cop in two.

You'll meet a few familiar characters, and the script assumes a pretty thorough memory of their stories as they appear on film. There's enough context in-game that non-fans won't be totally lost, but only just enough. The main element that keeps this experience feeling like the films is the voice of Tobin Bell, who played Jigsaw in the movies and effectively reprises his role here.

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Lather, Rinse, Repeat

It works like this: Tapp wanders a few halls, perhaps picking a lock or solving a small puzzle to earn a key. Small traps, like rigged shotguns, litter the landscape, but most are easily disarmed. Tapp is barefoot, so he has to watch out for broken glass, too (You got your Saw in my Die Hard!). Occasionally he'll be stuck in a locked room and forced to solve a more complex puzzle to forestall death.

At first, these tend to be the game's best puzzles; they're the least repetitive and the most inventive. Some are minor – find the outline of a gun painted on the wall of a morgue, which indicates which door conceals a escape tool -- but several are clever. Some even create a frantic feeling. But those traps are too few, and eventually become repetitive. Granted, they're generally more interesting than the 'boss battle' traps, which invariably feel like too little reward for the slog it takes to reach each one.

Saw: The Videogame

Would You Like the Lead Pipe, or Spiky Baseball Bat?


Less intrinsic to the cinema Saw equation, but a lot more essential to the game, is combat. That's where things really break down, but not in the way that Jigsaw might appreciate. Saw's fights recall the encounters in Condemned, but they're a lot less effective. Tapp's movements are molasses slow -- the guy is in really bad shape-- but there isn't a sense of weight or movement, only the floaty, slow feeling that you're not really hitting anything. And regardless of Tapp's condition there's no reason that his strikes should be so sluggish. He's wounded, not drunk.

The controls are slothful throughout the game -- again, arguably justifiable thanks to Tapp's debilitated physical condition -- but in combat they simply become infuriating. While strikes are absurdly slow, the block/dodge move is frequently ineffectual, and the enemy AI is never smart enough to make a win feel like an achievement.

The best kills come when you're able to re-rig a trap you previously disarmed in order to take out a rushing goon. But here the controls are a downside, too. If you've got to race back through a doorway, turn, close and bolt it to slow an enemy before re-setting a trap, good luck. Imprecise controls are a killer. If it seemed more like they were meant to reflect Tapp's physical state, that might be acceptable. Unfortunately, the commands just feel unreliable, period.

Saw: The Videogame

Try to Find the Pulse

Saw: The Videogame is creepy, yes, and the mental asylum is actually quite well designed and accurate -- don't ask how I know that. Fans of the film series will definitely dig on the frequent nods back to kills and situations from the five movies. But it doesn't take very long before Saw starts to feel like the same handful of puzzle pieces are being shuffled around over and over. That's just tiring, not frightening.