The twisted misery of a mental asylum has been something of a happy stomping ground for horror gamers in recent years. From the meanderings of Manhunt 2 to practically every Silent Hill game ever, there's no better place to conjure tension as you fumble through the grim darkness armed with a nailbat.
Unsurprisingly if you've seen any of the six films, Saw positively revels in such rancid locales, and sticks to the the grisly torture porn formula. The victim, Detective David Tapp, must explore the confines of an abandoned asylum, disarm gruesome devices and solve puzzles to ensure his survival and get closer to the 'truth' behind the Jigsaw Killer. To kick off proceedings, Saw sets up the game like a typical scenario from the movie. Tapp picks up a nearby dictaphone, where the gravel-voiced Jigsaw relays a chilling monologue, giving brief instructions of how to further your progress.
In true Saw tradition, nothing is ever straightforward. Finding keys to locked doors involves delving into syringe-filled toilets or vats of acid, while blood-smeared toilet walls offer clues to lock combinations. Death is often a footstep away as you creep barefoot over broken glass avoiding tripwires, or open a door to discover another shotgun trap. En-route, other inhabitants of the asylum will emerge screaming from the darkness of their own crazed survival missions (that, predictably, involve killing you), forcing you into a brutal melee face-off that inadvertently parodies the very worst elements of survival horror combat.
18 weapons lie dotted around the environment for you to wield, but each and every one is as as cumbersome as the last. For the most part you've trudged around with a bat, pipe or mop handle, but occasionally will find a Molotov or pistol with which to quickly dispatch your foes. Ridiculously, you can get stuck in a damage loop, unable to inflict a single blow while your opponent hacks away at you. At least you can do the same to them, slugging it out (often unarmed) while blood pours off them. It's as bad a combat system as I've ever seen. The only tactic involved is to simply hammer the button and hope for the best.
Despite or perhaps because of this, a suitable panic infuses every single encounter - not least with those enemies fitted with proximity bomb collars. Stray too close and your own collar starts bleeping, leaving you with little choice than to leg it until, eventually, their head explodes. Such panic almost guarantees that you'll occasionally stray into the path of a previously unseen tripwire, one of the cheap but most effective ways of putting you out of your misery. Happily, you can set up your own death traps in which to to lure enemies to their doom, including electrical or gas traps (all in the name of closure, Detective Tapp). Progress is generally 'rewarded' with further opportunities to die horribly - usually involving BioShock-style against-the-clock circuit puzzles, or aligning steam valves to stop you being gassed to death - or sometimes both at the same time if the game's feeling particularly evil, which is often.
At the climax of each of the game's six chapters, you'll be tasked with saving someone closely connected to Tapp's case, and these often-ingenious puzzles are generally the highlights of the entire game. One such device has the pair of you hooked up to an injection machine, where you must direct the appropriate coloured medicine to the correct receptacle to save the 'patient'. Send it in the wrong direction and the heart monitor rate will increase; get it wrong three times and you'll both die horrible deaths involving intense pain and suffering. Saw cranks up the miseryometer even further elsewhere, forcing you to deal with horrendous pendulum contraptions, limb-breaking monstrosities and a cringe-worthy spike machine that sends a javelin through the unfortunate's innards if you fail to make the correct guess.
But more spirit-sapping than any of these gratuitous instruments of doom are the sections of the game where you're forced to pull off a sequence of electrical circuit-rotation puzzles within an unbelievably strict time-limit. The game also randomises the puzzles each time, somewhat crazily, so you can't simply learn them as you go along (take that, GameFAQs). Sometimes you're given a disproportionately tough one to solve, leaving progress up to iron will, luck and persistence rather than actual skill.
These sections aside, Saw is a surprisingly absorbing affair at times, and it's especially pleasing to discover a survival horror game featuring genuinely taxing puzzles for a change. After years of the genre's gradual conversion to action gaming, going back to a game where puzzles are central to the experience is satisfying. That said, developer Zombie Studios runs out of ideas early on and resorts to padding out each chapter with more of the same - even to the extent of designing some of the rescue sections around the same types of puzzles you've been solving elsewhere. With a greater variety of non-repeating challenges Saw could have been extremely compelling, but as it stands you'll soon tire of being asked to do more of the same.
Rather like Konami's disappointing Silent Hill Homecoming, the festering environments also feel too generic and repetitive to make exploration in any way interesting, while the poorly rendered and clumsily animated character models give the whole project a low-budget feel. At a glance, Saw doesn't really have any defining characteristics that mark it out as different to any other horror video game over the past decade, and certainly none of the artistic verve that marked out the early Silent Hill games. If Konami intends to hang on to the licence in the long term, there's a lot of work to be done to haul it up to the required standard.
Still, at least the audio work deserves acclaim. The voice of Tobin Bell as the Jigsaw Killer lends a fantastic degree of authenticity to the game, while Left 4 Dead voice actor Earl Alexander does a decent Danny Glover as Detective Tapp, and the value of their input cannot be overstated. Allied to some excellent, moody background effects, the game creates exactly the kind of oppressive, uncomfortable ambience required to keep you on edge throughout.
With just six short chapters to wade through, Saw is never in any danger of outstaying its welcome, despite its flaws, and that's probably just as well. Its puzzle-centric design is satisfying for a while, but the game's reliance on the same stock challenges wears thin, as does the hilariously broken combat. With only Tobin Bell's murderous raspings propping things up, Saw will go down as another ill-fated movie-to-game attempt.
5 / 10