Welcome to Ghosts of Gaming Past — here we’ll be reviewing older horror games, classics and non-classics we missed when they were originally released. Have a game you’d like reviewed? Send us an email.
Written by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
I didn’t particularly enjoy the first Saw movie. I found it too self-serious and yet too simultaneously wacky to be regarded as a “good” horror movie. But on the whole, even with all its flaws, it seemed like a lightning strike, success incapable of being replicated. I didn’t even bother to go see what seemed like a fairly standard cash-in sequel.
But then something happened. This rough-edged indie became something more than a Shyamalan-ish horror-mystery. It became an event. Moviegoers could count on a stomach-churningly violent movie to hit theaters every Halloween, and in that way it transcended the label of cheap torture porn. It almost became like a ride, and by Saw III, the series’ stepfather, Darren Lynn Bousman, had refined and honed what made those films appealing.
The violence. The somber tone. That one song; you know the one. The ridiculously intricate storyline. But mostly the violence.
And then there was Jigsaw. In a post-Scream world, the idea of a compelling slasher villain was a ludicrous one. Hollywood was busily resurrecting old franchises in hopes of recapturing 1980s zeitgest, but not much was sticking. Jigsaw’s post-9/11 reminder to Americans that the worst harm we do is usually to ourselves seemed to resonate with audiences.
After a few mildly received iterations, the Saw films went away, but not before a movie tie-in could be released. Anyone who has ever played a tie-in, whether for a movie or a television show, knows that most of them are garbage.
But in that respect, too, SAW subverts expectations. It’s not a boilerplate cash-grab that follows its source material like a zombie to stinking flesh. No, the world of this game exists in the cracks between the overarching narrative of the movies, and digging out bits and pieces of story where there previously had been only gaps is where the Saw franchise thrives, now doesn’t it?
In SAW, you play as Detective David Tapp, portrayed by Danny Glover in the first film. Which, I have to admit, took me almost a quarter of the game to realize, because this Detective Tapp, the Tapp of the game world, looks a hell of a lot more like Donald Glover (no relation) than Danny Glover.
Anyway, at the game’s outset, we find that Detective Tapp has been imprisoned in an abandoned asylum by the aforementioned sadist Jigsaw and must survive a hellish environment of incidental booby traps, desperate fellow “inmates,” and well-choreographed puzzles in order to save himself and other people involved in the Jigsaw investigation. You see, in his efforts to capture the serial killer, Tapp has ruined the lives of several people, and nary a person seems to be humored by the detective’s presence, save for Jigsaw himself, who cannot get enough of tormenting him.
Either way, the player navigates the trap-filled scenery of this abandoned building in order to undo some of the harm he’s perpetrated, but the game is not merely made up of the sorts of tests you might remember from the movies. Additionally, all other victims in the asylum have been outfitted with a timed trap – usually atop their heads – and have been told that a key has been surgically inserted into the detective’s abdomen, and all one need to do is bludgeon him to death and then extract it to be free.
So there’s that to be aware of.
The game consists of seven formulaic levels that see Tapp winding his way through the brokenness of the asylum, searching for keys and fuses and number combinations to open a door to reach the level’s final room, a sort of puzzle boss fight of an encounter. At stake is one person either directly or tangentially involved with the Jigsaw case, which is how the developers justify Tapp’s motivation to help all of them.
And yet, despite the ever-growing sense that there is a formula, it’s fun. REALLY fun, for the most part. Granted, at times, it feels like someone saw the hacking mini-game in BioShock and decided that would make for a neato full-length game, but for the most part, the variety of puzzles and familiar narrative make for an interesting addition to the Saw franchise.
The mini-games unlock doors and medicine chests and shut off dangerous valves, so they serve a purpose within the game and are not entirely arbitrary. They also offer a welcome break from eyeing the scenery. (If you ever thought sitting through a single Saw movie was bleak, try doing it for ten consecutive hours. I need therapy.)
The overall mechanics for movement aren’t altogether bad, but the combat itself lacks both precision and intricacy. I don’t think I’d be going overboard by saying it is completely, utterly, insufferably broken. Remember how ineffective the melee attacks were in Dead Space? Yeah, this game is ALL Dead Space Melee attacks, without the stomping. If you try to swing a pipe whenever you first boot the game, you MIGHT be able to connect with someone around hour three or four. It’s that slow.
Luckily for you, the developers found interesting ways for players to avoid combat. You can set tripwires, explosive traps, and lock doors, which, if an enemy is being afflicted by a timed device, will explode without your influence. In that way, it feels more like a late 90s survival horror game. Avoiding the other inmates is really the only way to go, because if you were forced to fight every dude you encountered, you’d probably leave Detective Tapp to fend for himself.
Since there is such a premium placed on avoiding combat – and such a penalty, say, for letting someone clock you upside the head with a spiked bat – being able to use the environment to one’s advantage is of special use to players. If done well, Detective Tapp will never be short on health hypos and his weapon can remain at his side, where it definitely belongs.
Over time, even the variety of puzzles and combat avoidance become tedious, because once you see the repetitive structure of the levels, you can’t unsee it, and the game doesn’t even attempt to deter from that seek-find-backtrack-”boss” format. It’s not unlike the more puzzle-heavy Resident Evils, in that respect. And even though plodding through the asylum reveals an increasing amount of story for Detective Tapp, transparent level design makes it difficult to continue stalking patiently down darkened hallways. (Which is also when you will most likely trip a shotgun wire and send your head in all directions at once.)
Eventually, it leads to the sort of ending Saw fanatics would come to expect, and – hint – there’s a twist. Be prepared for a plethora of mini-games, all of which are not difficult but can become tedious when placed in context of a timer.
Because I could not find an elegant way of including sound design, I’ll just say it here: the voice acting, especially by the game’s Jigsaw, is really very good. Additionally, the score is masterfully done, going from the industrial, Exorcist-influenced bells reminiscent of the movies to a plucky, frenetic Harry Manfredini sort of score whenever things get tense. The music drives the mood to near-perfection.
The Final Word: SAW benefits from bounding over low expectations, but it’s also not a bad game, either. If you come in expecting the hum-drum nonsense usually associated with a licensed product, think again. It creates its own story that lines up with the mythology of the franchise, and it also manages to recreate the mood of the series without artificially manufacturing it.
The major problem with the game is that the puzzles do not really ramp up in difficulty over the course of the game – except where end-of-level encounters occur – so if the mini-games are not to your liking early on, chances are you’ll be disgusted with doing them (and doing them and doing them) by the end of the game.
However, fans will appreciate the game’s allusions to the series, and beyond the obvious mechanics flaws, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable game. Pick it up if you can’t stomach more recent entries in popular survival horror franchises – ahem, RE6 and Silent Hill – but still want to experience the feeling of edging down a dark hallway and hoping that there’s no one waiting for you at the end of it.
Saw is available on the PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 (reviewed).