Given the success of “torture porn” film properties such as SAW and Hostel, it's surprising we haven't seen more games attempt to cash in on the guilty pleasure genre. Thankfully, for fans of those just-can't-look-away films, the former franchise, featuring iconic killer Jigsaw, has recently received the interactive treatment. And while all signs would point to a project solely looking to exploit a popular property to make a quick buck, SAW is a modestly solid first effort. Don't misunderstand, it's far from perfect and certainly not for everyone, but given its source material—an annually released horror franchise whose prime goal is to shock with increasingly creative kills—I was surprised at how engaged I became by its mix of eerie atmosphere, clever puzzles and, of course, over-the-top gore.
Keeping with the films' shock factor, SAW immediately opens with an attention-stealing scene. As Detective Tapp (the first film's protagonist), you awake in the room of an abandoned insane asylum with one of the series' trademark reverse bear traps threatening to yank your skull in several directions. Your reflexes are almost instantly tested, as you match button prompts to free Tapp from the deadly device. What impressed me here, more than the heart-racing mini-game, was the way it was presented; rather than flashing a big, obvious cue on-screen—as many titles do--SAW's prompts are subtlety woven into the action. In this case, the “A” and “Y” button icons were made to look like small rivets on either side of the menacing headgear. Similarly, a bit later in the game, you'll follow cues to disarm shotgun traps by pressing the button that's displayed on the trigger's pulley. These may sound like small touches, but they go a long way in selling the game's style and immersing you in its intended atmosphere. Much higher profile titles are often guilty of flashing immersion-breaking cues on screen, so I commend Zombie Studios deft handling of this aspect.
SAW also sells its scares with excellent atmosphere. While abandoned asylums in horror games are about as original as exploding barrels in shooters, some key factors keep the spooky corridors and empty operating rooms feeling fresh. For one, the game is not too dark; many titles in the genre take the easy path of padding their frights by limiting what the player's allowed to see. SAW's settings, however, while appropriately dim and moody, are not shy about showing you what lurks in their shadows. Of course, this makes perfect sense given the series' love of gore—it wants you to take in all its rotting corpses, blood-spattered walls, syringe-filled toilets, creepy surgical instruments, and rat-infested rooms. All these details, and many others that'll churn stomachs and set neck hairs at attention, are disturbingly detailed, so little is left to the imagination. The SAW films are not about subtlety, and the game proudly carries this torch.
Navigating your creepy confines, you'll be tasked with solving puzzles and battling psychos. The riddles are fun at first, but grow repetitive fast. There's too many variations of the same lock-picking, fusebox-fixing mini-games, and once you've tackled each one multiple times, you'll be ready to intentionally walk through one of Jigsaw's shotgun-triggered traps. The exception, though, are the brilliant end-level challenges. The game focuses on six victims, tied to Tapp's past, and saving them by cracking some complex puzzles yields the game's best moments. The first one of these brain-benders sees you and an unfortunate soul rigged to a machine that administers both poison and its antidote to the potential victims. It makes for a rewarding challenge that's amplified by the unsettling scenes of your failure; watching the woman you're trying to rescue scream in pain as she's injected with poison more than keeps you on edge even as you fight for your own survival.
Not all of the other five victim puzzles are as good as this one, but you'll look forward to each one, anticipating what sort of twisted death device has spilled from Jigsaw's brain. Unfortunately, the combat doesn't fare quite as well as the puzzling. It uses a system similar to Condemned: Criminal Origins, where you beat the snot out of rampaging psychos with a variety of makeshift weapons. But the controls are sluggish and unresponsive, making the combat a chore rather than a satisfying part of the experience. The alternative is to turn traps, such as the shotguns and trip wires, on your enemies. This can be extremely rewarding when it works, but planning these creative kills is often more trouble than it's worth.
While the gameplay is hit or miss, SAW's atmosphere is spot on. In addition to the sickening details of the asylum, a nice mood-setting score serves to keep your nerves on end. Additionally, actor Tobin Bell from the films lends his voice to Jigsaw, providing a performance that goes a long way toward selling the authenticity of the experience. Through audio logs and television feeds, Jigsaw taunts you throughout the entire nightmare-inducing tale, and fans of the films will especially appreciate his participation. The story is also pretty good, especially given the movies the game's based on are driven by gory kills rather than plot development. Set between the first and second films, fans learn more about Tapp (a character killed in the first flick, who's creatively saved by Jigsaw for the purposes of the game), his obsession with the killer, and his connection to the asylum's other unfortunate guests. SAW's various elements come together for a short, yet satisfying fright-filled romp that has gory style to spare. It's definitely a flawed experience, but one that shows a surprising amount of potential and promise for possible sequels.