While I've seen all of the "Saw" films, I can't really say that I'm a huge fan of them. They've certainly been a prime example of sequels with diminishing returns in that each film feels a lot worse than the last. The original "Saw" was pretty great and had a fantastic twist that I didn't see coming, but it was backed by a very tense premise that was unlike anything we'd seen in modern Hollywood horror for quite a while. That twist gets pretty diluted by the time you hit "Saw 6," and the newest film continues that trend. How does the fledgling video game series from Konami stack up to its film predecessors? Well, it's certainly faring better at this point.
Saw II: Flesh and Blood pulls events from the earlier films and uses them as a backdrop for the tale, so fans of the movies will enjoy some of the tie-in information that the game provides. However, a thorough knowledge of the franchise isn't necessary for players to enjoy the game. The story line is pretty approachable, and while the story isn't anything to write home about, it wasn't overly convoluted — a major flaw in the films. You get a pretty straightforward affair of Jigsaw placing your character within a scenario that requires him to work his way out of a nightmare setup brought to life. You need to puzzle and occasionally fight your way out of different trap scenarios while also trying to save the lives of those affected by your plight.
The strongest aspect of Saw II is the puzzles or traps that you must solve to advance the plot and stay alive. Much like the scenarios within which characters find themselves in the film, the traps are very industrial, with brutal scenarios that mean absolute death if you fail to figure them out correctly. There's no breathing room for errors. That works for and against this game in that the traps can't really be avoided, but you need to figure out the solution in real time to get past the current trap and advance to the next checkpoint. Some traps are so unforgiving, and at times a little too obtuse, that there's a certain level of frustration at different points of the game that could be alleviated by just giving the player a little bit of a break.
Another aspect that compounds some of the unnecessary difficulty is the punishing checkpoint system, which often sets you back farther than the trap that kills you. When you run into a particularly difficult scenario, you're forced to cover a lot of the same ground over and over again. There are stretches of the game where little happens, other than moving from one room to the next, down a hallway, or picking up items, and these sequences really draw out the experience and make the game feel like a chore to play. This is less of an issue in the beginning, but as you advance toward the end game, you'll find that Saw II can really test your patience. I suppose you could look at this as an appropriate experience in relation to what your character feels like, but I really don't want my games to make me mad while I play them.
You've got to admire some of the ingenuity involved for a lot of the puzzles, few of which repeat — aside from the occasional timed button presses required to dodge traps in doorways. There are a number of scenarios that involve saving someone who's in a trap, and these timed sequences will certainly raise your tension level but in a satisfying way that keeps things interesting. The commands and movements are exact and responsive enough to make the traps and puzzles easy to pass on your first try. If your concept of video game puzzles stems strictly from series like Resident Evil, where most puzzles consist of simply finding a few objects to place in indentions within a wall or door to open a path, you'll be pleasantly surprised by the variety in Saw II.
It's a shame the rest of the game isn't particularly great, and I feel like this is due to the lack of a big budget. The visuals are pretty dull, and while there's not much you can do with dilapidated buildings that are now being used for arcane horror scenarios and bloodletting, there are a lot of environments that are constantly recycled throughout the game with the same ruined furniture, tools, weapons and even enemies. The lack of variety in the environment or art direction kind of pulls me from the game, and by the end of everything, you'll start to feel a little bored by your surroundings.
Character models don't fare any better, with limited lip syncing and some awful voice acting to match. The only standout is Jigsaw, who delivers the trademark accusatory gruff tone that you've come to expect from the film. The character is voiced by the same actor from the film series, Tobin Bell.
Another drawback comes from the combat system, which I feel could be completely excised from the experience without losing anything. You don't need to duke it out with enemies that often, but when you do, it really feels like an arbitrary sequence, and the setup seems equally dumb. The concept is that everyone who comes after you was previously put away for some type of crime by your father, a deceased police man. Now all these criminals have a hankering to hit you with a baseball bat or lead pipe. Combat is little more than timed button prompts that you need to hit to murder the characters who come after you. This feels both out of character for the guy you're controlling (he seems likeable despite some shady background stuff). Having random guys pop out of doors to yell and charge at you is pretty distracting. It's definitely something I'd like to see them remove in the future or at least figure out a more interesting way of presenting it.
I particularly liked Saw II handled its health system and overall head's up display (HUD). There's nothing in the way of a health bar for your character, but your physical state is dictated by a bandage wrapped around your arm that gets consistently bloodier with more damage. You can retrieve hypodermic needles from first-aid stations and the occasional corpse that'll bring you back to full health, but certain traps and scenarios will leave you unavoidably damaged. It really nails the way characters are treated in the movies, and while other games have used similar systems to display health in recent years, I definitely liked its use here.
Overall, Saw II: Flesh and Blood certainly feels unique based on the strength of its puzzles and traps. It adheres pretty closely to the films but manages to excise the needless plot twists. A little more refinement to some basic stuff — like the visuals and voice-over work — and the developers may feel that the game would go a long way toward making this series a pretty big survival horror mainstay in the next few years. Here's hoping the game will continue to evolve if another sequel is produced, and I'm certainly interested in seeing what comes next.
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