Saw 2: Flesh and Blood review

Yes, I’m reviewing Saw 2: Flesh and Blood. And? Why are you looking at me like that? It might be good!

Okay, fine, just keep reading. I promise it’s sort-of potentially better than it sounds. If I’m honest, I didn’t pick up Saw 2 thinking it would be worth much. In fact, quite the opposite; I thought it would be terrible and a good excuse to write a mostly sarcastic jokey review taking the piss out of its bad story and awful gameplay, but it didn’t quite work out that way. More on that later.

The other reason I picked it up is because I love horror films and am generally on the lookout for ways of writing about them on the blog, which isn’t easy when said blog is about video games (apparently the Scream 4 iOS game is being patched so it works on older iPod models like mine – regular readers, steel yourself for that beauty). Admittedly I don’t like the Saw films, at all in fact, as they’re sort of like the Modern Warfare of contemporary horror: cynically commercial, offensive, dull, inexplicably popular and endlessly cloned to the detriment of the genre (a bit like reviewers using Modern Warfare as their go-to example of a crap modern FPS). Nonetheless gaming and horror cinema coming together is a topic that interests me, even if I don’t expect to enjoy the results, and I feel I owe it to my respective interests to at least experience it for myself.

For a long time I’ve been intrigued by the idea of bringing some classic horror franchises to the gaming world, but beyond a few NES monstrosities (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th and Texas Chainsaw Massacre are all just… terrible. The games I mean; the films are great), no serious attempt has been made to transfer any of these big IPs to the box under the TV.This is mostly, I believe, because those names don’t carry the same financial weight that they once did, especially when there’s no particularly good idea of how to do them service in a gaming medium.

Saw is different. The name still sells, unlike those creaking ’80s dinosaurs mentioned above, and the setup is ideal for a video game. A person is trapped in an area and forced to complete challenges and puzzles in order to stay alive. That’s the core mechanic of most games. And the film series’ tagline is “Do you want to play a game?”: it was staring the games industry in the face for six whole films before someone finally spotted the hint and licensed the game.

There are three very subtle clues in this image about what the player should do next. Can you spot them?

So what does a Saw film transposed into a game actually involve? Essentially it involves playing a succession of games you’ve played before only with a grotesque visual overhaul. You traipse from mini-game room to puzzle room and back again, and in each room you will encounter something quite similar to something else you’ve played before, probably in a browser window or regularly throughout your game playing life, most recently re-imagined as a lock-picking mini-game.

The difference is that the last time you did this you were connecting the blue round thing to the blue square thing because that was the objective of the game and doing so would move you to the next level where you could attempt the same abstract task again, only harder. This time, your motivation for the completion of the puzzle is the fish-hook in your eye that’s going to get yanked out in a shower of blood if you haven’t figured it out in 40 seconds time. And the reward for completing it is not doing the same thing but harder: it’s doing a new-old thing, also reimagined as a brutal virtual mutilation. Stripped of its narrative it’s not much more than a best-of collection of classic puzzle games but one aimed squarely at psychopaths, like a nightmare vision of single-player Bishi Bashi.

Whilst not revisiting a warped and bloody version of a game played in your past, you can wander around the desolate and dark environments looking for collectibles, or attempting optional harder puzzles for no reward except creepy messages from Jigsaw and the bleep-bloop of an achievement unlocked. Occasionally you will enter combat with other victims of Jigsaw’s games, which amounts to a rather embarrassing QTE sequence, but one in which generic and humorously slow ‘swing and bash’ animations are played – no attempt to use the semi-scripted nature of a QTE to show flair or unique animations ala. God of War is undertaken. Anyone who’s ever bought a budget PS2 title will recognise the camera and character controls as disappointing old acquaintances, although graphically it’s at least slightly above last-gen standards.

Numerous examples of poorly thought-out game design will stump and annoy you, and cheap instant deaths will often send you back 20 minutes or so. The worst offenders are the unsignposted points of no return – two doors, both containing a puzzle you want to do, one of which will lock behind you when you enter it, meaning the other puzzle is now lost to you unless you reload an old save. There are numerous easy and convenient ways of fixing this problem: it doesn’t need to exist.

The other device so poorly conceived as to warrant a mention here is the balance beam sections. If you found this review by googling ‘saw 2 balance beam PLEASE HELP im going to throw this game into a fire’ – don’t worry, it’s not you. I’m pretty sure if we could get the stats on how many people have ever googled that phrase and how many people have ever successfully traversed a balance beam in this game, those two numbers would be identical. However, there’s no advice here, move on. You can find a few hundred forum topics about it elsewhere on the net – it’s easy enough once you’ve found some fellow gamers to give you the information that the developers of the game haven’t. You should try and consider that frustrating 30 minutes of hell you just went through trying to figure it out yourself as character building.

I've never noticed how much Jigsaw looks like the village elder from Fallout 2 before

So given all these criticisms, why did this review start off sounding as though I actually enjoyed the game? Simply put: because I did.

First but not entirely foremost, it’s surprisingly moreish. Every time I think ‘I’ll just do this room and then stop’, I find myself in a loop where I end up thinking the same thing five minutes later, then five minutes after that, and on and on until the cavalcade of misery overwhelms me and I have to at last put the controller down. It’s not that the puzzles are particularly brilliant, it’s more that they are just quietly addictive and suitably varied so that I’m always intrigued by what the next one will be.

Secondly, the plot ticks along quite nicely and does a good job of maintaining interest and investment. It won’t be winning any awards, and the quality of the dialogue and voice acting is pretty poor at times too, but there are some interesting mysteries lurking behind it all, with the answers to these questions trickling out with decent pacing and contributing significantly to the ‘I’ll just play it a bit longer’ feeling. I was looking forward to breaking down the plot for cheap laughs in this review, but I’m not going to mention any part of it because, silly and crudely delivered though it is, it is engrossing enough that even very early-game spoilers seem inappropriate.

Thirdly and almost finally, it’s genuinely different to anything I’ve played. Ever. For the record, I play a lot of games and own an awful lot more than I play, and that tends to mean that games need to do something fairly notable to get my time and attention. At any given point I have a fantastic game waiting for me on my shelf and nondescript or generic offerings just crumble under that pressure. Saw 2 isn’t a great game but it is unique, and sometimes variety is enough. It certainly shouldn’t be undervalued.

Finally, I enjoyed this game because it has something that the Saw films lack: the human touch. People often don’t understand why it is that I enjoy Part 6 or 7 of any given low-budget horror series – and I rarely know what to tell them as I question it myself. But there’s at least one thing that a b-movie has, and that’s a bit of behind-the-scenes passion. Such films don’t have enough budget to successfully erect walls between the filmmakers and the viewers. We can see through the cracks, through those strained performances and shoddy sets, and get a sense of the film-making process which is normally hidden by slick higher-budget offerings. In the case of Friday the 13th Part VIII (example chosen at random), what we glimpse behind those walls are passionate film-makers who have been given an opportunity by a big corporate film production house to go out and make a film as quickly and cheaply as possible. Although they understand that they won’t be making any great artistic statements or breaking any box offices, they grab that opportunity with both hands, they dive in and make the best film that they can within the limits imposed on them. The result is something which feels like the product of a dynamic and creative filmmaking process – because it is.

Whilst Saw the films may be committee-created and process-driven, the game isn’t. Like those old horror films I still inexplicably love, I can see past the shoddy engine and the rushed art assets to a team of young designers, programmers and modellers who are thrilled that Konami has given them the chance to make a game with a license that will sell, and even if they’ve been given no time or money to make anything which the mainstream will accept as good enough, there is a determination to create the best game they can. You can see this in all the details that they didn’t need to include: the parts where you play other characters investigating the crime scenes or talking to extraneous characters; the extra puzzles and dialogue that are just there to add flavour; the moments where the path can diverge and lead to different endings. This is ambition-driven, not process-driven. If it was, the process would be ‘don’t waste time on this, we just need four hours of mini-games, gore and puzzles and then we’ll throw it at the shops and hope for the best’.

It's like Dead Space, only with a stronger emphasis on the dynamic between eyes on acid

If I was writing this the week Saw 2 came out, I’d recommend that you save your money and avoid. But it’s been out for a while now so it’s cheap, and if you have the inclination for it I’d say it’s worth a punt. If you’re easily frustrated by outdated gameplay problems, steer clear. Needless to say, if graphic violence turns you off do not go near this game. In fact, stop reading this review – there are no shocking revelations left in this last paragraph about how its actually quite a peaceful experience. However, if you like the idea of a weird little puzzle game unlike any other, if you find that a game can keep you interested as long as its got enough charisma, if you can accept that low-budget is what low-budget does and see past it, and you’ve got a spare fiver in your back pocket and a few hours (or a homeless person) to kill and need some inspiration – go for it. I won’t tell you that you won’t be disappointed, because you will be, but you might have a lot of fun with it anyway.

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