More than most horror movies, the Saw film franchise seems like the perfect subject for a video-game adaptation. You've got the world's most twisted game-master in Jigsaw, the series' antagonist and serial killer whose deeply skewed but rigidly moralistic perspective compels him to kidnap people he perceives to be squandering their lives and proceed to put them through a series of stomach-churning tests that, if failed, will leave the subjects mangled, mutilated, dismembered, disemboweled, or worse. It's contrived as all hell, but it's got the perfect structure for a video game. That it's rendered in polygons takes some of the squirmy edge off the torture-porn aspect of Saw, but it still delivers on the free-floating sadism and grim machinery that are hallmarks of the series. More importantly, as much graphic death as there is in the game, it spends most of its time focusing on very contained puzzle-solving rather than combat, making it feel atypical for a horror game. There are a few neat tricks here, but it starts recycling them almost immediately, and the diminishing returns set in just as quickly.
The game takes place between the first two Saw movies, putting you in the role of Detective Tapp, the man who obsessively pursued Jigsaw in the first film. Here he's been kidnapped and stuck deep inside a dilapidated insane asylum that Jigsaw has converted into giant, elaborate testing ground, with the stated purpose of trying to save Tapp from his own obsession with trying to catch Jigsaw. In order to save himself, Tapp has to first save a series of other Jigsaw victims, many of whom are somehow intertwined with Tapp's obsession. With an impossible number of conveniently placed TV sets, that creepy little doll, and his brutally monotone voice, Jigsaw guides you through the labyrinthine asylum, subjecting you to all manner of grotesquery as you try and save each victim, such as plunging your hand into toilets filled with dirty needles and barrels of acid to retrieve keys.
One of the most common trap designs is to put you in a room with some kind of threat--most often a bunch of explosives or a toxic gas--and then put a limit on how long you have to get out of your predicament. You'll occasionally have to cull some clues from the environment around you, but most of the puzzle-solving gets done through puzzley little minigames. You'll match tumblers to pick door locks, power up electrical panels and shut off ventilation systems with puzzles that are somewhat reminiscent of the hacking minigames from BioShock, and place different-sized gears on pegs to open mechanical puzzle boxes. Once you get to the people you're trying to save from some elaborate, painful death, you'll do more of the same. These “boss fights,” as it were, are the real highlights of Saw, and I consistently found myself failing them on purpose just to see the bloody end results. It's more than a little perverse that, without the nasty context, the puzzles you're undertaking couldn't be more innocuous.
While the puzzles and the atmosphere are the primary focus in Saw, there is still some one-on-one combat, which is easily one of the game's least compelling components. In theory, though, it's pitch-perfect for Saw. The asylum is filled with other desperate, violent people whose only chance for escape lies in a key that Jigsaw has surgically implanted inside Tapp's body. As if that's not bad enough, it's not long before Tapp is fitted with a collar mounted with shotgun shells that are pointed at his head. There are others in the asylum with the same collars, and if they get too close for too long, both collars will go off, unless one of them dies first.
So you arm yourself with whatever weapons you can find, which includes spiked baseball bats, table legs, scissors, scalpels, mannequin arms, hypodermic needles, mop handles, and more. But it all falls apart when it's time to actually fight a guy, simply because the controls are so unbelievably unresponsive. It's possible to take an enemy out with a single, brutal attack, and there's a queasy satisfaction to that. But if you don't get the jump on your opponent, the recovery time from being attacked is so long that it's easy to get caught in a loop that ends in your death. There are occasions when you can use Jigsaw's traps against your enemies, or avoid combat altogether, which is definitely preferable.
The bigger picture problem with Saw, though, is that it's got a handful of clever ideas, but it exhausts most of them in the first hour or so, and you spend the rest of the game playing the same puzzles and performing the same tasks over and over. The puzzles get a little tougher, but beyond that, they never really change. The game tries to keep the tension up between puzzles by livening up your path with narrow balance beams set over serrated pits and random tripwires attached to shotguns, the latter of which can be a particular and sudden source of frustration. These threats mostly just force you to move through the game at a more methodical pace, and the more time you spend in this dirty, scary, extremely contrived place full of psychopaths and deadly machinations, the more accustomed you become to its particular rhythms, and the less unnerving it is.
The game puts on a pretty good facade, affecting many of Saw's stylistic flares. There's lots of jarring camera shake, motion blur, and patchy focus effects, and the soundtrack is all industrial clangs and squeals, but in the end it's all window-dressing for a game that has more in common with Professor Layton than Condemned.