For reasons only known to Quentin Tarantino, the New Beverly programmed a double feature of Saw IV and Saw V last month as part of their month-long Halloween schedule, which had horror (or sci-fi) films showing every night, much to my equal joy (movies!) and chagrin (I couldn't see them all!). As any Saw fan could tell you, this was a peculiar selection if one were to only pick two of the seven films to show - logic would dictate showing the first two, fans of gimmicks would probably opt for parts III and IV since they take place at the same time, or maybe they could just show the final two entries since they were the lowest grossing and thus the ones most likely to have been missed by casual horror fans. But instead, they chose IV, which is the most impenetrable entry in the series for a newcomer, and V, which is generally considered to be the weakest of the lot (though over time it seems to tie with VII aka 3D/Final Chapter - I myself have trouble choosing).
Naturally, I opted to go anyway.
Apart from the occasional bits and pieces I catch on cable (Epix tends to show them a lot), I haven't watched any of the films since Britt and I marathoned them a couple of years back, so even though these two aren't my favorite entries it was fun to see a Saw flick on the big screen again, especially with the anticipation for next year's Saw: Legacy. But as it had been a while, I found myself occasionally getting tripped up on some of the details of its intricate but apparently sloppy mythology (I went with my friend Matt, who is a savant for these films and was pointing out some inconsistencies - some of which I merely just never caught, others I could barely follow what he was saying in order to understand what the gaffe WAS). Long story short, it put me in the mood for something a bit simpler in the series, which is why it's a good thing that I never got around to playing the 2nd video game, subtitled Flesh & Blood, as it would give me a Saw "fix" and a level playing field with regards to my ability to follow the story.
As with the first game, the game's developers and Lionsgate publicity have claimed that the game is canon, though I wouldn't expect to see any reference to it in the upcoming film(s?), given the game's lackluster sales and negative reviews. The most damning evidence of the game's lack of importance is probably on Gamefaqs, where the only walkthrough is incomplete (it stops after the 2nd level), though someone did offer up all of the non-random combination codes for all of the game's puzzles, explaining "this game is horrible so I thought I'd help speed people's time with it along" (I'll get into why I was looking for answers anyway in a bit). To be fair, I found it to be on par with the original game; some of the mechanics have been improved and they did away with a lot of the cheapshot death traps, and the story was better, not to mention more suspenseful since it didn't star a character we knew ended up dead. But it also felt more like an expansion pack, using many of the same puzzle types instead of coming up with new ones, and there were a number of overly difficult sections that didn't quite jive with Jigsaw's mantra, or even make a rudimentary amount of sense (even by horror movie OR video game logic).
This time around you play as Michael Tapp, the son of the first game's David Tapp (the character played by Danny Glover in the first film - Glover does not voice the character, for the record). Seems that Michael didn't follow his father's footsteps and become a cop - he's a reporter instead, and apparently wrote up something incriminating about his pops. Michael did this to take revenge on a man who was never around and didn't do the whole "dad" thing correctly, which is an interesting concept for the series, which focused on fathers a few times but rarely their children. Throughout the game you encounter a number of people involved with Detective Tapp's wrongdoings (it's a generic drug ring/corrupt cop thing of no real bearing on anything even in the game, let alone the film series), all but one of which were invented for the game. The lone exception is Carla, who was the med student that Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes) was having an affair with in the first film, and ranks as one of the series' very few characters of note that didn't die but also never appeared again. Had the game series continued, I assume we would have seen others like her pop up, perhaps even Gordon's family now that his fate had been revealed (in Saw 3D/Final Chapter, the film that was released alongside the game in 2010) and they wouldn't have to worry about screwing up the mythology for which they wanted so desperately to be considered.
But despite the new character and meatier story (which is bookended by another character who holds Michael's fate in his hands, even though Michael has no idea about this element - it's similar to Saw VI's "it's not his game, it's ours" twist), everything more or less plays out the same as the first. You free yourself from a trap and find yourself in one of Jigsaw's trademarked decrepit warehouse/basement buildings, where you encounter some featured players in death traps of their own (and they need your help to get them out - think Saw III, IV, VI, and VII), as well as a variety of randoms who just want to kill you, for reasons that weren't made clear. The first game had a "fair enough" concept that you had a key implanted in your body somewhere and these random attackers needed it to free themselves, but unless I missed it this time they don't even bother with any such half-assed ruse. Weirder still, some people actively beg for your help in freeing them as they kill you, such as the numerous dudes with spikes all over their body who will rush you and kill you in two hits if you don't carefully dodge their attack. More than once I watched my death animation play out as the character begged for my assistance, which was more of a head scratcher than the game's actual puzzles. Just stay still and let me fiddle with these dials or whatever and I CAN help you, ya jerk! Other characters aren't even noticeably handicapped by one of Jigsaw's little inventions - they're just standard dudes running around ready to kill you, leaving me wondering why Jigsaw would go through so much trouble to set up a game for Michael that could be ended by some anonymous thug with a baseball bat.
Thankfully, we don't have to deal with them TOO often, nor do we suffer through the first game's interminable combat sections. Instead, these encounters take the form of quick-time events, which is the lesser of two evils in my opinion. If you have an axe or spiked bat you can end the fight with one hit, but otherwise you just have to tap the three (randomized) buttons that appear on your screen, with fairly generous time allowed before insta-death (which is also what happens if you press the wrong button, so take your time). I mean, ideally they'd just get rid of this stuff entirely, since it doesn't seem very Jigsaw-y in the first place, but I get that something needs to break up the corridor marches and puzzle solving, so it's not the end of the world. And they're also preferable to the aforementioned spiked dude encounters, which always require you to lure him into either clearing your path (smashing the wall or whatever that's in your way) or falling to his own demise. There's no dodge button per se, so you just have to run a bit to the side and hope he doesn't change direction and kill you.
And THOSE are preferable to the game's two worst new wrinkles, which had me shouting a few curse words more than once. The first awful idea is the "walk the plank" concept, where you will occasionally have to walk over a narrow beam while keeping your balance - lean too far and it's goodbye Michael (instantly) and hello loading screen. It's a standard game mechanic, but for whatever reason developer Zombie Studios opted to make it even more cumbersome by flashing LT and RT symbols onscreen, which any gamer would assume meant you'd use those buttons to balance yourself while using the stick to move forward. No, those buttons are how you take steps, while you use the stick to balance yourself - even once I learned this (that's what I was looking for on Gamefaqs, after a dozen deaths taking my 2nd step), it took several times to get used to, and I can't help but wonder why they'd neglect to explain the system to the player, especially in a game with so few new things to do if you had played the first. Naturally, the game had to double down on their obnoxiousness by pitting a few of them during scenes where the walls close in on you, meaning you don't get time to carefully inch your way forward while keeping as perfectly balanced as you could manage, as you'd just get squished instead of falling to your doom. The very last thing you do in the game is one of these sequences, in fact - and it ultimately took me well over twenty tries, which is unreasonable for anything that isn't Dark Souls. Each death just frustrated me while teaching me nothing.
The other new invention was dual-tiered trap scenes, where you had to run back and forth between tending to your victim and also solving whatever dial or matching puzzle Jigsaw had designed to set the person free. For example, in one level a character is strung up over three flames, one of which is burning hot and thus you need to push or pull him out of harm's way (preferably without burning yourself) over one of the other two burners, until THAT one starts burning. But you also need to solve a memory puzzle on the other side of the room, so you flip maybe four tiles before having to run over and move him again, losing your concentration and naturally time on the ever present countdown. Another one had you moving a barricade through a windy hallway so you could use it to weigh down a pressure switch, but you also had to keep running back to a safe zone to reset the bomb on your neck that would kill you if you let it run too long (15 seconds) without clearing. Take any trap from the movies - the needle one from Saw II, for example - and imagine Jigsaw requiring Amanda (or whoever ended up in it) to jump out to fiddle with some dials every 20 seconds before jumping in again, and you can see why this is frustrating both as someone who is just trying to enjoy a crappy six year old tie-in game, as well as a fan of the series that it should be taking fewer liberties with when it comes to the main villain's whole approach to his madness.
That said, most of the main trap designs are fairly clever and would fit well within one of the films. I particularly liked the elevator one, where a victim was strung up between the ceiling and the top of an elevator, and would tear her in half (by sending the elevator down) should you fail to solve the puzzles, and that fire one I just mentioned would have been fine on its own in a movie if not for the silly memory game you had to play in between. This game also added bonus puzzle rooms where, when solved, you could obtain a Billy puppet doll, one of the many collectible elements that you could hunt around for if you were so inclined. One of them utilized Morse code and chess (don't worry, both are explained in game) to find the three digit code to open the door where Billy was waiting, another had you use a wall of clocks to form a certain number with their hands. These were in no way related to anything Jigsaw would ever bother doing, but as an adventure/puzzle game fan I found them to be quite engaging, and thankfully lacking in countdown clocks or poisoned gas or whatever.
As for the other collectibles, the system was much improved from the first game, which didn't bother with any kind of checklist or indication for how many there were to find. They also added more to the actual story, both in the form of Tapp's police files (which summed up events of the first film) and his audio tapes, where he also clarified events from the first film as well as the first game, and his lingering guilt over his strained relationship with his son (also, for what it's worth, the Glover soundalike has improved his impression a bit). There are also puzzle pieces for good measure, forming a little picture of Jigsaw in his red/black coat, but beyond another achievement there's no real use to these, and they require no skill beyond being a smart enough gamer to know that if you reach a T-section in a hallway and your objective is on the right, there's gonna be some hidden collectible on the left (the trick is knowing which one progresses the game before Jigsaw activates the door lock and blocks your path to Achievement glory). I found most of this stuff along the way with minimal hunting; I might go back for the one Billy doll I missed since it means a new puzzle to solve, but my days of wandering around looking for audio tapes just to get a 15 pt Achievement are long behind me, lest I become a Jigsaw target myself for wasting my life on such trivialities*.
Ultimately, a few frustrating sequences notwithstanding, it served its purpose. There are many lesser tie-in games, and the list of ones that are leaps and bounds better is decidedly short. Its similarity to the first game is its biggest detriment, but also in a way part of its strength as the first one was solid and mostly matched its source material in spirit and execution as best as a video game could for this particular series. It's also worth noting that when I popped the game in, I wasn't greeted with the usual "an update is required" message that I've gotten for, oh, every Xbox 360 game I've ever played, which had me fearing the worst. But I only encountered a single glitch the entire time, which is downright miraculous since tie-in games are rushed to meet release dates of their cinematic counterparts and thus more prone to bugs and crashes. Alas, it's doubtful anyone will see for themselves, since the game was relatively hard to find even in 2010 (part of why I skipped it then) and new copies still cost at least 50 bucks, which is absurd (a few used copies, lacking the artwork and manual, or a bit beat up, go for the sub-20 dollar prices you'd expect). But then again, only die-hard Saw fans need apply, and they probably already have it or played the first game enough to know they don't want it anyway. Still, it's a bit better than its reputation, and it's a shame that they never made a game independent of a film's theatrical release, because with a little more time and finessing a Saw game could be up there with Riddick and Spider-Man 2 as one of the games you'd name-check when discussing those rare good movie tie-ins. I bet someone would at least finish writing up the walkthrough, at any rate.
* For the record, I'm totally willing to help make this the plot of the 3rd game if they decide they want one. Get all meta with it. Why the hell not?