Over the last ten or so years the horror genre has made some mighty leaps and bounds: The Resident Evil series creates tension by forcing the player to treasure every resource available while Silent Hill challenges the psyche with monstrosities heavily loaded in symbolism. Then there are the likes of Eternal Darkness, a game that sets out to disorient the player, and Dead Space which simply throws some of gaming’s scariest abominations the player's way.
Just like the films, Saw’s presence in the gaming’s horror landscape is unlike any other. Arguably, one of the reasons why Saw continues to be so popular (along with its cousin Hostel) is because of the gore factor. It’s the same bloodlust that compels us to slow down and stare at a car crash: you know you shouldn’t and you know you may not like what you see, but you simply can’t help yourself.
It’s just a shame that Saw II: Flesh & Blood banks so heavily on the films’ defining characteristic of gore porn that the rest of the game simply falls to the wayside.
Even in those moments when the game explicitly focuses on the horrible situation that the protagonist has found himself in, the graphics fail to convey any gravity. For example, in the opening moments of the game the player must escape from Venus Fly Trap helmet by cutting out the key from their own eye. Instead of being treated to a gruesome spectacle of self-mutilation the player is forced to dwell on the game’s biggest short-coming: bland graphics.
If this scene were part of a Saw film with actors and special effects, the shock value would have been immense. Here, however, the only thing keeping the player attached and motivated to the situation is the fact that this is the beginning of the game and it would be plain embarrassing to admit that you got killed before the opening credits rolled.
For the most part, Saw II relies on horror clichés – and achieves acceptable results – to immerse the player in the setting: Long shadows are cast upon abandoned building interiors. Unfortunately, the poor character modelling breaks any sense of engagement. Aside from a few notable exceptions such as Jigsaw and his apprentice Pighead, all character models suffer from stiff animation.
Adding to the lacklustre visuals is the tedious game design. The obvious similarity between Saw II and its predecessor is that both games are heavy on puzzling, with death being the only prize for second place. While Saw II does follow in the footsteps of the films by featuring such scenarios as deciphering fuse boxes, finding a key to unlock a door or simply figuring out a lock’s combination, the game tends to repeat these puzzles an awful lot.
Puncturing these puzzles is the occasional encounter with another person whose escape can only come about upon your own death. Curiously, the developers have abandoned the passable combat system from the last game in favour of rather disjointed quick-time events. For example, the game never tells you how to enable the combat – a problem I solved by frantically button-mashing (it’s the square button).
Speaking of which, aside from the poor attempts at grossing-out the player the game tries to create a sense of dread by way of the occasional trap, no doubt set up by Jigsaw in order to keep you on your toes. However, whenever an axe swings from behind a door or the floor beneath you crumbles, the camera angle alerts the player to the hazard by focusing directly on it before presenting another simple quick-time event.
Beyond difficulty settings, there’s no strong argument for returning to the game a second time. Sure, there are various collectibles such as puzzle pieces and notes from the police investigation into the associated murders, but that’s about it. The result of which is comparable to a new-release DVD: Only really worth buying if you’re a fanatic.
Being released just a year after the first Saw game has resulted in an uninspired and recycled title, bringing with it the sense that this is just another shameless tie-in rushed out to capitalise on the license. There is a very real possibility that if Zombie Studios were given a longer period to craft more gruesome puzzles, to fully utilise the Unreal 3 engine and to insert some real passion then the game could have been much better. Instead, we’re presented with another sub-standard release to add to the movie-to-game quagmire.