Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog


Saw II – Flesh and Blood (Xbox, 2010): Loading….. Loading….. Loading……
February 12, 2012, 7:26 pm
Filed under: Saw II - Flesh and Blood (Xbox, 2010, US)

I’m seriously thinking about getting T-shirts made: “I finished the Saw games on normal difficulty without punching a hole in my wall. Kiss me.” (Some of that would probably have to go on the back.)

That’s what these games are about—blindly persevering through multiple, multiple, multiple deaths. While I know there are games which are notoriously more difficult than this, “Saw II: Flesh and Blood,” like its predecessor, is all about repeatedly slogging through the same sections 20 to 25 times in a row until you do it perfectly—and the reward is you get to live to face the next seemingly impossible decapitation puzzle. Be prepared to spend a lot of time looking at your headless corpse on the floor—oh, and the loading screen.

In addition to having to take a double dose of blood pressure medicine, when I finished “Saw II,” I had a few genre-related questions buzzing around my (crushed) brainpan. I know, I know. This hack-movie-tie-in title by Zombie Studios (their second) seems an unlikely game to inspire the same kinds of lofty questions that a starchild like “Portal” might. For example, I’ve wondered for a long time whether “Portal” is a first-person shooter. Or is it a puzzle game? What do I call it? A first-person puzzler, I guess? Anyway, “Saw II” presents the same kind of dilemma (a dilemma that only idle gamers would bother pondering). Is “Saw II” a survival horror game? It’s published by survival horror kingpins Konami, so sure, why not. And anyway, many reviewers and fans automatically call it a survival horror game.

The problem is that neither “Saw” title to date really resembles a survival horror game, strictly speaking, when considering the gameplay itself. Frankly, these games are closer cousins to puzzle games full of context-sensitive button pressing and timed minigames…but all this puzzling does occur in a horror context. And anyway, many survival horror games of yore had some kind of puzzling in them. So, maybe the “Saw” games do belong in this genre. But then again, in those older games, the puzzles are rather minor aspects (e.g., to open a door), whereas in the “Saw” games the puzzles are front and center (actually, even the combat in “Saw II” is a context-sensitive button-mashing minigame, so…). Eh, maybe the real problem is that the genre term “survival horror” itself is slowly becoming irrelevant in this day and age. Let’s call it evolution. Case in point: Has anyone noticed that Naughty Dog’s announced zombiefest “The Last of Us” is decidedly being called a “survival action” game? Not survival horror. I feel old. And that has nothing to do with the fact that I just celebrated my 47th birthday, while innocently telling everyone I was turning 46. Hope springs eternal? Nah, just a touch of Alzheimer’s.

Oh, of course all of this academic and has no bearing on whether or not a game is worth playing. And “Saw II” is actually worth playing…if only it were a few hours shorter, and if some of the death-puzzles didn’t require as many as 25 retakes (the repetition ultimately does create the negative effect of yanking you out of the thin storyline that is present). Yes, “Saw 2” does outstay its welcome and gets irksome, but so do my relatives when they visit, and I manage to muddle through regardless.

Rather than being labeled a “bottom barrel” game by critics, “Saw 2” actually suffers the worse fate of simply being considered “average” by most reviewers—and, perhaps worse still, only slightly below that of its also-average predecessor. The standing Metacritic score of 47 sort of says it all. It’s not an unknown game, and it’s not a spectacularly awful game that must be experienced to be believed. Nah, it’s just par, or a little below par, but nothing to get excited over—unless you are a torture porn fanboy (and there are plenty who are already praying for “Saw III”). I suppose I agree with that overall “meh” assessment, but there are some outstanding elements to this game that keep me coming back for some damn, masochistic reason.

The uninspired narrative is not one of those elements, though. In “Saw 1” you play Detective Tapp (apparently, a character from the films, which I’ve never seen, not interested). To avoid spoilers, I’ll just say that “something” fatal happens to Tapp at the conclusion of the first game—a rather depressing ending, which is befitting. Picking up where that left off, in “Saw 2” you play the role of Tapp’s son, Michael, who is a somewhat crooked reporter investigating the nature and cause of his father’s demise. Like daddy Tapp in the first film, son Tapp ends up in Jigsaw’s maze of death traps (which seem to occupy entire city blocks—we’ll touch upon that momentarily). While sometimes, you simply need to extricate yourself from some mechanical monstrosity, in “Saw 2” Michael Tapp mostly confronts and has to free many individuals who are either crooked cops who once served with his deceased father, or seedy criminals who his father imprisoned during his time as a cop. In other words, Jigsaw throws at you many people who hate you by proxy because they hated your father. But paradoxically, they are also relying on you to free them from this or that head-munching device that Jigsaw the killer has devised. The reason you help all these folks is so you may escape Jigsaw’s grip too, while also perhaps discovering why your dad died and who was involved. One of the more interesting aspects to the narrative is slowly revealed: You, as his son, may have played a bigger role in his demise than you imagined. Yes, as you’d suspect in a “Saw” game, the protagonist is not as innocent as it may first appear.

While I suppose the narrative sounds self-contained enough to follow, it actually suffers from movie-tie-in-syndrome in a way that “Saw I” did not. In other words, the first “Saw” game was narratively noncomplex and also discrete, separate, standalone. But in “Saw 2,” much of the narrative is told through case files and audio tapes you collect along the way. And 90 percent of the time, I couldn’t make heads or tails of the people, locations, or situations these movie-related notes and audio logs were referring to. My bad, I guess, since I never saw the films. However, the first game managed to avoid this movie-tie-in-syndrome, and it worked well for gamers unfamiliar with the torture porn flicks. I wonder why Zombie Studios decided to change this aspect?

So, if the generally serviceable (but confusing for neophytes) narrative isn’t the primary draw, what is? In this case, like in the last game, it’s all about the atmosphere and environments on offer, all rendered with the “Unreal 3” engine. While “Saw I” took place primarily in an abandoned mental hospital whose walls simply dripped disease, “Saw 2” occurs first in the moldy, tattered Holmes hotel, from the rotting penthouse all the way down to the dark, steam-filled basement. Later the game shifts to more industrial locations, like what appears to be a manufacturing plant, then the trusty sewer location, and then an abandoned subway station and tunnel. If there’s one element that Zombie Studios understands, it’s drawing and coloring and lighting a creepy crawly, nasty, dirty, decrepit, abandoned, foul, infested, mildewed, serpentine nightmare full of cockroaches and rusty bear traps that will take a limb from you in an instant. One note: Frankly, I did find the mental hospital (and its history which unfolded during the game) in “Saw I” to be a bit more unnerving (and frankly, more scary) than the locales comprising “Saw II,” but it all ultimately works in its own way. And, as in the first entry, most of this sequel runs continuously without loading screens (as long as you don’t die, yeah right)—linking together a seemingly never-ending string of rooms and hallways that, in all reality, would exist only in The Twilight Zone. Either that, or Jigsaw can afford to buy or rent entire city blocks full of decrepit buildings and rig them all together somehow into one giant, seamless maze. But I’m leveling nitpicky logical arguments at a “Saw” game…probably a losing proposition.

While the environments speak for themselves, there are many other simple elements that I truly do admire about this game. I’ll mention them in no particular order here. First, the patches of glass shards scattered haphazardly about the floor are back; since your character is walking about the filthy place barefooted, this matters. When you do misstep, your health takes a small hit and you leave a few bloody footprints behind, ouch. I winced (and cursed) every time.

As you traverse the decrepit industrial and mildewed residential environs, you come across the corpses of other victims who have not successfully “passed” their own various tests, ouch. Puddles of blood, piles of guts, and swarms of buzzing flies abound. This little touch of course adds some non-narrative depth and gives the impression that Jigsaw has lots of irons in the fire, other than torturing you. There are other stories occurring here unbeknownst to you.

When you do come across some fanatic who is trying to kill you, that person is often enclosed in his or her own deathtrap. For example, there are a handful of folks with hands bound and spiked cages covering their heads or bodies. These people will run wildly at you to impale you—this is their own Jigsaw-sponsored test righteously designed to teach them a lesson and perhaps “fix” them somehow. If they can take you out, maybe they’ll feel guilty, but Jigsaw has told them this is how they could earn their freedom. Your job is to step out of the way at just the right time so they get stuck on a wall or wooden crate just long enough for you to bash their heads in (multiple times). Or there’s one giggling arsehole who has had his hands removed by Jigsaw and replaced with knives—if he kills you, he gets his hands back? I don’t know, but the guy is unhinged. Another dude has a collar around his neck attached to a retracting chain that allows him to chase you, but then it also pulls him back. If he can grab you, he’s been promised freedom by Jigsaw. The interesting thing, narratively, is that after you dispatch these individuals, there is a tape recorder somewhere near where they were imprisoned including a message recorded by Jigsaw directly to them explaining why they have been placed in this predicament and what they need to accomplish in order to walk. As part of these messages, you get to hear who these people actually are and the crimes they have committed (drug abuse; molestation of children; disfigurement, dismemberment, or murder of various flavors–overall, not the neighbors you’d invite over to a party). Their individual deathtraps are always thematically related to their crimes, which is the basis for the movie as well (from what I hear). These little snapshots add some welcome depth to the story.

Also back are some of the funny—and easy—ways to earn achievements. In the first iteration of this series, your first 15 points came from allowing your character to actually die in one of Jigsaw’s traps. So, you sit there, do nothing, and earn points! Yet another 15 points could be earned by simply falling off a ladder. I think I called it a “Gamerscore whore’s delight.” Yay! In the sequel, the whoring continues nonstop. At the start screen before the game boots, if you enter a series of “cheat” button presses (such as up, up, down, down, left, right), the achievement “Old School” pops up on screen accompanied by 15 points. Old school, get it? Another 15 points can be had if you change your system clock to 12/25/2010 and boot the game. (Another reference to the film, perhaps?)  Change the system clock once again to 10/31/2010 and reboot, and another 15 points is yours.

I get the feeling that gamers either love or hate context-sensitive-button-pressing (quicktime events [QEs], whatever you want to call them), and most of “Saw II” is comprised such events. As I mentioned, even the combat is determined by QEs (a departure from the first game, which had more traditional combat mechanics). Regardless of your particular preference, some of these events in “Saw 2” (borrowed right from “Saw I”) simply work to create a lot of tension. The most familiar (and perhaps overused) one revolves around the simple act of opening a door. As you approach a door and open it, the door creaks slowly wider and you can see through the crack a weight attached to a chain on the other side that begins to drop. As the weight drops, it slowly rotates, revealing not one but two buttons that need pressing, super fast, before the door opens all the way. Miss the buttons? Usually a massive pickaxe attached to a pendulum on the ceiling swings outward and thoroughly guts you. Load checkpoint. If you hit the buttons properly, the trap still springs, but you automatically dodge it, barely. In “Saw II,” the developers added a variation on this gameplay tactic—using peepholes. Instead of opening a door, you can decide to peek through a peephole—and of course there’s a shotgun pointed right through the hole which will blow yer friggin’ head off if you don’t press that prompt button mighty fast. Load checkpoint. The genius of this, of course, is that before you open every damn door (and there and many), you find yourself double checking in your mind which button is located where on the gamepad. Then you take a deep breath, count to three, and open the door…only to find a brick wall immediately behind it. Nothing. Nada. Made you pee yourself. Ha ha. It’s beyond clever. And right at the point where you become complacent and forget about the trigger-doors, another one shows up. Damn. Load checkpoint.

However, there are other twitch-based mechanics that are so difficult that they border on brokenness. The dreaded “balance beams” fall into this category.  I’m not sure if this gameplay element existed in “Saw I” (I’ll have to glance back at my old discussion of it), but there are sections in “Saw II” where your character will approach a board that spans a section of broken floor, and there just happens to be some awful trap set underneath it to turn you into a human pincushion. Or in some cases the floor yawns several stories below and falling means a broken neck. To continue, you have to cross these beams; if you misstep, it means instant death—load checkpoint. Sometimes these “balance beams” are short, and sometimes they are rather lengthy. In particularly cruel sections of the game, you are required to traverse a beam in one direction, retrieve some necessary object, and then turn around and do it in the opposite direction—with no checkpoint in between. Ugh. The game requires you to not only balance on the board but to also step across it. It doesn’t sound too difficult, but unfortunately it is. After dying myself dozens of times trying to navigate these boards, I discovered complaints on forum after forum, many players saying that their sheer frustration at these balance beams actually made them eject the damn disc and exchange it for something else. There were dozens of posts like this.

I can sympathize. Regarding the Xbox 360 version of the game that I played, the problem is the button configuration that the devs at Zombie Studios force you to use. In addition to having to carefully tap the left thumbstick to the left or right to keep your character centered on the board (and by the way, once he steps onto the board, his movements become so erratic, with arms flailing wildly, controlling him is nearly impossible), you also have to simultaneously, and very methodically, depress the left and right triggers to make him step forward, left foot, right foot. Waggle left thumbstick depending on his orientation, while also slowly depressing alternate triggers. Insane. None of it makes sense, and no one’s hands want to move in this fashion. I died 15 times on each beam…and there are at least 6 of them in the game. That’s a lot of freaking funerals. So I fired up ye ole laptop and started searching for solutions.

I’m not one to hide the fact that, with as much gameplaying that I do, I will absolutely stoop to using a “trainer” on a PC game or a “save editor” on a console title when I reach that special boiling point of frustration. My tolerance level is pretty damn high, but all human beings have limits. And after hours of investment in a game, I have no trouble typing “Saw II trainer” into Google and downloading a little pill to help me with my blood pressure problem. It’s a rare event, but it definitely happens. The teeth-clenching issue here, though, is that no technological intervention exists to solve the problem of the balance beams (or really any of the challenges) in “Saw II,” other than girding your loins. It doesn’t matter if you’ve stored up a ton of health hypos (which, actually, you can only carry 4 at a time anyway), or if you bestow infinite health or stamina upon yourself by using some creative save-editing, or if you’ve got the greatest melee weapon in the game. If you fall off the beam, you die, load checkpoint….load checkpoint…load checkpoint….(Like how I avoided using the word “cheating” here? Ooops.)

That realization is depressing, because after 30 deaths (every 15 minutes or so) it means I put the game up on the shelf with the very few other titles I’ve never been able to finish. (Brat Design’s “Breed” from 2004 is the flagship title in this esteemed category for me because it is so broken.)  But as the wise folks say, necessity is the mother of invention. And in my case, the invention was incredibly low-tech. In order to traverse the balance beam interludes, I had to call in the big guns. Here’s what I did: I actually got my partner to hold the controller and to waggle the thumbstick to keep the character upright while I, at the same time sitting askance, slowly depressed the left and right triggers to traverse the beam one step at a time. Worked like a charm. Two people on one controller—sounds kinky. But this of course is not a good solution for any lonely losers out there playing games all by themselves (which, of course, is most of us.) But anyway: Screw you, Zombie Studios! I overcame your stupid control scheme by suddenly growing ten extra fingers. Jesus.

One last note: You begin the game, in seeming tutorial fashion, by playing a completely unrelated character, some generic dude with cancer who is looking for his son. After about 20 minutes of play, the game then shifts to the main protagonist, Michael Tapp, who you get to kill repeatedly for the next 15 hours or so. There are three endings to the game (which makes it feel like old-time survival horror as well), and in a very nice twist, some of the decisions you innocently make while playing the seemingly unrelated character in the beginning of the game have a profound impact on which ending of the game you get to see—in other words, you choose Michael Tapp’s fate without realizing it within the first few minutes of the game, basically. In this sense, the narrative is nicely framed as a single whole from beginning to end, although this isn’t revealed until the last minutes. I likey.

Regardless, I’m not sure I’d play another “Saw” game. Why? Well, after repeating the same frustrating sections innumerable times, I had a seriously low moment. After failing to complete some dumb timed mission that I don’t recall (maybe it was the “Shotgun Carousel,” which I won’t go into), I looked up at the clock and asked myself, “Should I be doing something else instead? Is repeating this same section ad infinitum really a good expenditure of my time?” I was having one of those “Am I wasting my life?” moments, instead of being immersed in the game’s story or character, or even the tension created by the atmosphere of the game.

That’s not a good thing. Or…maybe it is. Uh oh. Anybody tell me what to do with these alien feelings?