I’m really not into horror movies but I enjoy the occasional survival/horror game, and the original Saw was on the verge of being a decent, satisfying puzzle-based adventure. One would hope the developer would take the next step; they’d fine-tune and refine their approach, make quality additions and in general, flesh out the entire experience. Hence, I was hoping for something better from Saw II: Flesh & Blood . I really expected a solid mid-7 title that would appeal to fans of the films, and one that offered plenty of challenging puzzles and freak-out situations. Unfortunately, while many of the technical aspects have indeed been upgraded and I enjoyed the slightly – emphasis on “slightly” – more open-ended gameplay, the rest of the production went backwards. Zombie opted for a new combat mechanic that just doesn’t work very well, repetition soon replaces fear and foreboding, and the story is seriously lacking.
In comparison to the first game, Saw II boasts similar visuals that are sometimes oversaturated with what is supposed to be grime and muck, but character detail can be impressive at times. The background is sufficiently unappealing and provides the player with a dark, scary atmosphere, and some of the gory special effects are pretty darn horrid. But beyond that, the overall presentation lacks in quality and some of the character animations are stiff and even ridiculous. We see this most during combat encounters and the result is disappointing. The design isn’t bad although I kept thinking Jigsaw could’ve done a lot more with his terrifying environment, and before long, you feel as if you keep entering the same busted-up, bloodstained room over and over. It’s just a little uneven. One minute, you’re going, “well, that looks pretty good” and the next, it’s “oh…oh no.”
As was the case with the original Saw , the highlight of Flesh & Blood is the sound. Ambient effects in the environment, while not used often enough in my opinion, really help to instill the player with a sense of trepidation. There is no greater terror than what we can create in our imaginations, and catching glimpses of something awful before it fully registers, or hearing a far-off scream or groan of agony is essential. In the sound category, the game comes through, despite the almost entire lack of a soundtrack and some inconsistent voiceovers. Jigsaw’s voice is the best of the bunch but I never once believed the main character. There’s also a balance issue between effects and voices that is most obvious during cut-scenes but that’s only a minor issue. All in all, the game sounds as it should and correctly enhances the fear level. I will say that some of those gory effects aren't crisp enough or…rich enough.
The gameplay is fairly straightforward. It consists of a blend between puzzle solving, exploration, and reaction-based combat and challenges. Jigsaw is a sadistic hypocrite who seems to preach morality and likes to talk in philosophic circles…all the while torturing and killing for the sake of his own self-glorified ego. Well, that’s my analysis of the freak, at any rate. He will place you in a variety of situations that can require quick thinking or quick acting. You will have plenty of time to deal with certain puzzles, while others have time limits that almost seem too taxing, and there’s always the threat of rowdy enemies. The enemies are after you because you’re the son of a prolific cop who put a lot of bad dudes behind bars and apparently, Jigsaw has dropped a lot of ‘em into his devilish playhouse. He also has plenty of traps set up that will put a permanent end to your escape quest if you aren’t careful. So look the hell out.
So yeah, the setting is just about right. Let’s start with the good- some of the puzzles are well-designed and they offer different sorts of challenges, and the time-based ones always have that terrible sense of life-or-death urgency. The pacing is decent, as you don’t face foe after foe, or deal with puzzle after puzzle without a bit of looking and exploration. The game also encourages you to go slow and take your time. As you’re always barefoot, running over glass or acid can hurt you, and pieces of the floor will fall out beneath you at random intervals. Jigsaw has also rigged certain doors with deadly traps so you always have to pay attention. Furthermore, some of the puzzles require that you look around carefully for valuable clues, and exploring will yield useful items that can open optional doors. In other words, the game requires attention to detail, and I happen to like that.
But the significant problems really start to mount up after the first hour. The first issue is the combat. Instead of a standard albeit unfulfilling third-person hacking mechanic, we get a QTE-based system this time around. You can never swing your fists or any weapon you have equipped; you have to dodge an incoming blow, wait for the option to attack (designated by the Square button), and then press the appropriate face button that flies across the screen. The issue is that it’s tough to see the latter face button; it would’ve been far better to just flash it on the screen ala God of War III because when it’s sliding, it’s difficult to see. They should’ve just worked on polishing the regular mechanic from the first game. The special effects attached to a devastating attack aren’t satisfying, either; putting a nail bat in someone’s head should result in some sort of nasty wound, right? Not just nails sticking into a plastic head?
Then there’s the repetition, which starts to become painfully obvious as time goes on. The lock-picking was interesting at first but it quickly got boring; arranging wires in circuit boards to open doors isn’t exactly exciting or engaging, and you start to expect a trap through every door. And given that you typically have plenty of time to hit the two buttons needed to avoid the trap, we lose a lot of the tension we need. Also, no enemy will leap at you from out of the shadows; you always know they’re coming, and as they all have to be human, we don’t have the benefit of freaky supernatural monsters to amp up the fear factor. I did like that some of the areas were more open and you could sample a half-dozen doors of your choice before moving on, but the gameplay just got too mechanical. There’s also a control issue: when running into something immovable, your character just stops dead; he doesn’t keep moving or anything.
Saw II: Flesh & Blood takes one step forward and two steps back. The story isn’t well done and although you will find some of those infamous traps found in the movies, there’s little in the way of plot development. The scary, tingly sensation dies out way too soon when the repetition and predictability kicks in (and that doesn’t take long), and although there are plenty of collectibles (puzzle pieces, case files, etc.), you have no big incentive to grab them all. The combat is just absurd and there’s an overuse of QTEs in general. The presentation isn’t bad and it can be effective but it all wears thin during the first few hours of play, which means any longevity takes a serious hit. Horror fans might want to give it a rent but beyond that…eh.
The Good: Decent character detail. Some solid and intriguing puzzle designs. Jigsaw is appropriately creepy. Control and camera are competent.
The Bad: Uneven technical presentation. Repetitive and predictable gameplay. Bad combat design. Fear and anxiety gives way to boredom. Story does nothing for player involvement.
The Ugly: Seriously, no corresponding wound effect at all when a nail bat lodges in a skull?