Puppet Combo is no stranger to indie horror games. In fact, the North American developer is perhaps the biggest reference in the field, with low-budget, retro-style productions heavily inspired by eighties B-movies.
For years, the studio has been honing its skills with full titles such as The Nun Massacre or The Glass Staircase, or with numerous contained experiments that are regularly released for subscribers. All this practice has finally brought it closer to perfection with Stay Out of the House.
In the game, a couple is traveling on the road. The man drives and his partner sleeps beside him, until he decides to stop at a public restroom. Half-asleep, the woman sees her partner enter the place… and never come out again. Investigating, she finds the boy’s documents on the floor of a thicket that leads to an abandoned sawmill and churches in the middle of nowhere, without a living soul except for a very helpful dog.
In the search for clues, she comes across a huge and macabre house. The dog growls, barks, and lunges into the darkness. She follows the animal, and quickly finds herself in the hands of a cannibal butcher, and must do everything to escape before she becomes food for him and his family of maniacs.
Survival and immersion
Puppet Combo’s games are usually shaped by survival horror classics such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill, which translates into fixed camera angles, tank controls, and that dynamic of exploring the scenarios in search of resources and solutions to puzzles. Here, however, the developer expands his repertoire a bit, and starts looking at immersive sim titles as well.
This genre, popularized by Deus Ex, Thief, System Shock, and many others, consists of emphasizing the player’s freedom in the virtual world, allowing him to test the limits of the mechanics in search of solving objectives in the way he wants. These are works where exploration dominates, be it the environment or the controls.
The approach aligns perfectly with Stay Out of the House’s setting. As a true survivor, you must gather the meager resources scattered around the house, walk through shadows and pipes, and plan how to evade – or even attack – enemies as, or more, powerful than you. This combines with the survival horror dynamic where items are precious, combat must be avoided, each accident can weigh heavily, and the result is addictive and terrifying in equal measures.
The tension of the game borders on suffocation. As in Thief, the player needs to be aware of the amount of light and noise it emits. Thus, much of your time will consist of wandering through dark corridors, searching for how to solve puzzles in order to escape from the house. The challenge becomes greater as you progress, as the family reacts to the player’s advances.
Get the butcher’s attention and he will set traps throughout the house, or flood the pipes with toxic gas, taking important shortcuts to navigate the scenario. He may not have the same sophisticated artificial intelligence as the nun in Nun Massacre, who would even hide to try to scare you, but he is just as terrifying, especially since he knows alternative paths through the house. On an escape, it is common for you to be surprised by the monster, who has taken another path to catch you off guard.
The monster’s grandmother is equally disturbing. A putrefying-looking lady in a wheelchair, she may seem harmless at first – especially since her eyesight is not the best. She wanders through all the floors of the house, and when she gets close to the player, she lets out a powerful scream of horror, which causes the butcher to come running with violent attacks.
Thus, close contacts with the monsters are constant, and yield cold-sounding moments. It is common, for example, to be exploring a room and hear the creaking of the wheelchair approaching. Quickly, you have to turn off the lights and cower in a corner, hoping not to be seen or heard.
The combination of immersive sim and survival horror has its pros and cons. On the one hand, it is what gives the game its personality and makes it so addictive and unique. It is very satisfying to come up with a plan to avoid the monsters and see it being executed perfectly. All this freedom makes the idea of testing various theories and absurd ideas very attractive, such as trying to hit Grandma with a rock or trick the butcher into falling into his own trap.
On the other hand, the limitations of being the work of a single developer become more apparent. The progression of a survival horror, which calls for specific solutions to puzzles, does not always marry with the freer gameplay of an immersive sim.
At one point in our tests, for example, a puzzle asked for a certain item to allow access to another section of the map. We explored the entire house and tested several absurd ideas that could work within the logic of games of the genre, but that did not work here. In the end, what was holding us back was a bug that prevented the item from appearing, requiring the game to be restarted from scratch. The first rule of a good immersive sim is that there is never a single solution to any problem, but Stay Out of the House does not practice this.
Between flesh and faith
Still, the combination of genres is commendable, and works well for the most part. The excellent setting helps in building tension of weight, and also in the urge to explore every corner. Not only do the environments get progressively macabre, such as rooms taken over by bones and corpses, but there is also a larger story running in the background, which can only be understood through diaries and other text accounts.
As much as the main family is clearly a nod to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Gang of Sadists, the universe in which these maniacs operate is marked by a strange cult that has come to the country town, won over legions of fanatics, and even upstaged more traditional local churches.
His goals are elusive, and there is a hypnotic effect to his messages-something noticeable in the fact that religious programs are on all the TVs in the house, and that the player gets strong headaches if he stares at the monitors for too long.
In addition to texts about the strange cult, it is possible to find accounts from other victims, newspaper clippings about the various disappearances and attacks by the butcher, or even the diary of the maniac in question, who recounts his growing thirst for blood and human flesh. It’s a universe so intriguing that it makes you want to venture into the house to understand more.
Between the boldness and the limitations, Stay Out of the House is easily Puppet Combo’s best game yet. The solo developer has spent years polishing the project, and all that care is visible in a work designed to disturb, chill, and intrigue.
Horror fans are well served with independent production, and more and more the scene is testing novel combinations to go beyond nostalgia. It may not always work perfectly, but at least the tension is guaranteed.
Stay Out of the House is available for PC. The review was based on a key sent in by the developer himself.
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