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Stay Out of the House Is a Frustrating Nightmare

Puppet Combo’s latest Steam release Stay Out of the House has been a long time coming. Announced back in 2018, it had a somewhat troubled development thanks to some bad code and a variety of balance issues. Because of this, it’s a shocking and welcome surprise that the title has dropped just in time for Halloween. And while it is undeniably a scary and effective horror title, there are some glaring issues that hold it back. As such, mileage may vary depending on the player.

The eponymous house stands against a blank sky. The lawn is littered with plastic lawn ornaments and overgrown grass

We here at Horror Obsessive adore the glut of Lofi horror games that Puppet Combo has put out. Murder House was probably my GOTY for the year 2020 simply for how downright disturbing it was and how effectively it translated the feeling of a slasher film into game form. Stay Out of the House has a similar premise, at least on the surface; you play as a woman named Roxanne whose husband disappears when they pull over at a rest stop. You go searching for him through a back door in the restroom and stumble across a large, imposing house in the middle of some abandoned farmhouses. Since Roxanne doesn’t know the title of the game she stars in, you go inside and do some light exploration. Out of nowhere, a hooded figure attacks you, puts you in a cage, and from there it’s up to you to figure out the massive puzzle box that is the eponymous house in order to escape.

Whereas Murder House was a more overtly cinematic and scripted title, Stay Out of the House has more in common with Puppet Combo’s early hit Nun Massacre. That title featured winding corridors, more vents than you can shake a plausible argument for humans to be too heavy for them to support at, and lots of item/ inventory puzzles. And it had the big bad, a killer nun (surprise surprise) who couldn’t be killed. Stay Out of the House is similar; I said the house is a puzzle box and I meant it. This title goes straight back to the 90s for its design, complete with limited inventory space, limited ammo for the one gun you get, and an imposing killer that will stalk you relentlessly. A couple of bullets will send him running away, but it’s only a matter of time before he returns.

Like most Puppet Combo titles, the visuals and atmosphere in SOOTH are top-notch and completely sell the strange tone, which mixes goofy cheese with real terror. The early game, where you’re wandering through an abandoned wilderness, is evocative and imposing. The environments are highly detailed despite how deliberately muddy the visuals look, and the sound design is top notch too. PC has mastered unnerving killer screams, and that’s the case here. You’ll be sneaking around the house looking for the next item that’ll help you progress and you’ll hear the butcher a few rooms over, screaming in frustration. It’s extremely effective.

A simple convenience store. The player looks at a customer

Also effective is the narrative. In an interesting twist, there’s a bonus short game that was previously released as a standalone title on Puppet Combo’s Patreon called Night Shift, where you play as an overnight gas station attendant on a particularly fateful night. This is a great section, with some side objectives to complete and branching dialogue choices with the customers you meet (you can even make one mad enough to leave without paying for the cigarettes she wanted). There’s an arcade cabinet that has an Atari-style version of PC’s other title The Power Drill Massacre, which is a neat little bonus game even if it does frustrate with its more random elements. The surprising amount of world-building goes a long way toward building suspense, and when the butcher does eventually show up, it’s terrifying. The rest of the game ties into PC’s other works in ways I won’t spoil, but it’s another disturbing, frightening narrative that is much scarier than many other higher-budgeted horror titles.

The big problems for me come with the gameplay. I’m no stranger to old-school survival horror titles; I’ve recently started a new playthrough of Silent Hill 3 and am quite enjoying it. The problem is that the hide-and-seek gameplay has too many random elements for it to be clear. For instance, you can find a radar in the house that shows you when the butcher (or his wheelchair-rolling mother) is in the vicinity. It’s designed to help you make informed decisions about where to go next, but there was more than one occasion where the killer would seemingly appear out of nowhere, not appearing on the radar at all. Then you have to run and hide or fumble with your item hot keys to pull out your gun.

It’s quite unforgiving in this way, and when combined with the often obtuse nature of the puzzles, it can lead to a lot of trial and error that feels more aggravating than rewarding. A prime example of this came during the later stages of the house chapter where I had to find a variety of body parts to put on a scale to solve an environmental puzzle. I found all but one of the parts I needed, and I absolutely smacked myself when I found it where it was. However, I was hard-stuck for quite a while on this, and it became even more aggravating when the butcher would spawn out of nowhere and kill me. I wound up reloading this section quite a bit and did not enjoy myself.

That’s the big problem with a persistent enemy type—the puzzling and backtracking in old survival horror titles worked because you could theoretically take the threat out permanently (of course, more could always show up later but that’s beside the point). You had to be careful when using ammo because you weren’t sure when you’d find more, but you could take comfort in the fact that once an enemy was down, they stayed down. Here, bullets are simply tools to ward off the butcher, and there’s no real good way of knowing when he will show up next. Occasionally VHS static might fizz across your screen, but there were times when he wouldn’t show up and the static refused to go away. And because bullets are a limited resource, it feels wasteful almost every time you use them. But not using them can involve reloading an old save or losing your whole inventory when he captures you (the game has a hidden lives system called “days” where, every time you die, you lose a day to escape).

Black and white screenshot of a windmill. Text at the bottom reads "There are violent and disturbing images in this game."
It forgot to tell you about the inventory puzzles

Suffice it to say that this is a challenging game, and not always for the right reasons. I started by playing on Medium but eventually dropped down to Easy when I simply couldn’t find any more VHS tapes (which are a limited resource and are required to save a la the original Resident Evil’s ink ribbons). That immediately took the pressure off a bit, as I find quite a bit more ammo and tapes, but even on Easy, this game puts up a fight and if you’re stuck, it leaves it entirely on the player to figure out what item they need next and where it is. This can often lead to the dreaded pixel hunts, as items don’t always glitter as they should. And all of this is to say nothing of the inventory system, which gives you a paltry 5 spaces for carrying items, although you can eventually find a backpack that ups that number to 8. And because you can only carry so much, you’re often left to guess what item you’ll need next and you’ll just have to drop the rest. But if you drop an item you actually need to progress? Better backtrack and hope you don’t run into the butcher. It harkens back to Resident Evil 0 in this way and I’m not sure if it’s for better or worse.

Here’s the thing: I found the game immensely frustrating, and the cryptic endings didn’t necessarily feel like good rewards for all the effort I put in. But I know for a fact that there is an audience that craves this level of challenge from survival horror titles. It’s unapologetic in how little it holds the player’s hand; in that way, the mechanical hostility mirrors the hostility of the setting and story. You have to fight for progress, and it’s not always the most enjoyable thing in the world. But a certain kind of player will likely relish the obtuse nature of the eponymous House, and if Puppet Combo set out to create a challenging puzzle box with a bloodthirsty maniac running around, then they definitely succeeded. It’s a bloody, scary game, but also one that will try your patience.

Sidebar: Puppet Combo’s publishing label Torture Star Video recently released a game called Deadly Night that is shockingly similar to Stay Out of the House. Both games feature a woman being kidnapped and brought to a house that is one giant puzzle you solve piece by piece, both games feature limited saves, and both games’ killers wear a bag on their head (although Deadly Night’s killer looks way goofier), both have sleazy atmospheres, and both even have a puzzle that entails getting an item out of a clogged sink. I think Stay Out of the House is a much, much better game than Deadly Night, as DN didn’t even give you a way to fight back, had little in the way of side paths around the killer, and its stealth mechanics barely functioned as intended. Or, at least, they didn’t during my time with the game.

Considering there’s already a game on Steam that’s clearly ripping off the marketing of Stay Out of the House called Stay Out of the Farm, I wonder if Puppet Combo caught wind of Deadly Night somehow and decided to publish it instead of letting it loose in the wild and potentially harm sales of Stay Out of the House. The similarities are glaring, and I find this an interesting wrinkle in the story of Stay Out of the House’s full release.

All images were taken in-game. Stay Out of the House is now available on Steam.

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Written by Collin Henderson

Collin has loved all things horror since he was a wee lad, as long as it's not filled with jump scares. He holds up It Follows as the greatest horror film ever made, and would love to hear your thoughts on why he's wrong about that. He's written a couple of books called Lemon Sting and Silence Under Screams, and lives in Massachusetts.

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