Screech! That noise again. I’m cowering in fear in a claustrophobic vent, clutching a lighter to ward off the dark. The scratching, grating trundle of a wheelchair below signals that its driver is on the prowl. Slowly, but surely, she comes into view; an older woman, the family matriarch. If she sees me, I’m screwed. I pull out my revolver and carefully tuck a handful of bullets into the cylinder, before sliding it back into place. I take aim, and with a click, she’s down. ‘Problem solved’, I think – before long, poisonous gas begins to fill the duct and forces me to drop down out of my cubby.
Attempting to tread carefully, I crouch, but before long I hear a deafening yell as I come face to face with The Butcher. I jump out of my seat as I’m ripped from the world of Stay Out of the House, indie developer Puppet Combo‘s latest horror title, and back into my living room. I set down my Nintendo Switch and breathe – I think that’s enough for tonight.
Experiences like this were common during my time with Stay Out of the House. Rarely will horror games scare me these days; I’ve played so many over the years that most will simply wash over me. I’m cool as a cucumber. Yet I found myself constantly checking corners in my home and overthinking noises from the cat after putting down Stay Out of the House. It moved me in a way no horror game has in some time, and it’s because of the way Puppet Combo utilizes horror gaming’s greatest boon; immersion.
Stay Out of the House is no ordinary survival horror. It incorporates elements from immersive sims, a genre that centers player freedom and interactivity with the game world. Locks can be shot, chairs can be stacked, and generally, there is a myriad of solutions to every problem, many of which the developer won’t have anticipated. These tenets have been applied to horror before (see System Shock, and its recent remake), but never has the result been so potent.
The game opens with a brief introductory chapter, a prologue named Night Shift that was previously released as part of Puppet Combo’s Scary Tales Vol. 1 collection during Stay Out‘s development. It features very little horror but serves wonderfully as a microcosm of the game’s broader magic trick. It sees you playing a graveyard worker at a gas station, and through a series of menial chores pulls you into its fantasy (or lack thereof).
By the time its killer enters the scene, the spell has been cast, and the scares are even fresher. Though at first glance this seems at odds with the main game’s aspirations of constant tension, that concept of immersion underpins both experiences; where Night Shift uses immersion to make a mundane situation feel real, catching you off-guard with terror, Stay Out uses it to to make a horrifying situation feel real, submersing you in that fear.
The main game sees you play as Roxanne, a woman who – after traipsing into the eponymous house looking for her partner and a dog – wakes up in a metal cage. There’s a pain in her chest and a hole in the cell, and after beginning your escape you’re left to your own devices as you attempt to find an exit. You have three days to do so, and every game over loses you one of those precious days. You’ll wake up in a new prison, without items and greeted by televangelist broadcasts from a mysterious cult.
Best of all, your captors will have adapted to your escapades, and traps will be waiting for you based on your playstyle; one time, after a particularly embarrassing death, I came back to find that the bathroom I’d been storing several key items in was blocked by a bear trap. A screwdriver would disable it pretty easily, but I decided to leave it, hoping it would have some use down the line. Sure enough, I later ran for the bathroom whilst under pursuit and managed to walk the killer into his own trap. It’s this type of ingenuity and interplay that Stay Out of the House constantly sets up, and the result is both frenetic and rewarding in equal measure.
The ability to interact with nearly anything and make your way through the house as you please, the enemies’ smart AI and reactive behaviors, the game’s wonderful atmosphere and sound design; all of this ties back into that idea of immersion and managed to fully convince me of its reality, even on a tiny Nintendo Switch screen in broad daylight. This is all without getting into the game’s story, which is mostly left to expository notes but captivated me as I continued to explore its world. There are multiple endings, fellow victims to save, and a variety of methods with which to beat the game, something that not only adds a ton of replay value to this admittedly short package (it probably took me about 3 hours to see the most elaborate ending) but would make Stay Out a fantastic candidate for all sorts of speed-runs.
Stay Out of the House runs well on Switch, for the most part. The game’s lo-fi visuals complement the low-power device wonderfully, and framerates are typically stable. I only encountered a handful of drops during my playthrough, and they were a mild inconvenience at their worst. More impactful, however, were the series of glitches and bugs I faced. Easily the most frustrating of these was an error where the third save slot seemingly corrupted, loading me in at the wrong place in the game and then later deleting the save in that slot, which resulted in lost progress.
Fortunately, the other two slots worked absolutely fine, and the game is short enough that progress loss was minimal and the implementation of chapter selection upon starting a new game means that dropping back in is relatively easy. I also experienced a clipping issue in the final segment of the game that left me rubber-banding in and out of the world, but I was able to wriggle out and carry on within a minute or so. I haven’t played the PC version and wasn’t able to test the Playstation or Xbox ports, so have no idea if these issues are Switch-specific. Though annoying, these issues failed to put a damper on my enjoyment of this otherwise excellent experience.
Puppet Combo is such an exciting name within the indie gaming space, with each of their titles bringing something new to their assortment of retro-inspired horror. Stay Out of the House may be their most inspired and accomplished effort yet, with its focus on immersion and interactivity providing a scary, satisfying thrill ride. Though I’ve since escaped The Butcher’s clutches, my mind will remain in his house for some time to come.
(9 / 10)
Switch review code provided by the publisher.