Puppet Combo: One man’s take on indie horror gaming

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[I’ve been following Puppet Combo’s work for a few years now, and I love everything I’ve seen, but I still haven’t gotten around to actually playing any of their titles yet. Luckily, Xeo is here to remind me to tighten the hell up and finally get on that. – Kevin]

Why are there not more slasher games? This is a question I’ve thought about many times since I was a teenager, given that slashers are some of my favorite movies. Yeah, I get that if you involve kids and stuff it gets nasty, but you don’t have to (and really shouldn’t). However, what’s wrong with having some adults get cut to ribbons if they make a mistake or get caught in a chase? I mean, we already have ultra-violent video games anyway.

Then it hit me. Rarely are YOU the one doing the killing of seemingly innocent people in video games. People seem to freak out a bit more with cases like ManhuntHatred, or anything like that. Manhunt is something I never saw as a problem because every person you kill in that game is a piece of shit and has it coming, honestly. Games like Hatred are definitely a bit more questionable. Still, if you played a serial killer in a game stalking innocent victims… would that be okay? I suppose it depends on who’s playing or watching it.

Well, regardless, we’ve seen more and more things like this in recent years. An interesting twist came in the form of games like Dead By Daylight and Friday the 13th, where several people are playing as the victims and one player is controlling the serial killer. To be honest, as a slasher fan, these games are fun as hell to me played from either side. Still, you don’t see many developers willing to put you in the shoes of a killer who goes around shredding victims into a pile of flesh and bones. It’s still a taboo. Hell, comparatively, you rarely even see games where you’re trying to escape from a serial killer as a potential victim.

Puppet Combo PC Games

Well, that was until I discovered Puppet Combo’s games. The gentleman behind Puppet Combo, Ben Cocuzza, is a huge fan of ’70s and ’80s horror movies, most especially slashers. He makes small PSOne-looking horror games often based on this subject matter. I say he, because he’s a one-man development studio. That’s important to note before I begin here.

I randomly discovered one of his earlier games, Babysitter Bloodbath, when watching one of my favorite YouTubers who specializes in horror games. (John Wolfe/Harshly Critical.) It’s a simple premise: you play as a teenage girl coming to the home of some strangers to babysit their child, a young boy, and a serial killer is on the loose from the local asylum. You’ve seen it a thousand times in film, but how often have you gotten to play this experience as a video game? Surprisingly few. Shit hits the fan fairly quickly in the game and we’re introduced to a red coverall-wearing, masked serial killer named Neokalus Burr who strikingly resembles Michael Myers. 

The game consists of simple tank controls and inventory management with some fetching puzzles while running and hiding from this maniac. Gameplay-wise and plot-wise, it’s nothing special, but it still stands out. Why? As I said earlier, for some reason slasher games just aren’t very common. The low-rez graphics combined with the ’80s VHS-like film grain and menus enhance the atmosphere greatly, and what seems (and honestly is) extremely simple on the surface becomes something pretty atmospheric. You run and hide from this guy while he stalks you from room to room of the house before having a confrontation with him, finally, in the garage at the end.

Puppet Combo Babysitter Bloodbath

This immediately made me take notice. This was the thing I’d been looking for all this time. In a mad dash of Google-fu, I discovered that Puppet Combo was originally called Pig Farmer Games. He’d been working on games like this for a while (about 2000-2013 when Babysitter Bloodbath was completed) before I discovered him, and I found myself head over heels with his work. Another of his finished games at this time was Power Drill Massacre, originally released as Minotaur and then remade as Power Drill Massacre in 2015. Gameplay-wise, this one is similar to Babysitter Bloodbath. You play as a mostly helpless, innocent victim to a serial killer. In this case, you’re playing as a young woman whose car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. The woman tries to find help in the closest structure she can find, a seemingly abandoned factory building.

Inside, she finds herself trapped in the gigantic, sprawling building with a madman, equipped with the power drill that the title suggests, stalking her. Despite the silly concept and the purposefully-aged graphics, both this and Babysitter Bloodbath absolutely ooze atmosphere and create some extremely high-tension chase scenarios for the player. They’re VERY stressful games to play, in my opinion. But, that just means that they’re effective in what they’re trying to do.

The killer encounters are completely random and non-scripted, as are the item locations that you need to find in order to escape this ordeal. The “jump scare” of the killer charging you around a blind corner while screaming, combined with the loud whirring of the power drill, is intense and effective when combined with the ’70s slasher-like burst of chase music. (If you’re a fan of these types of films, you know what I’m talking about here.)

Puppet Combo Power Drill Massacre

By this point, it’s easy to see the angle Puppet Combo is going for. That b-movie grindhouse vibe, complete with those awesome retro VHS cover art pieces for the games. (I seriously LOVE these.) The titles of the first two games I discovered from him absolutely scream this, and this type of general vibe would continue for a bit with his work from 2016’s Meat Cleaver Mutilator to 2017’s The Night Ripper. The Night Ripper was the next game I saw in action from him and immediately it brought to mind the real-life 1982 Italian exploitation/slasher The New York Ripper. It was clearly inspired by this, and this just further cemented my love for Puppet Combo’s work.

Buzz-Saw Blood House mixed things up a bit with a different twist on the same general concept. You play as some drugged young schoolgirls from the perspective of a deep web “red room” livestream. You have to navigate a torture dungeon of various death traps, all while sometimes being chased by a maniac with a chainsaw. This one forgoes the slasher angle and focuses more on raw carnage, all while “viewers” to the livestream are constantly commenting on the action unfolding.

Sometimes, they’ll even donate to bring in the maniac or for more elaborate death traps. The gameplay here deviates a bit from the previous offers by mostly doing away with puzzles and item finding, replacing it with just navigating around obstacles. This is already difficult as it is, but even more so when the chainsaw man is on your heels. The game doesn’t end when you die, and your next “life” is represented with a different looking girl to play, seemingly another of the kidnapped victims.

In a bit of tonal shift, the next game to release from this madman of a developer was 2018’s Planet of the Bloodthirsty Santas. It’s a Christmas-based game that plays more like the previous offers, where you play as a member of a space mining expedition that lands on this Christmas-y planet in order to find minerals. You soon discover you’re not alone on the seemingly empty planet and end up being chased by a deranged, monstrous Santa creature. This one is about as tongue-in-cheek as it gets, but how many other Christmas themed horror games are out there?

Stay Out of the House followed this and goes back to the less cheesy grindhouse roots that Puppet Combo started with. You play as a gal who wakes up trapped in a house in a cornfield, after getting knocked out by a man wearing a burlap sack over his head when searching for a missing friend. There’s less emphasis on being chased in this game compared to past ones and more on finding items as a means to escape the dire situation you’re in. This game is also entirely in first-person, changing the dynamic a bit.

Puppet Combo Stay Out of the House

A short prequel game accompanied this called Night Shift. Here you play as the missing friend from Stay Out of the House as she works her night shift job at a convenience store. You deal with mundane, though sometimes strange, customer interactions before being abducted in the end by a man through the back room of your store, thus setting up the beginning of Stay Out of the House.

Puppet Combo was very busy in 2018 and has been in 2019 so far as well. He’s released a slew of short games. The Nun Massacre refined his typical serial killer chase game type and was followed by a very short, but different, game called Feed Me Billy. This is one of those games that starts to toe the line between opinions of what’s too much for some or others.

You play as a man named Billy who wakes up to find his closet… talking to him and telling him to feed it. It looks like a gaping maw of sharp teeth and meat and demands human flesh. Billy suits up with a mask and grabs a revolver. You’ll step into his shoes and must go out, kill innocent people, and then drag their corpses in your pickup truck back home to feed your monstrous closet. 

There were previously some unreleased games by Puppet Combo in which you played the role of the killer, but this was the first one released to do so. While the premise of the game is almost slapstick, the tone changes so dramatically when you first go out and pull the trigger on an innocent girl by a payphone that it’s almost jarring. To be honest, the fact that the game makes you feel uncomfortable when doing so means it’s being effective in what it set out to do.

What Puppet Combo did here is no different than what many of the movies he’s inspired by did when showing the act of murder through the eyes of the killer, but the big difference, of course, is that it’s you pressing the mouse button to pull the trigger here. Frankly, it took balls to make this sort of game, and it’s one of the reasons we probably won’t be seeing any console releases of his games anytime soon. That being said…

Earlier this year, The Glass Staircase was released. I saw more mainstream coverage than I have for everything else Puppet Combo has made combined with this game. In fact, it was the first time I saw much of ANY mainstream coverage of his work. I’m not sure exactly what made this one be THE one in that regard. It’s overall less in-your-face violent. That probably helped. It doesn’t focus on the ’70s and ’80s slashers a lot of his previous work did.

Instead, it’s a slow-burning psychological horror romp that pays homage to old-school Italian zombie movies. Although, it’s also not really a zombie game either. Strangely enough, despite being the most mainstream-covered game of his, it’s one of the only ones to feature younger protagonists… that are murdered.

It’s quite different from the previous games in tone, theme, and atmosphere. 

The Glass Staircase Puppet Combo

Another very different game in this catalog came next called The Riverside Incident. This one is a first-person investigation game, playing out like a found footage film. There is no actual combat or encounters here, making it very different from everything else Puppet Combo had done to this point. It also features a neat twist that I won’t spoil here.

The year is rounding out with a few more releases such as Day 7. It’s another first-person game that’s loosely based on both the PSOne game Hell Night and the creepypasta called The Backrooms, the latter of which was originally this game’s title as well. 

Samhain is the latest release, and it’s a Halloween-themed game about trick or treating. I, unfortunately, haven’t had the chance to play or watch this one, so I can’t comment much on it.

This is honestly just scratching the surface of this guy’s body of work. He releases new games and updates constantly if you’re a Patreon supporter. His brand of retro-styled grindhouse horror is entirely unique, and he’s one of the few indie horror developers out there that’s willing to push the envelope and not just churn out recycled, asset pack Amnesia or P.T. clones these days. It makes perfect sense WHY his work is as niche as it is, but it’s still a shame. As a fan of the brand of horror he usually works with, it’s just so refreshing to see someone with this much passion working his ass off to bring his visions to us.

Puppet Combo video games

He’s constantly trying new ideas and gameplay elements. Each of his games, even the ones that are quite similar to one another, are almost always refining his ideas and visions into something more compelling to play. In short, the guy works hard in a field where so many others like him are content to just rehash the same tired old tropes and ideas over and over again. I just wanted to take this time to highlight what he’s all about. I know there are others here who appreciate his work already and maybe some more that hopefully will after this.

I, unfortunately, have been busy with real-life issues and things, so I wasn’t able to get this blog up before Halloween, which was originally my intention. But hell, if you’re like me, every day is still a bit like Halloween anyways. If you’ve read this far, I want to thank you for stopping by, and I hope you enjoy Puppet Combo’s special brand of horror.

Apparently, there’s rumors of Devolver Digital having been in talks with him to see some of his work published under them and, who knows, maybe we’ll see some console ports after all?

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