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  • Writer's pictureBarely Magic Mike

El Paso, Elsewhere Review | Max Payne Fans Rejoice?



El Pasom Elsewhere review written By Barely Magic Mike

PC/Steam, Xbox

Release Date: 09/26/2023

Developer: Strange Scaffold

Publisher: Strange Scaffold


The sales pitch of El Paso, Elsewhere is a strange one – take the noir stylings of Max Payne, complete with a gruff, drug-addled protagonist half-whispering monologues filled with florid prose, and combine it with supernatural twists in the form of vampires, werewolves and the occasional cosmic horror of a game like Control, including one level that reminded me of Control’s famous Ashtray Maze.


In less deft hands this potpourri of themes could have been an absolute mess, but strong writing and some interesting design make it somehow work, even if it’s not always firing on all cylinders.


Art from El Paso, Elsewhere, featuring the protagonist with guns blazing.
El Paso, Elsewhere features a gruff, drug-addled protagonist in a Max Payne-esque adventure

The story of El Paso, Elsewhere takes us to a motel in El Paso, Texas, where our protagonist, James Savage, heads to find his ex-girlfriend, known only to us as Draculae. Draculae is a vampire who’s conducting a ritual at the motel that will open a void to end the world as we know it. Once you actually enter it, you find yourself at the mercy of a colorful, endlessly shifting void that has seemingly replaced the ceiling. It sounds completely ridiculous, I know, but the game plays its concept so straight and with such a confident swagger that it’s hard not to get wrapped up in it.


It helps that the voice acting is exceptionally good, even when trying to toe a fine line between campy and solemn. The actors do a great job here, and the writing is no slouch either, with interesting asides between levels that wouldn’t feel at all out of place in the Max Payne universe. You know, aside from… like… all the vampires and stuff. Taking a pause between the game’s bouts of frantic gunplay to see a flashback of James and Draculae playing Truth or Dare to learn about their history before things went south is interesting and fleshes out the characters in ways I wasn’t expecting. The story won’t keep you on the edge of your seat, but it keeps the pace moving quickly and was compelling enough to keep me reasonably invested.


Visually, El Paso, Elsewhere has the chunky vibes of a higher resolution PS1 game, and very intentionally styles itself as though it’s Max Payne in boomer shooter form. The slow motion dives that are a signature of its inspiration happen early and often, and look pretty cool even if they’re ultimately not always very useful or practical (more on that later). I liked the game’s look, even if level geometry did repeat quite frequently, but it’s certainly not going to be for everybody, especially those who’ve grown accustomed to more realistic, modern visuals. But hey, on the plus side, its simple visuals means you’ll get a locked 60 fps on the Steam Deck.


El Paso Elsewhere screenshot of the protagonist shooting zombies
El Paso, Elsewhere features PS1 era graphics

The music, too, is bound to delight some and turn off others. Lots of El Paso, Elsewhere’s tracks use an original hip hop soundtrack, and I’m going to freely admit here that I absolutely hate hip hop, and it’s my least favorite music genre right next to country, heavy metal and the sound of a rusty rake scraping across a chalkboard. Come at me if you must but that said – I really expected it to be worse here. There were some tracks I definitely didn’t like and some that I surprisingly did, so it might just depend where you stand with hip hop itself. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say even that tracks I didn’t like were pretty brief and inoffensive, so if you hear that from me as a self-admitted hater of the genre, you’ll probably take it well enough no matter where you stand. Something I didn’t like, though, is that at least one track seemed to really crackle and distort a bunch, which was distracting and I couldn’t tell if it was intentional or a bug. It was brief and didn’t seem to repeat later on though, so for all I know it was just a stylistic choice that I didn’t really jive with.

The gameplay of El Paso, Elsewhere is pretty simplistic, but not in a bad way. Like I said, this is Max Payne meets Control reimagined as a boomer shooter, with fast paced gunplay, plenty of slow motion antics and several weapons to switch between as you go around blasting vampires and werewolves. There’s also a melee attack in the form of a stake you can drive through the hearts of vampires, but I didn’t use it too often and sometimes forgot it was even there.


El Paso, Elsewhere is fun to play and the levels, which are mostly under 10 minutes long, feel brisk and make the game easy to lose hours to as you tell yourself to play just one more. Most levels will require you to explore them and rescue a handful of Draculae’s hostages before making a mad dash back to the motel’s elevator and moving onto the next stage. And this was good fun for a while, but over time I discovered it’s certainly not without its issues.


I’ll cover the smaller ones first – mainly, lack of enemy variety and a bit of bugginess that gets in the way at times. In the first several levels of the game you will be fighting literally one enemy type over and over. Then a new one is introduced, and you’ll now be fighting two of the same enemy types over and over. The game goes on like this, occasionally introducing something new, but overwhelmingly requiring you fight the same 3-4 enemies for a vast majority of its runtime. It lends to the feeling that levels start to blend together over time. And close to the end when things mix up a bit, it’s more to the effect of frustration than fun.


Bugs are fairly prevalent too, from minor things like being unable to pick up consumables every once in a while, to the aiming reticle indicating you killed an enemy when you actually didn’t, to more major ones like key rebindings that wouldn’t work properly and one incident where my aiming reticle disappeared, and my guns seemingly stopped damaging anything.

The biggest problem with El Paso, Elsewhere though, by far, is that while the gameplay systems are fun, they’re haphazardly wrapped around the game in ways that throw balancing out the window. Reloading, for example, is an agonizingly slow pain in the ass. You can’t shoot many bullets with the pistol or shotgun before needing to reload, and you can’t reload while diving, so even with the auto reload option in the menus turned on, I still struggled to not be frustrated by this.


El Paso, Elsewhere screenshot featuring gunplay
Dive head first into the action with an assortment of weapons

But early on, you unlock a gun called the strikebreaker. Suddenly, each clip has 25 bullets and each bullet, if connecting as a well-placed and frankly, very easy to pull off headshot, will kill almost any enemy in the game. The result is that three things happen. 1 is that I was almost never incentivized to use any other weapon, 2 was that the game became almost trivially easy with me headshotting enemies left and right, at least until the late-game levels, and 3 was that I realized slow motion diving, as cool as it looked, didn’t really have much practical purpose. Hitting the button to activate slow motion without the dive allowed me to aim better and have more control over when slow motion activated or deactivated, thus saving the slow mo meter for when I really needed it.


If you’re somebody that can heavily police yourself to not use the exact strategy that makes the game a breeze to run though, maybe this won’t really bother you. But frankly, not only am I an optimizer by nature, but I preferred the game to be incredibly easy versus being incredibly annoying having to constantly watch my clip to see if I need to reload my pistols every 30 seconds or so, and find a safe place to do so. The difficulty wasn’t so trivial that I never got hit or died, as enemies frequently surprise you, but there were so many health-restoring pills laying around that I pretty much never ran out.


I’ll also mention, because I do appreciate this for accessibility purposes, that there’s a gameplay modifiers screen in the main menu that allows you to tweak things like infinite health, infinite ammo, and damage and healing multipliers to customize the difficulty up or down. I think it’s great that the developers have allowed players to do this to make the game as accessible as possible, but for those wanting a curated, balanced experience I don’t think this is a proper substitution.


Overall, the bugginess, major balancing issues and repetition of El Paso, Elsewhere didn’t totally sour me on it, but disappointingly turned what could have been a great game into just a pretty decent one. I enjoyed the bizarre story, excellent voice acting and interesting atmosphere that it has to offer, and for a while the slow motion gunplay was a great time. But even if you’re interested in picking it up, I’d probably wait for a few patches because with some extra polish and design tweaks, it might end up closer to reaching its potential.


Pros:

+ Fun slow-motion gunplay

+ Interesting, unique story

+ Very well written and acted

+ Accessible difficulty settings


Cons:

- Poor difficulty balancing

- Some annoying bugs

- Music won’t be for everyone

- Gets pretty repetitive


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