El Paso, Elsewhere isn’t really a game I’d expect from Strange Scaffold. The developer is largely known for their bizarre titles like An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs and Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator. They’re games that feel like a big middle finger to the mainstream. I wasn’t expecting to see a game from them that pays respect to an old standard.
Yet, El Paso, Elsewhere has been in development for a while. And while its gameplay is rather conventional, there’s a lot more here than meets the eye.
El Paso, Elsewhere is the story of pill-addict James Savage trying to stop his ex-girlfriend from destroying the world. His ex, you see, is the biggest vampire of them all, Draculae. She’s holed herself up in a nowhere motel and has commenced the ritual to bring about the end of the world. Typical cry for attention.
In order to stop her, James dives into the void that stretches beneath the motel. Carried downwards by a rickety old elevator, he has to rescue the hostages being held on each floor for sacrifice. To clear each floor, you have to save everyone and then find your way back to the elevator. While you’re at it, do some sick slow-motion dives.
It’s no secret that El Paso, Elsewhere borrows a lot from Max Payne, billing itself as a “spiritual successor.” The first one, I mean. It’s been a while since I last played its inspiration, but the controls were immediately familiar to me. Likewise, James monologues to himself. After playing Lies of P, I’m sensitive to a game that is too starkly similar to its inspiration, but even though El Paso, Elsewhere feels very similar, it’s not Max Payne. I don’t just mean because James fights monsters instead of armed thugs, but rather there’s something deeper. It struggles beneath the surface like a knot made of centipedes.
One way trip
I like the Max Payne games, but I wouldn’t say I’m a fan. I remember playing Max Payne 3 and laughing about how he’d perform all these spectacular feats of murder while monologuing about how miserable he is. “The guns rattled in my hands, sending out hot mercy to the thugs that surrounded me. Freedom from this Hellhole of a world. A rocket whizzed by my head, exploding behind me like fireworks, celebrating my fall into madness. The blast threw me forward. Good. I wasn’t sure I had the strength to continue on my own.”
James Savage is somewhat similar, but I feel much more of a kinship with him. Like him, pills and sardonic humor are the only things that keep me going. He has what Max Payne lacks: self-awareness beneath the melancholy. He’s burdened by something other than a paint-by-numbers death in the family. He can kick ass, and he knows it, but he’s just so done with this shit. As the story progresses, you can start feeling the panic clawing at his mind.
Don’t get me wrong, the Max Payne games were a fun time, and Max was an excellent character for 2001, but it was a rather shallow take on neo-noir. This is something that El Paso, Elsewhere seems to poke fun at through a series of radio shows called Pill Cop that you can find scattered throughout the game. They don’t seem to try to land on the nose, but they do have a fun time with the colorful, analogy-stuffed monologues that people are sometimes tricked into thinking are the only ingredient to noir.
So I can stake, and stake, and STAKE
The gameplay holds up less well. To put it simply, slow-motion murder is a lot more fun with armed thugs than it is with monsters. A lot of the time, I wondered what the slow-motion dives were even for. There are only a couple of monsters that actually hurl projectiles at you. Most of the time, you’re not dodging bullets, you’re just throwing yourself through the air to get some space. Then you hit the ground and lose momentum, and if you haven’t killed your aggressor, it’s going to start stomping on you.
The abstract environments are enjoyable, for the most part. Throwing together a bunch of different set pieces pulled from the memories of the characters results in cool scenes, like sarcophagi on conveyor belts in a slaughterhouse. On the other hand, unlike with the characters, El Paso, Elsewhere doesn’t give you a lot you can relate to. Ancient tombs, castles, graveyards; considering the life that the characters have, something a little more grounded probably would have complimented them better. At the very least, James gives good context to the surroundings through comments he makes.
There’s also a lack of verticality in the environments. They’re all rather flat, and while part of this is due to the ceiling-less design that helps guide you to the pillars of light surrounding hostages, it’s probably not worth it. There are no interesting set pieces for gunfights.
It just feels a bit bland. And long. The 40-something levels drag on, and I felt like I was just pushing through to spend more time with James in the elevator. Considering that the game feels as though it started with replicating the Max Payne gameplay and built the story around that, this makes things feel a bit uneven.
So, if the main draw here is the narrative, why the Max Payne gunplay against monsters? I think I have an answer for that. Killing monsters is something every human understands. Monsters are bad. They want to hurt us so we can kill them without feeling bad. Our abusers, though?
It’s hard to understand why someone we love – and who often loves us back – will try and hurt us. Even if we have some inkling, we’ll try to justify it. Maybe it’s our fault. It’s not like they mean to hurt us. Sometimes, it’s the abused who later becomes the abuser.
El Paso, Elsewhere does a terrific job of depicting this. Maybe the abuse comes from a supernatural source, someone with power beyond comprehension, but Draculae wields it in a very human way. But more importantly, James takes it and accepts it in a very human way. James comments a few times that she never laid a hand on him, and the abuse was purely emotional.
When the two finally get around to speaking, James talks like someone who has spent a lot of time in their own head, hashing it out in endless hypothetical arguments. He knows what happened, and now he has to face it. He has to explain it to the perpetrator.
I can kill monsters, sure. That’s easy. Having to confront an abusive ex? Nah.
The actual gameplay of El Paso, Elsewhere didn’t really impress me. It’s an interesting twist on Max Payne, but it falls short in a lot of ways. Its story, though? Hoo, gosh. I’m going to be chewing on this for a while.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]