What is the best way to deal with a breakup and how to heal a broken heart? Dive into work? Do a rebound? Play tons of video games? (this works well). Or how about venturing through an endless neon void, filled with all manner of monsters and horrors, where killing your demonic ex will stop the end of days? I’m sure that’s a healthy way to deal with heartbreak, right? El Paso, Elsewhere, the latest game from Strange Scaffold and Xalavier Nelson Jr. asks such a question and gives an answer that intertwines Max Payne, early PS2 graphics, balls-to-the-wall tripping and plenty of X-Files vibes.
Are you prepared for the void?What is El Paso, Elsewhere?
Retro shooters have been booming over the last few years, but they’ve mainly been from the first-person perspective, and namely the hardcore Boomer-Shooter kind. Well, times are now changing and plenty of other classic games have been points of inspiration, such as Remedy’s 2001 classic shooter, Max Payne.
El Paso, Elsewhere is the latest brainchild from Bafta nominated designer Xalavier Nelson Jr. which takes players on an epic acid trip of an adventure, into the endless void where at the centre of it, is a vampire overlord bringing about the end of days. Venturing forth is pill-popping, self-loathing violent gunslinger James Savage, who embarks on a supernatural neo-noir-themed descent into Hell where he’ll battle in style against mummified vampires, werewolves, fallen angels, and other creatures of the damned creatures.
Descending the void, floor by floor, James will shoot his way out of many sticky, bloody situations, as he redeems himself by saving the innocent victims of Draculae, lord of the vampires. Who is also his ex-girlfriend it seems. Expect trippy visuals, plenty of ultra-violence, Slow-Mo, and inner monologues that would make Agent Mulder blush.
Just think those nightmare stages from Max Payne, but with vampires, werewolves and exes, oh my!A pill-popping, gun-touting, neon neo-noir breakup with vampires
Now the subtitle above is an honest summary of the plot for El Paso, elsewhere, being a tragic tale of heartbreak that involves a void of monsters, an endless love that is fuelled by hate, and featuring more prescription medication than you think you were in Canada!
It’s a straightforward plot, but an uncompromising narrative of one dude going through Hell to redeem himself and save those stuck in the middle of a maddening plot to bring the end of days. There is a great tragedy at the centre as our leading anti-hero James Savage has had a rather difficult love life, with his beloved vampire lord ex, Draculae. It’s like a mix between Shakespeare and David Lynch, as a morbid exploration of love, hardship and a messy breakup that so happens to have a supernatural twist.
Like any good noir tale, we have plenty of resentment, breaking through despair and a ton of stylisation that represents more than just a pretty presentation. Think endless madness, drug abuse and the effect of heartache on an already fragile mind.
As I mentioned, the plot is quite easy to digest, but the thematic threads, and gut-wrenching, yet beautiful execution feel like chewing on broken teeth (in a good way!). It’s cliché to see the noir gentleman talking to himself as he descends into madness, but if done right, it can be bloody good. And El Paso, Elsewhere nails its leading man’s plight and anguish, his clever inner monologues and quick-witted, dry quips kept me engaged on a personal level, and I grew to love his bitterness, intelligence and clear-cut manner to face trauma head-on. It's a story of all manner of horrors from scary werewolves to dealing with drug abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse and just plain abuse.
And the continuing venture through the neon-lit void, and just how beautiful it was, engaged that side of my brain that loves weird, supernatural visuals and shiny, looking things. I do love the art style and just how much the lighting, use of colour, and noir influences on an acid trip kept surprising me with each level I went down. It’s mesmerizing, yet deeply troubling (in a good way). I loved James, he felt like the perfect rendition of the noir everyman, who’s ready to have a shootout or two before his morning coffee. And the tidbits of personal backstories drip-fed felt deeply organic, unique and real.
I tend to hate the cliches of “Oh my god you love David Bowie? I do too, let fall in love”, and El Paso, Elsewhere did a great job and building this relationship, to where I fully understand, and somewhat relate to the couple’s endeavouring love at each hardship, and why they wanted to rip each other apart. One of my favourite discoveries was turning on a projector which revealed the couple discussing fencing, as a means to understand one another, and to break their characters (interesting as I have work friends who fence, and not every day we see it as a character trait).
I immensely enjoyed the venture through madness and relished in the tragic overtones of love, loss and hate. But I wasn’t so keen on the absurdism style humour, which made me think of some of the not-so-great bits of Rick and Morty. There were some clever, witty and chuckle-worthy moments, more so from James' observations, but then cutting through the air were random, ad-libbed interruptions which either went on too long or just didn’t feel needed. Such as the car salesman bit, which could have worked, if it didn’t go on. These absurdism moments are just a little cringe, compared to the more serious-toned stuff which is quirky, charming and hits the right notes in a darkly funny way.
As said, it’s not all bad, as I found little jokes like a golden toilet giving me ammo quite amusing. Yet one of the best things from Max Payne was the seemingly random, yet brilliant relevant TV showing of shows featuring scary doors, pink flamingos and evil twins. Maybe a show about a vampire getting revenge on her ex-boyfriend, telling the tale from a different perspective could have been wildly better than a lot of the ill-placed ad-libbed, improv comedy sketches. However, I loved the self-loathing, anti-hero vibes, supernatural neon lighting, and the deep dive into tragedy in such an organic manner.Bullet-Time, slick rhymes and monstrous designs!
El Paso, Elsewhere wears the influence proudly on its leather jacket-covered shoulders, that is the mighty 3rd shooter Max Payne. All the fine details are there, from its leading anti-hero who’s able to slow down time, nightmarish noir vibes and the placement of its director in the leading role, much like Sam Lake being the face of Max Payne back in 2001.
This feels like it’s been pulled straight from the early 2000s with a simple, yet highly engaging and massively enjoyable gameplay loop, of shooting monsters, exploring maze-like environments, and making it from point A to point B, with as much carnage as possible. Players will control James as he ventures through the void level by level, with each level hosting innocents needing to be saved, a ton of monsters, and plenty of neon lights.
The level design is near labyrinthian, as the twisted vision of the void has shaped everyday places, such as motels, graveyards and the like into weird concoctions that will give you a sense of helplessness and confusion, but you’ll have the tools of the trade to overcome this. I normally don’t like this style of heavily broken-up, walled environments that feel as though they're inspirationally constructed after a ball of twine. But I saw the logic to the madness, as survivors beam a ray of light into the skies of the void, allowing for smoother tracking of your objectives. And I always have a sense of my location when traversing these crazy floorplans. With landmarks, linear paths that direct you into setpieces, and of course, glowing exit signs which light up when you save (or kill) your last innocent soul.
The general vibe of every level was to get through the maze and deal with everything that is thrown at you. And there is a lot to deal with, with waves of monsters, spewing from every corner of the world, making air-tight ambushes, and setting up epic showdowns in neon-lit arenas. There is a ton of tightly woven action, with shootouts around every corner, and while most of the enemy roasters do mainly b-line towards you, they are creative in design and do serve a tactical purpose, that once mixed and matched, make the combat situations more interesting.
I will admit that it does take an hour or so for things to get going, as the first few stages are quite repetitive, with the same enemy type, limited weapons and not much going in visually or set-piece-wise. However once the second enemy comes into play, I got my hands on a shotgun, machine gun and petrol bomb, did the action really kick in, and kicked in hard. With bizarre-er, and weird level designs and iconic landmarks, to even more twisted visuals, and retro-feeling platforming sections that will remind you of those classic, arcade platformers from a gaming age long gone.Trippy, arcade shooting to the max!
And arcade is kind of the best way to describe El Paso, Elsewhere from the simplistic objectives of “save people, kill monsters, make it to the exit”. The run-and-gun nature of the action which is relentless, and unforgiving, and the weird, demented level design that feels as though it’s been thought through by a game developer after a long weekend of booze, caffeine pills and fear of missing a deadline. But it all works when everything clicks together. The enemies are fun to fight and always provide interesting, engaging combat encounters every time. The weapons are humble yet effective, providing some excellent booms and impact just like in Max Payne. The oddities in the level design will keep you on edge, and the visual styles and environmental storytelling never let loose on the engagement factor.
And when the trippiest of trippy moments occurred, they were always a hoot, with excellent pacing in combat and challenge. One of my favourite levels involved an endless circling hallway that just kept pumping the level with werewolves and vampires for me to joyfully shoot. It’s excellent, as there is something different around the corner and each level infuses new surprises in the level design, enemy placement, and overall, El Paso, Elsewhere a strong sense of combat structure.
I will admit my main fault aside from the slow startup, is the underuse of the “Bullet-Time” feature. It’s odd saying that, as it can be rather useful for a bunch of combat encounters, and it plays out the feature much like how Max Payne did. Be it a vital resource against enemies that can down you with a few hits. Max Payne was a hard game, and so is El Paso, Elsewhere. But over time, and especially with Max Payne 3, bullet time was integrated more interestingly and involved set-pieces and grounded platforming. I did use it for a couple of platforming sections, but never really felt the need to do so, and a lot of combat arenas are far too confined for it to be useful.
El Paso could have involved bullet time in more compelling ways, but it’s still a somewhat neat bit of window dressing for the action.
The last thing was with some of the music. Now most of the instrumental beats were pretty good, nothing that melted my ears with glee, but some neat beats that kept me sweet. But there is the use of lyrical songs during key action sequences and … these just didn’t work for me. I feel a little bad as the songs are fine, and sung well (even by the leading director himself! I would make a Dennis Waterman joke, but only my UK readers would get it), but they feel really odd in the game, and loop over and over, making them feel even more unwelcome. There was one song which did work incredibly well, and it’s in my favour level featuring the endless hallway. The song basically drones on about hallways, and it just summed up the repetition (in a good way! But elsewhere… not so much.
Other than these small little issues, the gameplay loop is incredibly solid, with fun gunplay, cool level designs, excellent monsters and ghouls to shoot, and just the darndest, prettiest surreal visuals to melt your eyes with love! And best of all, you can play the way you fancy, with modifiers that help with health gain, and loss and if you fancy, you can just turn on endless ammo and blast your way through. But if you want to relish in the brutal challenges ahead, then there’s plenty of them here.Overall?
El Paso, Elsewhere is an immense, and highly compelling fever dream of neon, noir, and monsters, which handles traumatic themes with deep inner monologues and plenty of bullets. I absolutely loved this game, and it just reminded me fondly of the classic era of humble and tightly woven action games that took style, immersion, and creativity to the max! It’s a game that baths in trauma stares at the neon-lit void for answers, and ends up in a John Woo-style shootout for good measure and laughs.
For those looking for an alternative retro shooter to the long list of boomer shooters, or if you want a solid action game with pretty slick visuals, intense gunplay and a story that’s dripping with neo-noir flair and bite, then look no further. El Paso, Elsewhere is quite possibly one of the best indie games this year, along with being quite possibly one of the best action games too of 2023!
++ Visually striking and brimming with loving PS2 aesthetics and vibes
++ Compelling and brutal action with plenty of modifiers for all types of players
+ Cool story, cool characters and interesting themes and drama
+ Immensely creative level design, monster design and plenty of pretty neon lights!
- Some not-so-great ad-libbed comedy elements
- Slow-mo could have been used better
- Certain songs don’t blend well with the combat
A review code of El Paso, Elsewhere was kindly provided by the publisher for this review.El Paso, Elsewhere is out now for PC and Xbox Series X/S.