El Paso, Elsewhere Review

More than twenty years ago, Remedy Entertainment’s Max Payne introduced an incredibly fun mechanic called bullet time. Since then, the idea hasn’t been used much outside of the game’s sequels and maybe a couple Dead to Rights games, but that doesn’t mean it’s been forgotten. No, not at all. As Strange Scaffold’s new game, El Paso, Elsewhere, proves, bullet time was in need of a resurgence.

El Paso, Elsewhere is a gritty, dark and downright noir ride, which fans of third-person shooters should enjoy. It centres upon a pill addicted man named James Savage, who travels to a seedy motel in order to put an end to his ex-girlfriend’s plans. If you’re thinking this all has something to do with cheating, think again. Savage’s ex, who goes by the name Draculae, is actually a vampire lord who seeks to end the world from underneath said motel, using some sort of wicked ritual. Not only that, but she’s ushered forth a whole wealth of hungry vampires, werewolves, murdered brides and fallen angels, all of whom wish to see us dead.

You’re likely wondering how a motel would offer much in the way of stages, or areas in which to shoot said monsters. Well, that’s where the fun comes in. You see, this isn’t some ordinary motel. This one comes complete with an elevator and many different floors underneath its lobby and main room offerings. Why? For the sake of gameplay.

Each of the forty to fifty different floors is another stage unto itself, and your goal is to get back to the elevator in one piece. In-between, you’re usually tasked with one of several things: killing every enemy in the area in order to progress, finding coloured soul keys, surviving from point A to point B or saving all of the innocents that Draculae has trapped inside the motel for later use in her ritual. There’s usually three to five of them hidden in each stage, and it’s up to you whether you save them or just put them out of their misery using bullets.

Now, don’t think of each floor as being just another set of motel and conference rooms, or massive lobbies. While that’s how things start out, you’ll eventually find yourself in graveyards and even Ancient Egypt for some reason. Your first time through will be a ride, and you won’t know what to expect. Hell, each floor has its own name, which sometimes gives you a hint.

Of course, I didn’t reference Max Payne for nothing. Although El Paso, Elsewhere is its own game, it makes no apologies for how heavily it borrows from Remedy’s hits. In fact, if it wasn’t so stylized and old school, you’d almost think you were playing another Max Payne. Well, that and all the monsters.

That’s a lengthy way of saying that bullet time is alive and well here, thanks to a very obvious inspiration. James Savage is able to slow time and dive (complete with slowdown, if available) his way towards or away from enemies. In the process, he’s able to fire his guns and kill baddies in visceral ways. That said, if your meter is empty it’s empty. You’ll have to wait for it to refill, my friend.

James can also roll, which can be quite helpful. It’s a method to get away from enemies and their attacks, although it doesn’t leave you fully invincible. You can still get hit when you come up for air, so be careful and use this wisely. The tutorial will show you how.

Now, what about those guns? After all, they’re pretty much the star of this third-person show. Well, you’ll be happy to hear that there’s a good assortment of firepower at one’s disposal, including pistols, a shotgun, an assault rifle, a single shot rifle, an uzi and a launcher. You’ll find boxes of ammunition for each one as you play through and explore each floor, while also finding pill bottles that can be used to heal with. James can store eight of those at one time.

For the most part, the shooting is pretty solid, although it has its issues. It can sometimes be hard to tell whether you’ve hit an enemy, but other times the reticle will turn yellow or red. I missed some shots I definitely thought I should’ve landed, but it is what it is.

Did I mention that there are blue Molotovs?

As you progress through the game, and its many floors, you’ll occasionally come across projectors and tape players that convey more of the story. These collectibles can lead to achievements, so be on the lookout if you’re into that type of thing. I know I didn’t find them all, so I definitely missed out on some of the dialogue and creepy shows.

You’ll also find that, as he goes deeper and deeper into this surreal motel, with its lack of a ceiling, James starts to lose his grip on reality more and more. You’ll get glimpses of this during visual novel style cutscenes, where he’s seen in a motel room or elsewhere, and narrates things. There are even flashbacks featuring he and Draculae, which are honestly kind of heartwarming. You can tell that they were a real couple who cared about each other, and it’s interesting to hear how that all corrupted.

In fact, El Paso, Elsewhere does a good job of highlighting the unreliable narrator nature of its protagonist, who’s obviously struggling with his addiction and the loss of his beloved. What’s real and what’s not will have to be discovered, but you’ll enjoy the ride along the way.

Don’t expect this to be a walk in the park, though, because it’s far from that. On its base difficulty level, this thing packs quite a punch. Pills don’t heal you much, and the enemies — especially the deceased brides, with their powerful energy orb projectiles — are ruthless. There were often times where I wondered if I was going to be able to beat this thing, and times where I made it to the end of stages by a hair. I also discovered some chokepoints that were absolutely crazy on the base difficulty, and which I barely survived as well, after numerous tries. This was during the first half of the game, too.

My goal was to beat this thing in one sitting, because I noticed that I’d lose my pill bottles if I reloaded a checkpoint and thought that would be true if I quit the game. Having eight, and being able to top it up pretty regularly, made me worry about starting over and want to hoard as much as possible. However, this thing is several hours long, and I couldn’t sit there for five to seven hours. Thankfully, when I quit for the night I didn’t lose my pills. I also discovered something interesting: a modifiers option appeared, and it allowed me to change a number of things. This included how much damage I took, how much health pill bottles gave me, whether my ammo was unlimited, and if my pills were infinite. Being able to adjust these settings made things less frustrating and more enjoyable, but I still needed to take a break because this interactive experience gets repetitive and is better served for shorter sessions.

In fact, the options and modifiers menus fixed every problem that I had with this game from when I started it to when I tried to take a break. I was annoyed by the fact that my guns wouldn’t automatically reload, meaning I’d end up shooting blanks after forgetting to do so manually, but the settings menu allowed me to toggle that on. The same went for changing weapons when one became empty. Then, there was the modifiers menu which I explained above. It made a somewhat frustrating and quite difficult game easier. I’m not amazing at this type of game, and it holds no punches on default.

Presentation wise, El Paso, Elsewhere is a dated experience. This is by choice, though, because the visuals have been designed to harken back to the PlayStation 2 era. Hell, they even look a bit more dated than that at times; especially when you see a close-up of James’ face or some of the enemies. It’s definitely a really stylized affair, and it’s aided by some really good writing and surprisingly good voice acting. In fact, the presentation is only marred by some performance issues, including prevalent screen tearing and lots of pop in. At least, that’s what I dealt with on Xbox Series S. I wasn’t near my X to play it on that.

When El Paso, Elsewhere was first announced it caught my attention with its bullet time and stylized visuals. Now that I’ve played it, I’m thankful that it did. This is a good game, and one that — despite some issues — is well worth playing and memorable to boot. It’s held back from being great by some mechanical issues, but it’s still quite good. The gameplay just happens to not be as good as the story.

This review is based on the Xbox Series S version of the game, which we were provided.

El Paso, Elsewhere Review
Reader Rating0 Votes
The Good Stuff
A good, Max Payne style, third-person shooter
Lots of stages and quite a bit of gameplay time
Provides a really good challenge on its base difficulty, but has modifiers to change it
Every real problem I had with the game was solved by going into the menus
The Not-So-Good Stuff
Isn't flawless mechanically, which results in some missed shots and frustration
The dated, PS1/PS2 style, look won't be for everyone
So challenging it's frustrating
Bad screen tearing and pop-in; at least on Xbox Series S