El Paso, Elsewhere Review
Love and Loss at the End of the World
When I first came across footage of El Paso, Elsewhere, I must admit, I was a little concerned. The trailers felt influenced by one of my favorite shooters, Max Payne. And while I don't mind titles using that game as inspiration, it is a tough line to walk. Specifically, the neo-noir stylings of it. If you go too hard with it, it comes across as silly and overly serious. Upon booting this game up, though, my fears were quickly assuaged. It may have looked like one thing in trailers, but the final product is refreshingly something else entirely.
A seedy motel located in El Paso serves as a surprising location for an end of the world ritual. However, that's where Draculae has holed up in order to enact an apocalyptical ritual that will restore her to full power. The only thing standing between the world and oblivion is her estranged ex, James Savage. The pill addicted monster hunter once had a deep connection with the Vampire goddess, but their estrangement has only strengthened his destructive habits. However, by stopping the ritual from taking place, perhaps Savage can still leave this world knowing he did good.
There are two differing aspects of the story that both leave a good impression. The first is the hellscape that Savage must fight through in order to reach Draculae. Surreal imagery and fantastic world design gives the title a suitably off-putting vibe. It fits well with the apocalyptic nature of the story. The other is the complicated relationship between our hero and the villain. Savage is prone to monologuing about their shared past, and he has a fun enough vocabulary to make it consistently interesting. What really helps develop the dynamic between the two, though, are the various audio logs you can find that explore the highs of their love, and the aching lows. You can see why they were in love, but ultimately understand why they would never work. The difference between monster and hunter is ultimately too tough of a bar to clear.
Excessive monologuing isn't the only influence from Max Payne you'll find in El Paso, Elsewhere. The third-person shooter features the bullet time gimmick that helped Remedy's title become such a hit. As long as you have juice in your meter, you'll be able to slow-mo dive in any direction. This affords you a better opportunity to take out the horrific creatures that are after you. Killing enemies will help refill this meter, and there are countless of them to slaughter per level. If you don't use it for every single enemy encounter, you'll have more than enough chances to bullet time your way through the undead masses.
Besides the bullet time mechanic, El Paso, Elsewhere isn't much different from other typical third-person shooters. You have a good range of weaponry to choose from, with additional items such as Molotov cocktails unlocking as you progress through the campaign. All the firearms you wield can deal good damage, and your selection really boils down to enemy position. Shotgun for close-range encounters, rifle for long-range foes and machinegun for the in-between. There's plenty of ammo to be found as well. One item James can wield that does separate him from other protagonists is a stake. These are single-use items, and you can carry up to five of them at one time. They are perfect for taking out creatures that have crept too close, or in certain cases, necessary for killing bosses. To get more of them, you can destroy furniture found in each level.
There's an old-school quality to the gameplay that may or may not work for modern sensibilities. The action is technically proficient, but never gets into anything too creative or flashy. And as cool as it can be to go into bullet time, I often found it just easier to eliminate enemies without triggering it at all. The level design is one of the weaker parts of the title as well. There's almost no verticality, and the maze-like design comes across as more tedious than anything else. Your objective in each location – arrive in an elevator, rescue hostages – is almost always the same. At a certain point, repeating the same actions in slightly different locations begins to get old.
For as tedious as navigating the levels can get, at least they have a cool look to them. James Savage is taking a one-way elevator trip into a strange void beneath the motel he staked himself in. As you get deeper and deeper into this void, the once normal looking motel corridors begin to morph into something much odder. One area seems to be a medieval castle and courtyard, while another has the look of the slimy innards of a beast. There's only so much detail to be found to these locations, though, as the purposely old-school graphics aren't capable of displaying much more. The visuals harken back to early PlayStation 2 tech, which is appropriate given the Max Payne connections. This means that both the levels and character designs are lacking in individual detail. It works for the vibe of the story and world, though. It's abstract, weird and off-putting, and I think it fits perfectly for what this game is.
The voice acting is also one of the best parts of the title. Xalavier Nelson Jr, who also serves as the title's writer/director, fully inhabits the role of James. Without his cadence, the monologuing of our hero would probably come across as more silly than anything else. He also has great rapport with Emme Montgomery, who plays Draculae. The two do a great job of conveying both the good and bad times their two characters experienced together. The pulsating soundtrack mostly manages to fit the action on-screen, but there are some issues with it. The big one is that there are certain levels backed by rap tracks that I don't think fit the mood of the game at all. They felt out of place. The other is that you take too long in a level, the sound will cut-off completely. Not sure if this was a design choice, or issue on the Steam Deck, but it was quite noticeable.
El Paso, Elsewhere is ultimately a game where the story and visuals elevate the gameplay. The supernatural showdown in West Texas delivers both a fun monster slaying adventure, and an agonizing depiction of love gone wrong. The frosty relationship between James and Draculae is depicted perfectly. The gameplay isn't terrible by any stretch, but it does lack the magic of the rest of the package. It's a cookie cutter third-person shooter with iffy level design and the time slowing gimmick. Regardless, I still think this unique tale of love and death is worth delving into. Whether you choose to play through it during the current spooky season, or on a bitter Valentine's Day, I think you'll come away impressed.