El Paso, Elsewhere - Max Pain (Review)
El Paso, Elsewhere
Released: September 26th, 2023
Developer: Strange Scaffold
Publisher: Strange Scaffold
Systems: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X (reviewed)
Anybody who’s known me for long enough (roughly five minutes) will know I’m quite open about the less “chipper” aspects of my life. I did so well at being abused I won the top prize of PTSD. I’m also a chronic pain sufferer who has to balance my need for pain medication against being inevitably hooked on the stuff. These aren’t facts one would expect to be uniquely and explicitly relevant in a videogame review, but here we are.
El Paso, Elsewhere is unlike any other videogame, despite being exactly like another videogame. It is at once a rather transparent copy of Max Payne and a brilliantly presented story of abusive relationships and drug addiction.
James Savage is a painkiller addict, freshly fallen off the wagon as a result of needing the drugs to fight his ex girlfriend, a vampire queen who’s about to end the world. It’s a hell of an elevator pitch, and given the themes it offers upfront, an easy one to deliver with tastelessness and sensationalism. In this regard, El Paso impresses with its sincerity, not to mention an intensely sharp script and incredible vocal performance, both courtesy of Xalavier Nelson Jr.
Our protagonist is depicted with a sad sympathy, albeit one that doesn’t shy away from his accountability. James never excuses his addiction - his self resentment is plainly clear - but at the same time his guilt is so relatably human, and whatever else he may be, he’s determined to do the right thing.
The relationship with Draculae (subtle) is similarly something many players may identify with though maybe not the vampire part. James’ ex is an emotional abuser, one whose hold on her partner never needed her to lay a finger on him. In emphasizing the lack of direct violence while demonstrating how none was required for trauma to occur, El Paso, Elsewhere displays a nuance and sensitivity to the subject of abuse that no videogame I’ve seen before ever has.
Indeed, there is one particular piece of audio in this game that left me feeling more disturbed than any violence. It didn’t need blood, guts, or torture devices to do this - just the sound of smashing plates and victim blaming.
What I find really striking is the relationship between protagonist and antagonist after they split. The lack of animosity, the lack of anger, despite so much harm. Savage doesn’t hate Draculae, even while he prepares for a confrontation that will prove, at last, violent. I’ve never had to stop one of my abusers from bringing about the apocalypse, but that lack of hatred in the aftermath, those tense but amiable conversations between two fucked up people with a fucked up past?
I get that.
If I were judging El Paso, Elsewhere purely as a story, I’d have a hell of an easier time lavishing praise upon it. Sadly, for both it and myself, El Paso is a videogame, one that doesn’t fully match the high standards of its non-interactive elements.
As a Max Payne tribute, it’s fine. A basic third-person shooter taking place across 50 formulaic levels, the gameplay is borderline rudimentary. You run around increasingly trippy maps, mowing down vampires and other creatures with a smattering of different firearms, and trigger slow motion at whim while diving through the air, guns blazing.
Well, about that last part… unlike Max Payne, where combat was explicitly built around the bullet time mechanic, El Paso’s own time dilation often feels optional to the point of vestigial. Most enemies rush at James with only melee attacks at their disposal, and very few of them require more than a couple of handgun bullets at most to dispatch. There are about three enemy types that shoot anything, and with their telegraphed attacks alongside low defense, they’re often killed before firing their slow, obvious projectiles.
Elsewhere’s bullet time inhabits a game with no bullets to avoid, and coupled with the fact that a vast portion of the game takes place in tight corridors with little room to dive around, it’s a feature that’ll be used for its own sake far more than it will for any genuine tactical advantage. It’s an obligatory inclusion - this game has it because Max Payne had it.
This doesn’t mean it’s useless, nor am I saying it’s unenjoyable to use. It is, like the rest of the gameplay, fine.
Combat overall is functional enough. A few guns are dripfed throughout the campaign, an assortment of usual suspects including a handgun, a shotgun, an uzi, and two handguns. By breaking wooden objects littering the environment, players acquire stakes that take out all but the biggest monsters with one melee strike. Stakes are good in a pinch, but ammo is plentiful enough if you regularly swap weapons, and getting close to enemies by choice is rarely a good idea.
El Paso, Elsewhere’s biggest problem is the complete lack of variety on offer for such a surprisingly lengthy game. Most levels play out the same way - you run around the map freeing innocent civilians trapped in the Void, then fight your way back to the elevator that takes you down to the next one. You might need to find a key or two, and sometimes a level has an everso slight twist to it, but you’ll mostly do the same thing for hours.
Repetitious levels might not have been an issue if diversity was evidenced elsewhere, but only a handful of enemy types appear and they all go down so easily that James’ guns don’t have an opportunity to feel varied. On top of that, the introduction of new stuff is poorly paced - it takes a long time for a second monster to show up alongside basic vampires, and the rest of them are in no greater hurry to join the action.
Whether or not you appreciate the game’s overall clunkiness will come down to just how authentic an experience you want from your PS2 homages. Dated by choice, the twitchy player movement and lacking audiovisual feedback in combat perhaps overshot when it aimed for a retro feel, and by that I mean El Paso more often made me think of BloodRayne than Max Payne. That is to say, it can be quite rough indeed.
Speaking of rough, this is not the most polished production. Alongside some wonky physics, it suffers from truly strange glitches, the most common of which is the frequent disappearance of enemies, objects, and entire sections of the environment. Everything just turns invisible, flickering in and out of view. Due to the audiovisual style already being hallucinatory and surreal, it took me a while to decide it was a bug and not a very poor design choice, but the result is the same - it’s weird and it makes combat really annoying.
There are other bugs too. The worst I encountered was a section late into the campaign that made a level unwinnable if I died. A boss monster’s health bar didn’t appear after reloading the checkpoint and it therefore couldn’t be killed. I had to start that level from scratch a couple of times thanks to this.
So here’s the interesting thing - I loved playing El Paso, Elsewhere. I have to admit that it’s repetitive, janky, and hamstrung by its enthralment to the archaic, yet I was absolutely hooked by it. It’s one of those few games that do just enough good to render their flaws easily forgivable.
One of the biggest saving throws is the aforementioned aesthetic presentation. The Void is a realm where reality is tenuous and James’ presence is abhorrent to it. The resulting level design, after some time spent exploring dreary motel rooms, gets fucking weird and there are some terrific setpieces as environments twist and warp, portrayed with a color palette that gets more garish and alien as the game progresses.
The truly standout moments are the ones where James’ regular monologues melt into the soundtrack as a beat erupts and the action finds itself backed by a rap that reinforces both the mood and the story’s overall themes. These are the sequences that lift El Paso above the constraints it’s clapped itself in. In these moments, the gameplay has gotten no more mechanically interesting, no more varied, yet with a sudden spark in presentation, it just feels so fucking good to play.
Of course, it’s that wonderful writing and voice acting that propelled me forward more than anything else. Rare is a game that makes me excited to finish a level in anticipation of a cutscene, but that’s exactly what caused me to blaze through El Paso. To hear James simply talk is a pleasure, and I was thoroughly absorbed in the drama between he and his former lover. A vein of dry humor runs through it all too, which hits just right.
El Paso, Elsewhere does nothing new as a videogame - the whole point of it, in fact, is to do everything old. Despite revolving around the nucleus of a Max Payne homage and flatly refusing to flesh out the mechanics of a game from 2001, El Paso manages to transcend its skeletal concept thanks to an arresting presentation and brilliant story. Incredibly written with themes that speak to me on a deeply personal level, it compensates for its weaknesses as a game by simply being a brilliant piece of media.
Still, those 50 levels could have been slashed by 50% and lose little of value. There’s a lot to be said for doing less sometimes, especially when you’ve already done so much good.