El Paso, Elsewhere review: A stylish, solemn, supernatural fairy tale

Strange Scaffold
Strange Scaffold /

Game: El Paso, Elsewhere
Developer: Strange Scaffold
Publisher: Strange Scaffold
Platform: PC (reviewed on), Xbox
Release Date: September 26, 2023

Content Warning: El Paso, Elsewhere contains themes of drug addiction and relationship abuse that this review will discuss.

El Paso, Elsewhere begins with endings. Protagonist James Savage, a supernatural researcher, outlines them in a dry, fourth-wall-breaking narration: the apocalypse is coming, it’s his vampire ex Draculae’s fault and he’s taking a one-way trip to Hell to stop her. The grand stage for these converging conclusions is a motel in El Paso, Texas where Draculae is performing a ritual to unleash otherworldly horror upon the earth. Rounding out the cast list are Draculae’s human hostages and endless legions of monstrous minions. Props include a Texas-sized arsenal and enough painkillers to drop James a thousand times over even before the monsters get to him.

It’s the perfect setup for a tragedy.

It’s no surprise that El Paso, Elsewhere is so bleak right from the onset. The game pays deliberate homage to Remedy’s neo-noir action classic Max Payne, both mechanically and aesthetically. Graphics are rendered in a chunky, low-poly style. When James dives, he enters slow-mo. He skips one pistol and goes straight to two. El Paso, Elsewhere also evokes Remedy’s newest IP, Control, featuring a mundane setting overtaken by the bizarre. Labyrinthine hallways chaotically arranged, furniture floating, beige walls stained with blood. New and old collide just like the two worlds of the living and the undead.

El Paso, Elsewhere’s gameplay is charmingly old-school. Each level is a self-contained portion of the void, the space between the human world and the one that seeks to consume it. Players take James room by room, saving Draculae’s human hostages and exterminating all the monsters in his path. Complete all the objectives and the level goes dark, forcing James to make a desperate exit only to be whisked away to a fresh funhouse of horrors.

Each encounter, whether it be in a dank motel, a spooky graveyard or an ancient pyramid, has James outnumbered, but he’s never outgunned. He also has access to the most powerful weapon of all: bullet time. At the press of a button, time slows and James gets a chance to line up headshots and dive out of the way of incoming attacks. Blasting a pouncing werewolf with a shotgun after dodging its claws in slow motion never gets old.

El Paso, Elsewhere
Strange Scaffold /

There’s not much to complain about with regard to gameplay. El Paso, Elsewhere is simply a competent call-back to classic action shooters. Level design is clever but never becomes so complex as to confuse. Especially thrilling are “Landmark” levels placed strategically throughout the game that feature vocal-backed music tracks and cinematic action sequences. Weapons feel great to use, especially the shotgun, with its ragdoll-inducing blasts that send enemies flying. On default settings, the game felt a little too easy, but this can be altered with tweaks to healing and damage. Where El Paso, Elsewhere really shines, though, is in its narrative.

As James says in one late-game musing, El Paso, Elsewhere is a love story, though not a happy one by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a classic knight-castle-princess tale, except the castle is a reality-warping motel built out of trauma and the knight has to kill the princess instead of save them. James (voiced by game director Xalavier Nelson Jr., who also provides the main vocals for the Landmark levels) is an experienced paranormal investigator able to gun down monsters by the hundreds but is laid low when faced with the prospect of killing the woman he used to love. Pre-level cutscenes shed light on the tragic complexity of James’ relationship with Draculae, née-Janet Drake – the tenderness shared between a warm body and a cold one, the desperate hope that bloodlust can be suppressed and the monster kept at bay, the emotional abuse endured by James in the name of love that left scars far deeper than in the skin.

Never does El Paso, Elsewhere flashback to these events except through audio, yet James’ past trauma pierces into the present like a stake through the heart. With its style-first gameplay, El Paso, Elsewhere threatens to devolve into a cold power fantasy, but James’ vulnerability and complicated motives inject a robust emotional core into the game. Themes of addiction, too, weave seamlessly into the game’s marriage of gameplay and story, with pill bottles rolling along level floors along with bullet casings as James’ spirit refuses to let his body give up even if it means he’s cutting his own time short. The heroic sacrifice is a familiar trope, but El Paso, Elsewhere takes it in a different direction, the “greater good” fading into the background as James struggles with his personal spiral into oblivion.

Sometimes, when James saves a hostage, they’ll ask who is going to save him.

El Paso, Elsewhere shows just how hard it can be to save yourself.

El Paso, Elsewhere (PC) Score: 8.5/10

Fans of Max Payne will find El Paso, Elsewhere a finely-penned love letter to the action franchise, but players will likely discover the game’s heart to burn just as hotly as its gun barrels.