The debt that El Paso, Elsewhere owes to the original Max Payne is impossible to overstate. Your primary interaction with the world is to dive through it in slow motion, firing weapons that include dual-wielded pistols. Hard-boiled protagonist James Savage, whose head is made improbably square by the game’s lo-fi polygons, pops pills in order to restore health, and he makes a very specific sort of wheezing grunt when he jumps in the air. Even the levels, full of endless corridors, are heavily indebted to Max Payne’s dream sequences.
But where that game’s use of surreal imagery was mostly for effect, El Paso, Elsewhere’s oddities are quite literal: James Savage travels through a supernatural void that mashes together motels, graveyards, and more while populating these abstract spaces with mummies, werewolves, and biblically accurate angels. Traveling from one layout to the next via metaphysical elevator, James is out to stop an apocalyptic ritual conducted by his ex-girlfriend, Draculae, a disempowered vampire hoping to regain her abilities.
In its mechanics, too, the game aspires to more than simply evoke nostalgia for Max Payne, building something new on the bones of the old. Where that game featured copious gunfights against mobsters, James predominantly encounters monsters that rush to swipe at him from close range. The moment-to-moment action is thus totally distinct, turning slow motion into a method of buying time to shoot creatures in the head before they can close the distance or, in the case of the few ranged enemies like the angels, fire their one large, damaging projectile. Each dive through the air moves you away from your pursuers so that you can avoid being mobbed within the cramped environments, with a limited number of stake-based melee attacks allowing you to quickly dispatch tougher enemies or clear out a group that’s far too close for comfort.
Structurally, the game unfolds in levels, constantly remixing its environments and enemy combinations. Your goal is to by and large liberate hostages, who send up a beam of light so that they may be easily spotted within the void’s ceiling-less mazes. After the last one is freed, the lights go out while new paths open and new enemies spawn for your journey back to the elevator. But El Paso, Elsewhere constantly finds novel ways for you to navigate these mazes: Some levels will find you pushing constantly forward, while others find you returning to a central hub, and some hinge on one-off set pieces like a rotating hall that telegraphs the monsters about to spawn by showing them in a central enclosure.
The levels are plentiful yet brief, encouraging you to try one more—and then, inevitably, another one—while the game explores its mechanics from every possible angle. If El Paso, Elsewhere is rarely difficult, it’s never anything less than satisfying for its slow-motion carnage, with monsters crumpling or sent flying by the force of your shotgun and angels in particular collapsing in on themselves, their interlocking wheels crashing lifelessly down to earth.
Perhaps even more impressive than the game’s action is the storytelling that ties it all together. As befitting any noir-influenced protagonist, James Savage constantly narrates his predicament in a tortured whisper voiced by the game’s writer and director, Xalavier Nelson Jr., who also raps on the game’s soundtrack. While the character might easily have come across like a one-note caricature, his narration strikes a surprising balance between sardonic humor and melancholic poetry, ruminating on topics like abusive relationships and addiction.
The pills that heal James Savage are more than just a Max Payne reference, as they’re deeply rooted in his relationship with Draculae and he has no illusions about how his dependence on them will kill him. Savage knows that he’s on a suicide mission, and in one scene he muses about how any closure he might gain from the whole affair feels unearned.
Much of the game’s backstory is filled in through found audio recordings and brief, sparsely animated cutscenes between levels. It’s a testament to Nelson’s writing that the characters and their history are so fleshed out despite how little the game visually depicts, and how it manages to build to an emotional climax without seeming unnaturally protracted. Draculae doesn’t even physically appear until late in the game, but the audio ensures that her presence is always felt while still retaining an air of mystery about her involvement and how Savage will handle it.
That El Paso, Elsewhere works at all as a drama is a huge achievement. It tackles weighty topics with a maturity that’s rare in gaming, and which is all the more impressive given that it does so within the framework of a shooter that suggests a Halloween attraction as curated by John Woo. It’s emblematic of the game as a whole—a bizarre amalgamation of parts that shouldn’t work yet manages to form something cohesive, soulful, weird, and deeply personal.
This game was reviewed with code provided by Strange Scaffold.
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