Written and hosted by Steve Heller
Remedy Entertainment is on the verge of releasing Alan Wake 2, but indie collective Strange Scaffold may have already released the most "Remedy" game of 2023 with El Paso, Elsewhere. It is a delectable pastiche of everything the Finnish company has done from the twisting lore of Alan Wake, to the warped geometry of Control, and of course the frenetic bullet-time fueled combat of Max Payne. But to discount this low-poly dive into the pits of hell as imitation only would be a major disservice, because while El Paso, Elsewhere is unmistakably cribbing from the smoky noir of Max Payne, it does more than enough to set itself apart as something special on its own.
Of all the gin joints in all the world…
Like all great noir fiction, El Paso, Elsewhere is based around a romantic entanglement. Monster hunting James Savage has followed the trail of his ex-girlfriend to a dusty hotel in El Paso, Texas. Turns out that his ex Draculae is a powerful vampire, and is completing a ritual that aims to bring about the destruction of the world. So James takes an elevator into the upside down to face the demons of his past relationship, and the literal demons that his ex has unleashed into the warped fragments of the hotel.
This event is causing the reality of this tiny hotel to warp and change, much like the Oldest House in Control, which means that James is riding that elevator down for a long, long time. Each stop offers another twisted floor for James to explore, often overrun with ancient Egyptian vampires, demented demon brides, angels, and werewolves. Just when you think you have a grasp of what the hotel will serve up next, it twists the reality to reveal fragments of James and Draculae's relationship, or her dark past as she came to grips with the horror that she was destined to become.
Every moment in El Paso, Elsewhere is arresting. From Savage’s smokey monologue opening the game to the sun-drenched ending seven hours later, this was the entirety of my being for a weekend and still lingers long after those final credits rolled. It seeped into my very being because despite dealing with vampires and demons, the core conceit of Draculae and Savage's strained and abusive relationship is very human. So human in fact that I was able to connect it to a similar past relationship of my own. There I was, driving stakes into the hearts of the blood suckers while remembering some truly horrible years trapped inside my own broken relationship. I don't think that any game I've ever played has felt this personal, but the ridiculous surroundings of mummified vampires, angels, and werewolves also make it feel incredibly surreal. Unlike the lords of the undead, El Paso, Elsewhere has a lot of heart.
James' internal monologue is doing a lot of heavy lifting here. As you run, shoot, dive, and pop pills throughout the levels he does a lot of chatting. And yes, he will make some snarky comments about the enemies he is facing off against, or how good he is at killing monsters. But for the most part James just feels like he is very real, trying to figure shit out in his own head. Reliving past traumas. Doing that thing we all do, where we doubt ourselves and think "if only I had just listened more? Just talked more? Maybe this would be ok." All of that is happening in real time, and these nuggets of narrative are not just there to take up space. All of them are meaningful, and go such a long way to making this relationship, and the consequences that lay ahead feel heavy. Lines like "I was so good at being trapped" or "I miss her. I miss my master" really show us what kind of power Draculae had over James, and alludes to the power that she still has over him as he is seeking her out to end this madness.
But these heavy moments aren't a constant. At times El Paso, Elsewhere is hilarious. Other times, completely bizarre. One minute you are finding answering machine messages that depict a son speaking to his recently deceased father. And the next you are finding radios playing episodes of a radio drama titled Pill Cop. And sometimes, sometimes you find projectors which play back conversations and memories of James' and Draculae's relationship. Some of these memories are filled with delight, and others, others are heart wrenching. But all of these extra moments, they manage to break up that heaviness in interesting ways, and builds out the lore of this strange world.
That strange world is brought to life by striking cinematography that honestly rival Naughty Dog or Santa Monica Studio in design. Strange Scaffold has combined color, shadow, pacing, and peculiar camera angles to make this low-poly adventure feel like something far more grandiose, like a forgotten relic of the early 2000's that was rediscovered on a PlayStation 2 in your grandmother's den twenty years later that somehow slipped through the cracks. This feels more like auteur cinema than it does an indie video game at times, and it makes me wish that more studios were capable of pulling off this magic trick.
Diving in slow motion
Wow. I've spoken about this much and not yet really touched on gameplay, which is probably very telling, because that is where El Paso, Elsewhere is a little less interesting in my eyes. The gameplay loop is established early - reach a floor of the hotel, rescue the hostages that are spread around the place, kill all the baddies as you then race back to the elevator for an escape. For most of the run time this is the general loop. It's simple. It works. But it's lack of true variety over the fifty levels does start to grate a little towards the closing moments. Thankfully the story was more than enough to keep me heavily invested, but if for some reason that is not your bag, I feel like you will slip off long before the final encounter.
The combat itself is pretty decent. James has a wide variety of classic weapons ranging from dual pistols, to uzi, to hunting rifle, and molotov cocktails at his disposal. The shotgun in particular FEELS CRUNCHY, earning a place among the other greats in good video game shotgun feel. Much like Max Payne, you have a "bullet time" meter that will allow you to slow-mo dive and shoot in the most stylish way possible. This looks incredibly cool, but if I am honest in practice I rarely used it. Because the game just never really demanded a use case. The bullet time works in Max Payne because there are projectiles (namely bullets) flying at you at all times. In El Paso, Elsewehre however, there are only three enemy types who have projectiles, which makes it pretty easy to spot them at a distance and deal with them first. Even when faced with leaping werewolves and these projectile-spewing enemies, James fares much better by using the Roll button which renders him invincible, and ready to shoot immediately after.
So while the slow-mo diving doesn't really earn its stripes in my opinion, the introduction of Stakes is an interesting addition. James can carry up to 5, and with a quick hit of a button he can immediately slay any of the baddies that are in his immediate melee vicinity. Diving into tables and wardrobes to break them to get more stakes, and taking out multiple baddies with a single swipe, now that is pretty satisfying.
I spoke to Strange Scaffold founder Xalavier Nelson Jr. two years ago, and one thing that they mentioned was that Strange Scaffold is striving towards sustainable game development. Knowing that context, it made the asset flips much more palatable to me than perhaps the mainstream gamer. Enemies are often given a stronger version that is colored differently. Environments and assets are reused often and twisted in interesting ways, but ways that definitely makes the game feel quite samey throughout many levels. I only say this because I know that for some people, this will feel lazy. Coming from my game dev perspective though, this is really smart. It is also expertly paced, because every time I started to really notice that I was seeing the same thing over and over, the game changes context or introduces some other kind of wild change that reinvigorated my senses.
Popping pills and dropping beats
Another thing that completely caught me by surprise was the voice acting. The performance by Xalavier who fills the shoes of James is absolutely on point, a gruff performance that surely required illegal amounts of lemon honey tea, that captures the noir vibes with ease. Draculae played by Emme Montgomery also comes in with a strong performance that feels very authentic, rivaling some of the "heavy hitters" of game voice acting.
And then you hear it. "GET YOUR NUMBERS UP, BOY GET YOUR NUMBERS UP. LAY THOSE BODIES DOWN BOY, GET YOUR NUMBERS UP". Not only does Xalavier pull off performance of the year with James, but they spit absolute fire on a series of trap tracks that fit the carnage on screen so perfectly that it feels like some kind of satanic magic is unfolding on your screen. At key moments throughout the song you will hear the swell of RJ Lake's track crescendo into a beat, and then the rap begins to just tear the place apart. I love soundtracks, but god damn does El Paso, Elsewhere's soundtrack absolutely slap.
I cannot overstate how just unexpected this game was. An homage to Max Payne coming from the studio who previously brought us An Airport for Aliens, Currently Run by Dogs and Sunshine Shuffle, my expectations were for a fun 3-4 hour arcade combat experience with some cool bullet time. Yet when I first stepped into that elevator, I knew that this was something different. This was game that had absolute confidence in the tale it was spinning, and trusted you as the player to join them on a weird and twisted ride until the very end. The combat may be lacking. It may be reusing assets. But you will play nothing like El Paso, Elsewhere this year, or likely ever again. If narrative is your jam, I believe this could be your game of the year.
El Paso, Elsewhere
Developer: Strange Scaffold
Platforms: PC, Xbox, PlayStation