El Paso, Elsewhere: The Goonhammer Review

Two years ago I was introduced to El Paso, Elsewhere when developer Strange Scaffold dropped their reveal trailer that depicted a game clearly inspired by Remedy Entertainment’s Max Payne. The player character, clad in a brown overcoat leapt and dove through the air, guns akimbo, blasting at ghoulish and lycanthropic creatures alike. It was released fully on September 26th just in time for the Halloween season.

El Paso, Elsewhere is a third-person shooter that places you in the well worn shoes of James Savage, a vampire hunter and recovering addict, whose vampire ex Draculae is trying to bring about the end of the world via an ancient vampiric ritual beneath a motel in his home town of El Paso Texas. Starting at the front desk you are met with familiar sights of a stodgy motel which quickly give way to more surreal environments as the fabric of reality is stretched to its absolute limits. El Paso’s Max Payne influences are worn on its sleeves and it never shies away from reveling in them. The story is conveyed primarily through James’ neo-noir monologues between floors or levels. James himself is a pill addict and during gameplay consuming pills is our means of recovering hp and of course there’s all the bullet time slow-mo diving that makeup the majority of the game’s combat. 

Graphically it’s quite simple. It’s not the most taxing game but the art is cohesive and the environmental lighting and spectacular skyboxes go far in setting the mood. The character models are reminiscent of a PlayStation one game. It’s almost dream-like with the faces lack of detail giving you an impression of a person.

Gameplay-wise El Paso doesn’t quite reach the same marks that Max Payne does. Your arsenal, however, matches up quite well. You have the classic dual pistols as your standard starting weapon and they do an acceptable job, never quite impressing but always reliable when you need to reload your other stronger guns. 

The Shotgun you get second and it is easily the workhorse gun in your loadout packing enough power to one-shot nearly every enemy at close to medium-ish range. As it is a pump-action shotgun its one glaring weakness is that it is not a great bullet time weapon due there being a sizeable delay between shots. 

The Tommy gun is likely to be your go-to bullet time gun whenever you get swarmed, especially by ranged enemies. The Uzi takes the Tommy guns’ place as designated horde killer when acquired with its much larger magazine size. Finally rounding out your firearms is the Rifle; it boasts incredible stopping power and range, usually taking only a single shot at either the head or body to put down even the strongest of enemies.

There’s also molotov’s which I never found to be all that useful. I often forgot I had them until I accidentally swapped to them in the middle of a slow-motion dive and nearly immolated myself. There’s also the grenade launcher which you receive rather late but boy does it become immediately useful with the hordes of enemies that you run into in the endgame. Of course no vampire hunter worth his salt would leave home without his trusty wooden stake. The stake acts as an instant kill single-use melee weapon that you’ll find more of throughout the levels and by destroying wooden furniture throughout them.  

Where El Paso falters is its encounter design and enemy design. The majority of the enemies you encounter are melee combatants which don’t lend themselves well to slow motion diving. The first enemy that you face is the ghoul, they run directly at you clawing at you when in range. They can be kited fairly easily and provide little challenge. Rarely do they alone incentivize use of the Bullet Time mechanics. 

After far too many levels exclusively populated by ghouls are you introduced to the Werewolf enemies. Although much smaller than you’d expect from this creature traditionally, they are still quite ferocious, capable of leaping across the room to gore you doing significant damage.

The Damned Brides are the first projectile enemy that you encounter. Firing hard hitting projectiles with light tracking capability. Their Elite versions operate the same but with much harder homing attacks. Both variants teleport around and have a recharge period between shooting.

Living Armors seemingly block all attacks when their sword is held in front of them. Have weak points at their rear that would suggest that you dive behind them and shoot it in to take them down but it ends up being far simpler to just shoot them with either the rifle or the shotgun at point blank.They’re often used as trap enemies. Being placed in front of items hoping to trick you into dropping your guard. By the end I simply designated them as my primary stake target.

The “biblically accurate” fallen angel enemies are the second and final ranged enemy in the game’s roster. They Float high in the sky and are easy to hit but they also fire a big blast that is quite damaging. The rifle makes quick work of them, especially with how high they fly above the map. Unless they spawned on top of me I was able to snipe them well before they could begin attacking. 

Not the brightest puppet master

Finally we have the bane of my existence: The Puppet master. It’s basically a pain elemental from Doom with legs instead of the ability to fly and approximately 30 times more annoying. The puppets he summons have the tiniest hitbox known to man and they will not stop coming until you slay the master pulling their strings. One of the few enemies that I would use bullet time to kill them because the Puppet Master’s M.O. is to run away and summon. They are cowards and I despise them.

The main loop of each floor is going from room to room in increasingly surreal maps from motel rooms,castles, graveyards and amalgamations of all 3 all the while beasts of all kinds are sent to stop you. Some levels require you to rescue Innocents with enemies spawning after each is rescued. When the last innocent is rescued it’s time for a mad dash back to the elevator as the level. Sometimes levels will have doors with a colored aura matching the various color coded hearts in the level. These hearts act as keycards in Doom or other retro shooters allowing you access through their matching colored door

In Max Payne you’re primarily fighting humans armed with guns whereas all but two of El Paso’s enemies are melee. When the ranged enemies do begin appearing the dive’s usefulness was only slightly increased but still more of a trap than boon. Many times I felt like the game did not use the full breadth of its mechanics or at least not in a way that felt satisfying. What it ends up boiling down to is that there’s very few Extrinsic motivations to do cool bullet time dives which leaves the only motivation to utilize those mechanics to be intrinsic ones of wanting to look like a cool action hero. Yet in attempting to do so you will often take far more damage and be less effective in combat than if you didn’t dive at all.

The first major boss fight while challenging further added to this feeling and really is just unsatisfying from a mechanical standpoint. It’s for starters another melee enemy, and very fast. There’s never a need to dive and when I attempted to in order to try and avoid his dash and still output damage I put myself in a worse position than just activating bullet time and unloading all my ammunition.

The game is also unfortunately a little buggy. The number of times I’ve clipped through geometry and gotten stuck or fell through the earth after a dive is staggering. Multiple times after reloading a checkpoint I was unable to fire my weapons or reload and the only fix was completely restarting the application. In the penultimate level  I fired a grenade from the grenade launcher and the game began to stutter till I restarted

Yet at times sandwiched between repetitive levels with uninteresting combat encounters there would be a level where everything would come together. Where the full breadth of the combat mechanics are utilized and The map, and music and combat all begin to work in tandem and it would get me into that same rhythmic trance that Hotline Miami did a decade ago, but those moments were few and far between. 

Despite these issues El Paso, Elsewhere kept my interest for the entirety of the game and during those moments where the gameplay was flat and the often repetitive levels dragged down my enjoyment the game’s strong narrative was what kept pushing me to finish each level. It’s a story of love, of an abusive relationship and it’s all handled quite well in no small part due to the writing and voice acting for our two main characters. 

The relationship between James and Draculae is revealed slowly throughout the game both through James’ monologues between floors and audio logs you can encounter in the levels themselves. The voice acting for both our intrepid vampire hunter James and antagonist vampire Draculae are fantastic when the two finally share the screen in the present narrative, their interactions together are gripping and made all the more compelling by what gets built up in the scenes prior. There were moments in the pairs’ exchanges that floored me with how painfully familiar they were. 

Final Verdict

El Paso, Elsewhere is a game that will stick with me for a while. Its well developed story and engaging characters managed to overshadow its gameplay shortcomings. However, the repetitive level design, mediocre encounters, and a dragging pace in the latter half. While I do recommend this game it’s not as wholehearted as I would have liked. Yet if you can brush aside these issues there’s a truly engrossing experience waiting for you.

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