Slow-mo leaping backwards to land a perfect shot on an enemy in El Paso, Elsewhere

El Paso, Elsewhere Review: a Cosmic Third-person Shooter from a Forgotten Age

5 min

El Paso, Elsewhere feels like the cancelled shooter PS2 adaptation of an incredibly short-lived Image Comics horror series from the mid-90s, leaked by a disgruntled developer over Google Drive more than a decade after the fact. It’s something that would have had a six episode animated series, broadcast out of order at 1am. It’s a testament to that moment in pop culture where the coolest thing imaginable was a tortured guy in a trenchcoat, holding a gun in each hand and fighting monsters. Whether you regard this aesthetic with respect or disgust will help you determine whether there’s anything here for you.

If you have the requisite taste, El Paso, Elsewhere will occupy your head in a way nothing else has managed for a long time. James Savage is a man with a trenchcoat, a problem with drug addiction and an even bigger problem with his ex-girlfriend. She’s literally the actual Dracula, and she’s triggered an arcane ritual to end the world in a motel in James’ dusty hometown. James has also got a habit for self-narration, just one of the many things he’s picked up from the late, great Max Payne. James restores his health by quaffing painkillers and his preferred method of dealing with danger is to dive in slow motion and shoot it in the head.

Slow-mo leaping backwards to land a perfect shot on an enemy in El Paso, Elsewhere
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Strange Scaffold

While Rockstar abandoned the pulp trappings and surrealism of the series to add another leaden Michael Mann pastiche to their library, Elsewhere imagines a modern Max Payne with all of those elements dialled up. Whereas all of Max Payne’s wildest levels were dream sequences or drug trips, here, the descent into the motel’s non-euclidean bowels are very literal. When James faces his demons, they’re actual demons. And werewolves, thralls, ghouls, teleporting zombie brides and suits of armour stuffed with angry meat. And a biblically accurate angel.

You deal with this expanding supernatural menagerie with what feels like never quite enough bullets. You learn very quickly that treating this like an average third-person shooter will see you swarmed and diced before you can blink. Maintaining your demeanour while you have a dozen werewolves scrambling through the fog towards you isn’t an impulse you’re going to learn without facing a few encouraging game over screens. Developing the knowledge to gently sidestep them as they dive for your throat, pop the airborne lycanthrope in its furry bonce with a single round and watch its slow-motion corpse ragdoll into a pile of furniture behind you is a really effective mechanical hook.

Not that it’s the only aspect of the combat. While the bread and butter is always going to be slow-motion dives, it’s frequently more satisfyingly economical to take out a closely gathered group of lumbering thralls with a single stake salvaged from splintered furniture than it is to waste lead. A defensive roll might seem unnecessary in the opening hours, but as the trickle of new enemies and their accompanying projectiles and melee ranges increases, it starts to make perfect sense.

A pink and yellow lit hallway in the motel in El Paso, Elsewhere
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Strange Scaffold

A room in El Paso, Elsewhere that resembles a part dining room, part church stacked with coffins
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Strange Scaffold

So much of this game’s chaos ends up making a weird sort of intuitive sense. You become an expert in the traps the motel has waiting for you. You learn to always expect a werewolf in a toilet stall. The motel is treated like it’s alive, with James speaking to it like a worthy adversary, wondering aloud if it has a deliberate sense of humour as it plays with time and space with reckless abandon.

As you delve deeper into the void, reality bends and leaks to an ever worsening degree. Things start simply enough, with your average endless corridors and missing ceilings, but the motel soon starts to become infested with places and objects from James’ and Draculae’s past. While initially contained to separate levels, eventually everything starts to bleed together. Bathrooms lead to graveyards which lead to ancient castles filled with office equipment. A single corner can lead you from somewhere familiar to a burning 19th century English manor.

Scattered throughout the cosmic mess are radio ads from the outside world and projectors. Snippets from past conversations between James and Draculae give a glimpse into their past, helping you piece together what turned her from a cool goth girlfriend who likes to talk about whether or not Transformers have sex to a full-blown creature of darkness on the verge of ending the world. These are always grounded and intimate in a way that heightens the sense of just how broken and tragic everything has become. Finding a tape of Draculae asking her boyfriend if he would still love her if she was a worm, you can’t help but want to push downward, to find out how it all went this wrong.

A graveyard full of zombies in El Paso, Elsewhere
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Strange Scaffold

Every aspect of El Paso, Elsewhere is something that could be interpreted as a disparate mess, if not for the fact that it all comes together completely flawlessly. The soundtrack is a perfectly calibrated mix of chill beats to traverse the void to, and assaults of thumping, migraine bass and shouted lyrics. The game shifts into something truly transcendental in those moments where you can find the resolve to deliver calm and controlled violence while you’re surrounded by rapidly advancing waves of claws and teeth, as the mantra BREAK SHIT KILL PEOPLE BREAK SHIT blares in your headphones. If you let it, it can lead you into the sort of bizarrely meditative, hyper violent trance that Hotline Miami managed, where everything slows down and you find yourself able to parse the aural and visual noise to dispatch foes with mathematical precision.

As James gets closer to his destination, he accepts it as a one way trip. His morose sense of duty starts to slip away, and he finds himself liberated. He starts enjoying the catharsis and doom of it all. If you get yourself similarly attuned to its sometimes abrasive nature, you’ll find that El Paso, Elsewhere turns into a strangely sad and sweet odyssey, borrowing heavily from similar works but ultimately creating something deeply unique. A cosmic third-person shooter from a forgotten age that will make you dwell on your worst break-up.

This review was based on a copy provided by the developer Strange Scaffold. Strange Scaffold’s Creative Director is Xalavier Nelson Jr., who has written for RPS.