EA SCOUT the last line of defense for buying on Steam's Early Access
by Jordan Helsley
previewed on PC
Pain, To The Max
Things changed around the turn of the millennium. The Matrix hit theatres, the PlayStation 2 arrived on shelves, and Max Payne blew players away. With the now-two-decade gap comes a cyclical return to the early-aughts style, particularly in the indie space. El Paso, Elsewhere wears these inspirations on its forehead: your polygonal, drug-addicted protagonist slow-mo dives through the air while raining bullets upon his foes. Overlooked here is a key point: our hero is not Max.
James Savage has an ex, and she is, unfortunately, a vampire performing a ritual with the intention of ending the world. James has relapsed into his drug habit to stem the pain long enough to save the world. That's about as much story as you get here, even as our protagonist speaks directly to you, the player, about his mission. The short intro cutscene could easily be read as serious or goofy, but somehow falls in between. What follows in the preview of El Paso, Elsewhere is a confusing trip through some muddy texture environments with some drug-trip visuals and little additional story progress.
The first level is in the motel that is your ex's ritual ground. There's no ceiling to this place, only ethereal space, and you're being accosted by werewolves and other demons in your quest to rescue innocents and move on to the next floor. These demons bring with them a real-world problem, though. Part of the fun of slow-mo-diving action is not only raining bullets, but dodging them too. Your enemies here either shamble in your direction or sprint so quickly that you're getting damaged mid-dive anyway. It takes a bit of the punch and fun out of the mechanic, despite the faithful adaptation of this recognizable dive.
Man on a (Motel) Mission
The motel itself is a bit of a frustrating puzzle, too. With doors that can and cannot be opened appearing identical, there's a fair amount of trial and error as you smack your face into walls hoping one will give way. The halls are meant to be a bit labyrinthine, so you may just headbutt the same doorway several times before it's over.
Things get marginally better with the second level, as the motel shifts to something resembling ancient ruins, but I still found the level design lacking. The gameplay loop remains the same, and without enemies that force you to utilize the game's signature mechanic it becomes tough to stay engaged. More often you're incentivized to employ wooden stakes to dispatch your foes. In a game crafted with this very clear action-oriented approach, running up to vampires and werewolves to awkwardly stab them with a one-hit-kill melee attack sucks all the air out of the room.
Lost in Space
Games don't exist in a vacuum, but if they did, El Paso, Elsewhere still feels like it misses the mark. The retro graphics add a little charm to the experience, but the enemies present in this preview leave a lot to be desired. I felt very little sense of strategy in the combat, and only felt a challenge when the game overloaded me with the fast-moving werewolves. At any distance at all they, and other enemies, were only occasionally difficult to gun down, and that was mostly thanks to a rapid movement style that feels not-quite intentional.
With some time left before release there's an opportunity to change or tweak a lot of what didn't work for me, but sweeping improvements seem unlikely. Polishing up the level design would go a long way to making the experience more enjoyable, but much more work would be needed to make the slow-mo aspect shine. A smart addition to improve accessibility or challenge lies in a menu that allows you to modify the game, but even it isn't without fault at the stage. You can do things like activate infinite ammo, turn enemy health up, or lower the amount of damage received, but in testing out this menu I found that reducing your damage intake to zero breaks the tutorial, preventing you from actually playing.
Going To Rehab
The ethos of this game is abundantly clear, even in screenshots. It's trying its best to capture a very particular style of early-2000s nostalgia, but it feels more of-the-time than is beneficial. Just as there was then, if you want to play as a bullet-dodging drug addict, there's already a game for that. If you're the type of player who simply wants something similar to that, you might find yourself at home. Ultimately, El Paso, Elsewhere ends up feeling like the budget version of that experience, released in the shadow of the popular version because it didn’t learn the proper lessons.
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The game has potential, but we're not ready to jump in with both feet. If the game interests you, look, but don't touch - yet.