REVIEW: El Paso, Elsewhere is nostalgic, fresh, and Strange Scaffold's best
At PAX West this year, we had a surprise run-in with Strange Scaffold's Studio Head Xalavier Nelson Jr. just outside of the expo hall at the start of one of the most fulfilling days of the show. We talked for a bit and by the end of our time together, we took the opportunity to ask him a question we were asking everyone at the show: What makes a video game good to you?
His answer boiled down to "any game that shows a focus in what it's trying to say and has an intent in what it's trying to do."
If you could believe it, El Paso, Elsewhere — Strange Scaffold's latest — is dripping with intent. Every single piece of this project is there to serve the game's overall mission. And Nelson Jr. made sure of that. Not just as a writer or developer, no. He acts and sings in this one too.
El Paso, Elsewhere is a fascinating project that not only captures the vibe of an entire era of gaming but does so in a way that feels new and exciting because the team was so unified in delivering this exact game. Having played it, I couldn't agree more. Intent is vital. Intent does make a good game — a great one, even — and unsurprisingly, El Paso, Elsewhere is one of them.
Just the Facts
Developer: Strange Scaffold
Publisher: Strange Scaffold
Platform(s): PC*, Xbox Series S and X *platform reviewed on
Release Date: September 26, 2023
Review key provided by Tinsley PR.
"Let's take it from the top. Like a jazz standard. In our own time."
El Paso, Elsewhere is a fascinating project, the biggest that Strange Scaffold has worked on in its lifetime, and one whose production has been covered extensively through Nelson Jr.'s social media channels.
Inspired by early-2000s corridor shooters and pulling liberally from Remedy Entertainment's Max Payne series, El Paso, Elsewhere satisfies old school and new school all at once by blending the team's fresh perspectives with such a nostalgic era of gaming.
Where Max Payne is about a punished cop who abuses pills and his authority to take revenge on the drug dealers who killed his family, El Paso, Elsewhere is about a cultural researcher who finds himself pulled back into his toxic ex's gravitational pull when he chases her down to try and save the world. Oh yeah, his ex is Draculae, Lord of the Vampires. And he abuses pills too, but in a way that feels at least a little more self-aware than ol' Max.
James Savage, the hero of our tale, is a fascinating protagonist brought to life by Nelson Jr. himself. In this neo-noir monster flick, James narrates his slow travel down into the literal depths of hell with a jazzy staccato rhythm that borders on poetry. He addresses his weaknesses, both in the present as he rips through monsters in the hallways of an El Paso motel and in the past as he re-examines his expired relationship with a literal bloodsucker. He speaks directly to the player, asking for forgiveness for his actions while hoping we enjoyed the time we spent with him.
In this neo-noir monster flick, James narrates his slow travel down into the literal depths of hell with a jazzy staccato rhythm that borders on poetry.
Draculae is performing a ritual, one that James assures us will end the world. She's used a tiny motel in El Paso to make it happen, opening a connection with "The Void" from which she can pull the likes of werewolves, vampires, and other creepy crawlies to protect the path to her on the way down. We learn about these beasts and Draculae through James's research-minded lens, which means they're treated with a reverence that makes each new monster feel important and grounds these myths in interesting ways. They're given narrative purpose — more than that, interesting narrative purpose. It elevates them beyond fodder for James to blow through.
If you didn't know, we're pretty big fans of the writing in Strange Scaffold games. And the writing here, among a myriad of things, is what elevates this from a Max Payne clone into something else altogether, a complete tour de force.
Not unlike the games of Remedy Entertainment, Strange Scaffold fills this world with fun in-universe media. There's the radio show "Pill Cop," a winking nod to Max Payne that leans into the more nonsensical bits of that narrative setup to great comedic results. There are radio ads for impossible businesses that almost hearken back to Nightvale's absurd comedy and even painfully real phone calls of people saying goodbye to loved ones... in the many ways one can say goodbye to someone. And everything, from those random bits and bobs to every line of dialogue, is written with a natural familiarity. It all sounds like people you know and not just oddball characters in a video game. Flashbacks to the early moments of the relationship shared between James and Draculae don't just sound like the Lord of Vampires sharing the scene with her pill-addicted boyfriend. They sound like conversations you might have with your partner. (Well, not totally. If they do sound a bit too familiar, that might be a bit of a red flag, but you get what I'm saying.)
The writing alone makes the game absurdly compelling, but its natural delivery makes it linger. Xalavier Nelson Jr.'s whispered inflection and measured pace gives James that pitch-perfect noir protagonist grit, which gives way to softness every time you hear flashbacks to his relationship with Draculae. Emme "Negaoryx" Montgomery matches that softness, but with a near-constant edge that keeps you wondering about her intentions, both in the past and present.
There's a profound vulnerability in just how much of himself Nelson Jr. puts into this game — the city he calls home, his dreams, and of course, his literal voice — something he's talked about in the lead-up to release. And it of course has precedent in the rest of Strange Scaffold's library, but it's never been as powerfully felt as it is here.
"Void's got an obsession?"
Now, not to use a games critic cliché, but the most underrated character in this whole affair has to be the hotel itself. Well, the hotel and the many forms it holds within. As Draculae advances her ritual and James gets further down into the ethereal muck, The Void morphs and melds the space around you. A shimmering gooey barrier shifts above the roofless hallways of the hotel, walls fall away and close behind you the minute you turn away from them, and mind-bending spaces like impossibly long hallways or endless bathrooms all await you within the hotel.
Without spoiling where else the game eventually takes you, it makes for a fascinating take on liminal spaces, both in the trendy unsettling-reflection-of-reality way that things like the Backrooms have made popular, and in the ways it emulates older gaming levels and the creeping solitude that those maps could impart.
As a kid, I remember wandering through multiplayer maps all on my own, trying to figure out the purpose of each room and their place in a narrative that wasn't necessarily there. El Paso, Elsewhere gave me those feelings all over again, and constantly felt better for it. I never knew what each new chapter held within, never knew where each door would take me. And by the end, just like James, I grew used to The Void's tricks and came to love them.
You might be reading this review and wondering how this trippy monster-based game is inspired by Max Payne, outside of the noir setting and pills. Well, play the game for just a few seconds and you'll find out.
El Paso, Elsewhere handles exactly like you remember Max Payne played with your nostalgic rose-colored glasses on — meaning it's probably a bit smoother and punchier, but we didn't know better back then. It's a third-person shooter that allows you to roll and slo-mo dive away from and toward enemies, feeling like the John Woo action star you always wished you could be. You heal by chugging pills and plow through room after room wiping enemies out. Most times, your goal is to follow beams of light that reach into the sky to find and rescue hostages trapped in the maze-like levels you're trapped in. Sometimes, you're just trying to find the elevator to move on.
It all feels like a step between that Max Payne inspiration and one of Remedy's more modern titles, Control: Max Payne in structure and Control in vibes and level design. You're fighting enemies just as much as you're fighting this space that is constantly providing, as James puts it, "a series of fucked up rooms." Luckily, El Paso nails the greatest piece of the "inspired by" puzzle in that... it feels right.
Diving in slo-mo feels exhilarating, especially when you use it to desperately escape death. Every single one of the game's weapons, from the dual pistols that Max popularized back in the day to the bullet-a-millisecond Uzi, feels punchy and powerful. The game does well to make each weapon in your arsenal feel like it has a use too. Shotguns take out the suits of armor real nice, the long-range rifle takes out the brides wielding spirit bombs, and the launcher is great for taking out crowds chasing after you.
"Tell me you'll fix me."
While the game follows a fairly linear path, where you locate hostages and make your way to the exit across more than 40 levels, the ever-shifting level design and constant intensity keep it from feeling too same-y. El Paso, Elsewhere constantly keeps you on the edge of your seat. Even with maxed out ammo, a jacket full of pill bottles, and an understanding of every enemy type in the game, you constantly feel like you could lose it all in a moment. Reloading, chugging those pills, and diving all take time, and you need to really commit to them in the middle of a hectic fight. Time it wrong and it's very easy for the game's monsters to overwhelm you.
So while I'd say a good 65% of the game was a breeze to get through, with only a handful of deaths littered throughout, it never felt like I was on sure footing. I was always tense and itching to dive into the next room across the game's shorter-than-it-feels 7-8 hour runtime.
As the game tells you every time you die, in big, bold block lettering, "YOU KEEP GOING." You feel that same compulsion that James does as the story progresses. Just like James, you need to keep diving, keep shooting, keep going to see what's waiting on the other end. And that's driven by a lot of things — a lot of which I've mentioned, but the ones I haven't include the music. The vibes. The tempo. You can't stop it.
Strange Scaffold's music mastermind and all-around audio team, RJ Lake, comes back with what might be his finest work yet in El Paso, Elsewhere. Taking electronica, rock, and rap beats of the highest quality and mashing them together in a variety of styles, Lake's music gives the game its soul. Frantic drum and bass push you forward. Quiet, eerie bass-driven atmospheric tracks keep you on edge. Spotlight tracks featuring Nelson Jr. rapping and singing highlight peaks in the narrative and level design.
And then the visual style, employing pixel art plastered on 3D models, works better than you'd expect — particularly on the character models, giving them that good PSX feel and allowing you to project the pain on every person's and creature's face. Levels are dimly lit, leaving you to catch the bright white eyes of a werewolf stalking across the room or the hint of horrifying flesh monsters (or rooms) just at the edge of your vision.
When I say every piece comes together to push this one cohesive piece of art together, this is what I mean. The RJ Lake tracks and the masses of enemies make you feel like you're at the edge of your abilities. The acting and singing done by Nelson Jr. help to turn what could ostensibly have been seen as endless monster boxes and mindless shooting into a symphony of meaning. The abstract visuals of fog-filled liminal spaces paired with the "turn around and it's different" level design constantly leave you questioning rooms you just left.
It all coalesces beautifully and makes this project one of the best Strange Scaffold has put out so far.
El Paso, Elsewhere constantly keeps you on the edge of your seat.
It isn't perfect, of course, "held together by toothpicks" as most games are while the team actively patches and improves it every single day on the road to release. There are a few technical issues I encountered, mainly toward the end: some strange moments of slowdown and near-crashes when rooms were a bit too full of enemies and I decided an explosion was the best way to get rid of them. But nothing that really hurt my experience in the end. Strange Scaffold must buy the good toothpicks.
My only other major issue was that the back half of the game slowed down that pace and tempo. There are longer stretches without major narrative milestones and fewer new concepts and systems introduced. On the whole, things are a lot harder in the closing hours, and the sudden spikes in difficulty that even one room will have over another can start to drag you down.
But how it all ends and where the game takes you in some of those final moments are worth every second of the ride. And considering the short runtime, those stumbles aren't nearly as large in retrospect, because you're done before you realize it.
I could write about this game all day. From the moment El Paso, Elsewhere was first revealed, I had a feeling it could be something special. When I heard and read how Nelson Jr. talked about it online, I was confident it would be, if for no other reason than the team's clear passion for the project. Still, even after playing it, I managed to feel shocked at just how deeply it delivered on its potential.
Strange Scaffold keeps growing and improving with each release, and I can't wait to see how these artists continue to take big swings and stretch their talents.
El Paso, Elsewhere is a satisfying '00s-era corridor shooter elevated by a constellation of bold talent that brought to life its audio, visual, and technical artistry. It tells a painfully relatable and intimate story, with a visual style that matches the chaos in its hero's heart and a soundtrack that vocalizes it.
Video Games Are Good and El Paso, Elsewhere is . . . GREAT. (9.5/10)
+ Max Payne-style combat that feels just right, writing that feels too real, and a soundtrack that makes the pain fade away
- technical issues pop up near the end, the back half slows down the tempo after pumping you up all throughout the rest of the game
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