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Preview: El Paso, Elsewhere

12 Jun 2023

When the Wachowskis unleashed The Matrix onto unsuspecting moviegoers in 1999, there was little inkling of just how much its gun-toting, martial arts-flinging, slow motion-laden antics would persist in popular culture for decades after.

Setting aside the flood of parodies and inspired works in film itself, video games were (naturally) quick to take inspiration from the movie and incorporate the traits that solidified its popularity. 2001’s Max Payne was perhaps the most notable of these titles, which brought slick slow motion and gunplay in the vein of John Woo movies to the interactive realm. Titles like F.E.A.R. and the Matrix series’ own Enter the Matrix would continue the trend.

The reason for this preamble is El Paso, Elsewhere, an upcoming third person shooter slated for release in Fall 2023 from developer Strange Scaffold on PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S. It’s a game very much made in this same vein, and one I had the chance to take a brief look at on PC.

It was pretty radical, but not without its snags, so let’s take it from the top.

At the start of the demo, James Savage is setting off for a remote motel in El Paso, Texas with a single goal: eliminate Draculae, lord of the vampires and ex-girlfriend to him. After popping an unhealthy amount of pills, he steps through the lobby and descends in the elevator at its back into a twisted, hallucinogenic hellscape with vampires and evil foes galore.

The demo sports an especially strong start by way of its introduction to its protagonist, narrating to himself (and the player) regarding his regrets and recently lapsed sobriety as a result of his mission. The larger plot elements were brief, but James’ voiceover was quite strong and a big element of the demo’s success, with engaging delivery and requisitely cool one liners being a consistent through line.

Once you get into the gameplay, slow motion becomes the star of the show almost immediately. James has access to two different methods of activating slow motion: immediately toggling it from his current position or via a dive in an inputted direction. The slow motion dive lasts a few seconds, while the toggle lasts as long as you want it to before the bar depletes. From there, you’re given free reign to switch between your available weapons and start clicking the heads of your enemies.

For the most part, activating slow motion in El Paso, Elsewhere’s demo was glorious. The sound effects warped to a crawl, the muzzle flashes lingered over the surrounding lighting, and expended shell casings hung in the air before falling to the ground when it was through in proper action film fashion.

It’s easy to appreciate the fact that the player can activate slow motion via both methods or neither of them, with dives and dodge rolls both being available without needing to slow everything down unless you’d like to. What results is a lot of control given the player to react to each enemy encounter or situation on the fly and in the way they see fit, which is a key ingredient to any successful shooter.

And speaking of successful shooters, James Savage is very much one; every weapon packs a serious punch, to the point of being able to take down every vampiric entity the demo throws at you with a single bullet or two. In turn, it’s also easy to get swarmed by enemies if you don’t take them down fast, which keeps things moving at a frenetic pace. I also particularly enjoyed the way a certain enemy was designed to enhance the cool factor of the slow motion by primarily attacking through leaps towards the player.

The demo provided access to two levels, Bathroom Break and Rightside Down, and the level design ended up being the sorest spot I had with this snippet of El Paso, Elsewhere. The former stage felt a bit too straightforward in its layout, essentially boiling down to a series of rooms with bathroom stalls and sinks lining the walls with the occasional hotel room thrown in for good measure.

Outside of the neon skybox and lighting, Bathroom Break didn’t offer much to visually capture the player’s interest. Moreover, the narrow halls and doorways felt a smidge too cramped at several points. It wasn’t enough to significantly hamper the gameplay experience, but it still managed to make me wish there was more room to freely engage with the game’s slow motion dives.

Rightside Down offered a different gameplay experience with branching paths that reconvened and levers to unlock doors, which worked well in differentiating it from the prior stage. It also fared much better in the visual department by guiding the player through a twisted manor that would fit right in at a carnival dark ride, but the overly cramped feeling still remained.

The second level also offered a first listen at the game’s original hip hop soundtrack. I was instantly enamored with the beat of the song, but the vocals and lyrics were something of a blindside. It struck me as incredibly odd that I was listening to lyrics from the perspective of an ice cream man selling the confection and toppings with parts of human beings in it. The song was quick to transition to a more dreamy, poppy tune after that first verse as well, which furthered the surprise.

Although my gut reaction was one of bewilderment, the soundtrack started to click into place as I progressed through the level further. It’s certainly easy to see how the off-kilter nature of the song is in service to the trippy aesthetic that the levels themselves embrace, but it’ll be interesting to see what people have to say about the soundtrack if most of it is in this vein.

There were also a handful of unfortunate technical issues in spots of the demo for El Paso, Elsewhere. The worst of it was a single crash-to-desktop when the game tried to reload after my first death, but there were also a few moments of inexplicable stutter despite nothing much happening on-screen. The framerate was always quick to correct itself, and these issues are common in early builds of games, but they did put a damper on my enjoyment a bit.

Aside from these performance hiccups and a few overly cramped portions of level design, the demo for El Paso, Elsewhere largely impresses. It takes a strong first step with a glimpse at the undeniably stylish presentation and hard-boiled narration, but quickly backs it up with satisfying shooting and a solid implementation of slow motion mechanics.

It’s impossible to say if these successes will carry on as strongly in the game proper, but El Paso, Elsewhere’s demo shows off a strong foundation to support the deluge of vampire-slaying action.

Preview beta access provided by Strange Scaffold for PC. Screenshots taken by writer. Featured image courtesy of Strange Scaffold