El Paso, Elsewhere – A Southern Gothic Masterclass

Southern gothic is a genre that has firmly established itself as a staple in literature, and the movie industry has produced its fair share of entries into the genre as well. Within the medium of video games, it looks a little different though. Not that there aren’t any southern gothic games. Last year we had the fantastic Norco (2022) and earlier this year Microsoft announced the upcoming South of Midnight (Date to be confirmed), but while in other forms of storytelling like literature, it’s hard to imagine a world without the works of southern gothic, with video games you wouldn’t lose much.

El Paso, Elsewhere doesn’t sell itself as a southern gothic video game. According to its description, it’s a supernatural neo-noir third-person shooter. And while that description isn’t accurate, while playing the new game from developer/publisher Strange Scaffold I couldn’t stop thinking about the southern gothic genre.

Nothing unusual about this motel… wait where did the ceiling go?

It starts with the location. A shabby motel in the middle of nowhere surrounded by nothing but endless desert and the blackness of the night. But don’t go thinking this is a run of the mill motel. It’s being overtaken by the void, thanks to your lovely ex Draculae. Pretty much anything is possible here as the reality shifts around you, ignoring any constraints reality might have once had on it.

Once you’re there, walk into the elevator. You’re on the first floor. Deal with the vampires, werewolves, angels… the void throws everything at you. Go back to the elevator. The next floor. Get rid of the monsters that stand in your way. Stop this madness. The elevator is waiting for you. Another floor. Swallow some pills while you’re at it. They’ll make you feel better. More bloody beasts. But you’ll outlast them all. How many more floors to go?

You can always go further down

But you’re not just here to kill. Save the inhabitants of the motel, corrupted by the void. They have nothing to do with this and they don’t deserve any of it. As you free them from their chains, they exclaim ordinary thank yous and ecstatically proclaim their regained freedom. Until one of them looks and you simply asks “But who will save you?”, and you don’t have an answer. Because that’s just the kind of person you are. A tormented soul punished for overlooking the misdemeanors of a loved one that seem so obviously troubling now. You came here to put an end to this chaos, to deal with Draculae, the ex that you held onto so dearly. And you came here knowing it would be a one-way trip.

I expected many things out of El Paso, Elsewhere. Exciting gameplay, gorgeous art direction, an atmosphere that grabs onto you and won’t let you go. And I got all of that, and I will be talking about it in a second, but what I didn’t expect was writing at this high of a level. It’s astonishing the kind of story El Paso, Elsewhere is able to tell in between all the high-octane action and stylish visual eccentricities.

I’m still not really sure what’s going on here, but it looks amazing

It starts out fairly basic. A hard-boiled man with nothing to lose against an army of darkness. He will do whatever he can to get his revenge, even if it means having to kill one monster after the other. But even with those simple beginnings of a story that could be any generic action movie or wannabe edgy noir thriller, the dialogue stood out immediately. The character has a way of talking that’s both so blunt and yet perplexingly poetic. The most simple things are described in a manner that’s truly awe-inspiring. The kind of descriptions you would find in a southern gothic novel. This also comes in part from the fantastic voice performances present in El Paso, Elsewhere. Particularly, Xalavier Nelson Jr. further elevates the fantastic writing by lending the lead character a grounded stoicness that starts to crack and shows glimpses of his wounded emotional self as the story progresses. 

But then the story continues and as he slowly descends floor after floor, more layers are unearthed. And an emotional core reveals itself that I never would’ve expected from a game that initially seemed like it would leave most of the talking to guns. I feel giving away too much here could potentially ruin the experience, so I’ll leave it at this: El Paso, Elsewhere presents an abusive relationship with so much sincerity that I was genuinely close to tears when it reached its emotional climax.

Oh James… you poor guy

The only problem – and this will be one of the very few complaints I have – is that the emotional climax comes a bit too early. There are still hours of game left after it, but it feels like we have already peaked in what the story is presenting to us, leaving the player in a state of emotional limbo waiting for the final confrontation that feels like it should be right around the corner. All of this messes up the pacing towards the latter half a bit and is the main thing that keeps El Paso, Elsewhere from being essentially a perfect game for me.

On the gameplay side of things, El Paso, Elsewhere is what it says on the box. A third-person shooter delivering on that classic adrenaline-fueled rampage the best of the classics in the genre are known for. In particular, Max Payne (2001) seems to have been an inspiration, as – in addition to all the standard moves – you can perform a dive in El Paso, Elsewhere that activates bullet time, slowing down time and allowing you to hit those headshots and killing the opposition before they even know what happened.

Like a true action hero

At first I was concerned El Paso, Elsewhere might be too easy. I had little to no problems getting through the beginning hour or two of the game, barely even touching health replenishing pills you can collect throughout the levels. But as you clear floor after floor, add weapon after weapon to your arsenal, and get introduced to enemy type after enemy type, the game drastically increases in complexity. There are no systems forcing you to use certain weapons against certain enemies, no special kind of armour system or anything like it. But you’ll quickly realize that you might want to use a shotgun for werewolves that lunge at you, while you may prefer switching to the rifle to deal with the angels shooting at you from high above the sky. Even by the end, El Paso, Elsewhere isn’t the most difficult game you’ll ever play, but it’s far from being a pushover either.

Another outstanding aspect of El Paso, Elsewhere is its art direction. The reality-shifting motel is a stunner to look at from the very beginning. The missing ceiling never lets you forget that you left behind reality long ago, forcing you to stare at the endless vastness of nothing that surrounds this liminal space floating in the void. The only thing breaking up this landscape of emptiness are the beaming pillars of light shooting towards the sky, as a reminder of the innocent souls you still have to save on any given floor in an attempt to attain salvation. But it’s not just the space – or lack thereof – outside of the motel that’s interesting to look at. The interior of it is even more stunning. Endless corridors that will do as they please, following no logic or reason beyond guiding you towards the deepest depths of… whatever this is. Bright neon lights illuminating the dark spaces in colourful shimmers that could fool you into thinking this isn’t the most foul place on earth, if you’re even still on earth. Fog spreading through the halls obscuring your view, which may just be for the better. The atmosphere this place gives is unbelievable.

Yeah… I think it’s time to leave

The only thing missing to pull it all together is an equally enticing soundtrack, and naturally, El Paso, Elsewhere delivers here as well. The soundtrack is essentially a hip-hop album, with hard-hitting production that gets the adrenaline pumping. Songs of other genres are mixed in as well; techno and jazz in particular. It’s loud and flashy when the game asks for it, but can also blend into the background when needed. It’s the perfect companion piece to the stylish visuals of the game that was tuned to accompany the action at any given moment perfectly.

If it weren’t for some light missteps in its pacing, and an emotional climax that it hits halfway through and can never quite reach again, El Paso, Elsewhere would make for what I might just consider a perfect game. As it is, it’s still a damn good game though, and one of the highlights of the year for me in a very strong year for gaming.

Nairon played El Paso, Elsewhere on PC with a review key. El Paso, Elsewhere is also available on Xbox One, Xbox Series, Playstation 4, and Playstation 5.

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