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Max Payne + Creepy PS1 Vibes = One Of The Best Shooters Of 2023

A single good memory can often be enough to convince (or trick) us into ignoring pain, suffering, fear, and sadness. And when that single, solitary good memory is connected to someone you love, it’s almost impossible to rip yourself away from that pocket of happiness and face reality. It’s even more complicated when the person you love is The Lord of Vampires who must be stopped in order to save the world.

You Might Have Missed 2023's Coolest Shooter

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El Paso, Elsewhere is a third-person shooter with PS1-inspired visuals and combat directly lifted from Max Payne 1 and 2. You play as folklore expert, monster killer, and recovering drug addict James Savage. He’s returned to his hometown of El Paso, Texas to kill Draculae, his ex-girlfriend who just also happens to be a powerful vampire in the midst of a complex and dangerous ritual that’s bending reality itself. Her end goal: to destroy the world, something she’s always wanted to do. It’s up to Savage and you—literally you, the folklore expert frequently breaks the fourth wall—to grab some guns, extra bullets, and a lot of pain pills to fight your way through over 40 levels built by the supernatural void Draculae has created. By the end of this neo-noir shooter you’ll not only be fighting to save the planet, but also to get closure after a toxic relationship.

But let’s not get too bogged down in the narrative and themes just yet. I’ll talk about that more in a moment. Instead, I want to praise the meat and potatoes of El Paso, Elsewhere: its exceptional, fast-paced, and snappy combat. Because even a good script and thoughtful performances won’t matter much if the rest of the game isn’t worth playing.

Killing angels with a shotgun

Within the first few minutes of El Paso, Elsewhere it’s clear that this game is pulling heavily from 2001’s third-person noir-drenched shooter Max Payne—specifically the first two games. Savage is a character capable of shoot-dodging and activating bullet time, which lets him slow down reality and take out hordes of enemies just like Max Payne himself. You’ll spend a lot of time in El Paso, Elsewhere leaping across rooms in slow motion while blasting away vampires, werewolves, and other creepy creatures.

Over the eight hours or so it took me to finish the game, I never got bored or tired of taking down crowds of monsters using bullet time. And unlike Max Payne 3, there is no cover-based shooting in El Paso, Elsewhere. James Savage is all about running and gunning until everything in the level is dead, meaning the action is fast and you are always moving forward.

A good shooter is made up of many things, but two of the most important aspects are the guns and the enemies— El Paso, Elsewhere nails both. In your journey to stop Draculae’s ritual, you’ll discover about half a dozen firearms, with each one serving a specific purpose in the game’s combat loop. You start with dual handguns which are precise and fast, later you find a heavy and powerful shotgun that can send werewolves spinning off into the void with each shot, while a light but snappy assault rifle can clear rooms at a distance. And near the game’s final levels, a grenade launcher can become a problem solver when rooms get too crowded.

Each weapon feels different and none seem to be a one-size-fits-all-solution. Yeah, the shotgun can kill many enemies with a single shot, but it takes a long time to reload and has little range. Each weapon has these little trade offs, forcing you to swap frequently to stay alive.

Helping to balance the weapons is the roster of monsters and strange creatures you’ll find lurking in the game’s various levels. You aren’t fighting random henchmen with pistols or snipers. Instead, El Paso, Elsewhere’s baddies are all supernatural beings like werewolves, mummified vampires, biblically accurate angels, creepy puppet masters, and other nasty things I won’t spoil here.

Each of these enemies fills a specific role during combat. Puppetmasters flood the battlefield with annoying little puppets, werewolves hide and ambush you at the worst time, and angels bombard you with powerful attacks from above. And the way El Paso, Elsewhere’s handmade levels and combat encounters mix up these enemies is key to its combat feeling so good.

Each encounter is like gunfight chess, as you have to ensure you pick the right weapon for the right fight and take out specific enemies first. And instead of making enemies bullet sponges to increase the difficulty, El Paso, Elsewhere relies on how it mixes these creatures up to create more challenging combat situations later in the game.

Don’t worry, if the action gets too hard there are some thoughtful difficulty options that, among other settings, let you lower how much damage you take or how many pain pills—used to heal your character—you can carry.

The result of all this careful balancing and design is one of the best shooters I’ve played in 2023, one that stands toe-to-toe with Max Payne and Control.

Do you have a good reason for all this violence?

Placed between all the fantastic shooting and monster killing are short, stylish cutscenes that tell the story of a broken man trying to save the world while also trying to confront someone he loves who hurt him badly. Throughout El Paso, Elsewhere, we learn more about its main characters and its world through cutscenes, hidden-away projectors, audio recordings, and internal monologues. James Savage talks a lot in the game, providing insight into who he is, why he’s doing this, and what he wants. And like Max Payne, he loves a good metaphor or self-deprecating remark.

I also loved the little bits of outside media that creep into the void, like demented podcasts about serial killers, twisted ads about creepy people, and random voice messages from unsettling callers. There’s even a radio drama you can listen to that is clearly based on Max Payne, as if this game wasn’t clear enough about its influences.

If the writing was poor and the voice acting sloppy, I’d probably be annoyed by all the chatter and extra bits of lore. But instead, I wanted more of it and would search through levels looking for anything I might have missed.

By the end of the game, I wasn’t just rooting for James to save the world, I was also excited to see him finally get some closure and move forward after all he went through. El Paso, Elsewhere might be a shooter, sure. And a damn fine one, too. But it’s also a game that explains how monsters come in many forms and people can hurt you without laying a single hand on you.

I don’t want to ruin the entire narrative or its ending, as I think it’s worth experiencing unspoiled, though I will provide a content warning. If you are someone who has been in an abusive relationship, moments in El Paso, Elsewhere may hit too close to home. Take care of yourselves, folks.

The really impressive part about El Paso, Elsewhere is that it manages to balance its dark and heavy narrative with over-the-top combat and shooting. Neither ruin nor distract from the other, but instead combine to create something only a video game can provide.

As Savage struggles to come to terms with what Draculae did to him and what she is, the game gets harder. As he pushes forward and stumbles, we get to help him through hallways of werewolves and painful memories of what once was and will never be again; help him shovel a few more pills into his mouth so he can save a few more innocent people.

At times, El Paso, Elsewhere feels like a long-lost Remedy game—the devs behind Control and Alan Wake—and that’s definitely intentional.

If you told me this was a proto-Max Payne, something made by the studio before it went off and did its other games, I’d buy it. It’s that good and feels that uniquely earnest in a way Remedy games often do.

El Paso, Elsewhere is both a badass shooter and a study of how people handle toxic relationships. It walks that tightrope and sticks the landing so strongly that I ended the game and immediately wanted to play it again. And I probably will, because James needs me to help him once again save himself and the world.

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