There's no dancing around it: El Paso, Elsewhere, the new action game from Strange Scaffold, is an unabashed homage to the 2001 seminal pulp-noir action classic Max Payne. It's an obvious influence that writer, director, and voice actor Xalavier Nelson Jr. isn't shying away from, but is hoping to elevate for a modern audience. During my hands-on preview of the game, he told me, "I'm not interested in recreating Max Payne; I'm interested in seeing what Max Payne could be next." And for eclectic developer Strange Scaffold, that means a supernatural neo-noir blood-stained journey through a dimension-shifting motel to stop the world from being overrun by vampires.
You play as James Savage, a folklore researcher and drug addict on the hunt for his ex-girlfriend, Draculae, who has shacked up in a motel where she plans a ritual to destroy the world. That doesn't sound like your typical noir story, but all the pillars are there: a stoic and flawed protagonist spouting out fourth-wall-breaking quips in poetic prose; a femme fatale at the center of melodramatic plot of love, loss, and betrayal; and lots and lots of gun shells, violence, and substance abuse. "We're trying to adapt those pulp sensibilities for a modern audience," Xalavier told me, with an emphasis on shifting it into neo-noir.
I'm a hardcore fan of the first two Max Payne games, and if there's one thing El Paso, Elsewhere nailed, it's the familiar feel of its movement and shooting. The way James Savage was front-and-center in frame; the slightly elevated camera angle; and the flow and motion of his trenchcoat as I strafed through guns blazing--these are small details, but their subtle nuances were represented in a way that satisfied me as a Max Payne enthusiast. I sprinted through the halls of a maze-like motel that twisted and transformed around every corner, making it feel more like something out of an evolving nightmare. I followed a blood trail into a bathroom stall door that opened into a blood-soaked industrial kitchen. A hall transformed into a graveyard, bathed in green and purple neon lighting. I was able to explore these spaces while rolling, diving, and jumping through the air in slow-motion, firing off guns akimbo at werewolves and vampires to the pulsating beats of a horror hip-hop soundtrack. The controls were intuitive to me because of my intimacy with Max Payne; I knew if I hit the Tab key, I'd take painkillers to restore my health, or if I right-clicked, I'd go into a bullet-time dodge through the air.
Max Payne controls intuition aside, Strange Scaffold has added many more options for how to blast your way through the waves of monsters than its foundational inspiration. Rolling is fast and responsive, often acting as a reliable maneuver to make space between you and the hordes of vampires and werewolves; you can kick off a wall into a dive; and stake-based melee attack has a sweeping effect, one-hit-killing multiple enemies at once--at the expense of a wooden stake, which can be collected by breaking wooden furniture.
But for all the stylish combat moves, dual pistols, shotguns, and Uzis, El Paso, Elsewhere was pretty difficult. Unlike Max Payne, popping painkillers isn't an instantaneous heal, but instead brings the player to a slogging pace while James Savage pops back a pill. This forced me to rewire muscle memory, as I became overwhelmed by enemies very quickly, often getting trapped in corners while stuck in a healing animation. In fact, while it shares most of the same maneuvering as Max Payne, the enemy variety--which consisted of roaming vampire monsters, leaping werewolves, and angels launching homing attacks at me--conditioned me to play the game in a non-stop sprint of shooting and twisting through hallways desperate to collect ammo and find a break to take painkillers. It was difficult and resulted in many, many death screens that aptly read, "You keep going," and loaded me back into the level to blast my way through. The difficulty feels like something I could manage with more time with the game, but with the slice that I saw, it felt punishing due to a lack of resources in the midst of a constant sprint through a shape-shifting motel. Nelson Jr. did mention, however, that the difficulty-scaling is still being evaluated as the game continues production.
In that time, though, I saw glimpses of what could be a really satisfying id-like experience, tapping into a flowstate set to a horror hip-hop soundtrack written and performed by RJ Lake and the multifaceted Nelson Jr. There was a moment when rolling through a cemetery, shooting monsters to energetic rap beats and flowing rhymes made me feel super cool. It was just seldom when I was able to hit that state.
Between levels of vibrant colors and the strobing flares from guns firing in the dark spooky halls of a motel, I also got a look at some of the game's fully acted cutscenes, featuring a grizzled hard-boiled noir archetypal voiced by none other than Nelson Jr. The 25-year-old game developer is bearing a lot on his shoulders in this game, and not just as studio head of Strange Scaffold and creative lead on El Paso, Elsewhere, but in the depiction of character James Savage himself. "This is the largest writing and acting challenge of my career thus far," he said. And when asked about depicting the role of a drug addict, he responded, "I had to sit back and reflect, 'Is this just another Black guy with an addiction? Is this an archetype I'm fulfilling?'"
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Strange Scaffold isn’t a stranger to taking liberties in its art-collective-like approach to design, pulling developers from all corners in the indie scene to construct off-kilter experiences like An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs or Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator, but tackling a Black protagonist with a drug abuse problem is new territory for the developer. "We can't afford to not be precise. We need to do it right, and uphold it," he explained.
It's a sentiment that can be heard in the dialogue of El Paso, Elsewhere. A mantra that rings true to the studio's preceding outings in the medium: "So let's take it from the top, like a jazz standard, played in our own time, as loud as we dare," all of which is intersected with the sounds of guns being loaded, and hammers being cocked. It feels like Strange Scaffold is playing to the beat of its own gunfire with El Paso, Elsewhere. We'll have to wait and see how it all jams out when it releases in Fall 2023 for PC and Xbox Series X|S.
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