I can't decide if Elo Hell is so bad it's good, or if it's just really, really bad.
If nothing else, Elo Hell is certainly unique. The game bills itself as a narrative sitcom about a group of high school MOBA fans, featuring the bespectacled Chance Betzinger, Jeff, Lizzy, and Brian, who doesn't give a shit about games in the slightest but still hangs out with the trio for some unknown reason, including going with them to midnight video game launches.
That's where the game starts, with the four of you waiting in line to play Echo Star, the game that becomes the centrepiece of their friendship. You'll be introduced to Echo Star later, but what the game is really about is some of the most painful dialogue and voice-acting I've endured in years.
What the hell is happening with Chance's neck?
What makes some of it so difficult to endure is Jeff, a painfully obnoxious British kid who's since relocated to the United States. The voice-over is almost amazing in just how frustrating a character he is. Jeff has absolutely no self-awareness, he's the biggest braggart despite being the worst player in the group, and his social awkwardness makes every scene he's in an utter torment.
Chance, the main player character, isn't much better. You're always choosing Chance's replies, however, so there's a chance to avoid some of the worst dialogue. But Echo Star also puts you into scenarios where every option sucks. In the first act, Chance and co. meet a budding professional cosplayer called Amy. After dodging the choice of whether or not to flirt, Chance then asks Amy if she's planning to play Echo Star, when she's standing in a queue for the game's midnight launch.
The least-worst option of the lot involved asking whether Amy was any good — at a game that hasn't launched yet, a point she quietly makes soon after.
So when Elo Hell describes itself as a "sitcom" narrative, this is really what you're in for. It's a series of awkward scenarios with dialogue choices and even Telltale-style "your reputation has changed" prompts, although I couldn't see anything in the first episode where the dialogue actually affected anything.
For the most part, it's just an awkward ride. Take this encounter later in the first episode, where Chance and Jeff are ogling Lizzy's choice of gamer chair:
Or Jeff giving Chance shit because he hasn't paid attention to gamer chairs before:
The gamer chair even has its own Yakuza-style introduction.
Amazingly, the chair is the source of one of the game's better moments. After enduring a 20 minute tutorial on the basics of Echo Star, which has been completely reworked from the MOBA-style game that first featured in Elo Hell when it hit Steam last year, you're introduced to a little butt-mini game.
You see, your chair is so old, so hard, and so painful, that you have to occasionally switch from one butt cheek to another so you don't get numb. And while you're using the left and right arrows (or left and right click), you also have to play a small Guitar Hero-style mini-game, while the game pumps out lines like "Asstounding", "Bottoms Up", "Glute" and "Cheeky".
However you do in this scenario — and it doesn't seem to really matter — you're then launched into one of the latest title cards, featuring the custom theme song. Words cannot do it justice.
The mini-games are actually surprisingly entertaining. There's another one towards the end where you have to race Lizzie at making pizza, with your uncle giving the best chef the grand prize of a job at the family restaurant (which you need so you can save money to buy that gaming chair).
What drags all of it down is Echo Star, the in-game lane-based RTS that's genuinely painful. You queue up items, and the game progresses forward either turn-by-turn, whenever the next unit is built, whenever a building becomes idle, or until your build queue is completely empty. It's basically a mini Starcraft with two Terran factions, although the game quickly devolves into just pumping out as many units as possible until everything ends.
What really hurts Echo Star is the pacing. The turn-based nature gives the game a stutter-like motion, making it feel like the entire game is permanently lagged. It's the biggest drag on Elo Hell, because it's dull. The narrative sitcom sequences are cringey as hell with some truly awful dialogue, but that's also the appeal.
It's watchable in the same reason people love bad reality TV: humans love watching a train wreck. Echo Star doesn't have that: it's slowly paced, strategically uninspired, and takes far too much time for what it is. Winning or losing doesn't appear to have any tangible effect on how the story pans out either, although the tracking of Chance's rank on the main menu screen indicates that the developers do have some kind of plan for your performance to matter in future episodes.
But the game would have been better served leaning completely into the narrative dialogue, the same way Don't Forget Our Esports Dream incorporated Starcraft decision making into a visual novel. That would have been a useful way of leveraging Chance and Jeff's shitty decision making too, instead of requiring a horrific 20 minute tutorial complete with Jeff pretending to be a benevolent god and making jokes about sitting back and letting gameplay happen.
So it's safe to say, there's really nothing quite like Elo Hell on Steam right now. I don't know if that's a good thing, but it's certainly a thing, and definitely one of the most memorable games I've played this year.
It's also one of the worst and the most cringey. But better to be memorable than average, right? Elo Hell is out on Steam now for $28.95, and comes with the original prologue and the first episode. The second, An Otter Day an Otter Dollar, is due to be released soon.