‘Pacific Drive’ review: A frustrating treat of a game
13 mins read

‘Pacific Drive’ review: A frustrating treat of a game


Ironwood Studios’ debut game Pacific Drive is oddly relatable. Beyond the weird, surreal environments and its ominous horror elements, I finally understood what it meant to be that one friend constantly working on his car.

This shit-heap jalopy has a new problem every week and you just want to scrap the damn thing — but you can’t. Cause you love her and she’ll reward that love in her own, special kind of way. You’re linked through thick and thin — and maybe, just maybe — you’ll get her working like brand-new.

That’s the feeling I get while playing Pacific Drive, a roguelike, survival caRPG. Through my almost 14 hours of the main campaign and in its open world, I felt deeply connected and extremely frustrated with the world that Ironwood Studios’ crafted for players. It’s not for everyone, but if you give it time, I swear you’ll come out a believer. At the very least, you’ll have a new love and appreciation for your car.

Highway to hell

A red light sits at the center of an image surrounded by floating storage lockers

That looks scary. Let’s drive straight into it.
Credit: Ironwood Studios

Pacific Drive is set during the late 1990s in a sectioned-off portion of the Pacific Northwest called the Olympic Exclusion Zone. “The Zone,” as it’s referred to by characters in-game, has been walled off for decades due to shady government science activities. You play an unwitting, mute delivery driver who’s been mysteriously sucked in. Your only hope for survival (and escape) is a beat-down station wagon that has supernaturally linked itself to you and will slowly drive you insane the longer you’re linked.

To escape, you’ll go on runs through The Zone collecting materials and resources that help you upgrade your car and the garage that serves as your home base. Along the way, you’ll encounter anomalies that hinder your progress by either destroying your car or stealing your stuff.

It’s a simple enough gameplay loop that has you venturing forth into its haunting, atmospheric forests and swamps, grabbing materials and avoiding hazards, and then teleporting your way back through “gateways” to the garage.

Pacific Drive strongly encourages exploration and avoiding the main campaign: 1) so you play more of the game and 2) because you need to. Your car is the star of the show and needs constant upkeep to drive you to your next objective. Beyond changing flat or loose tires, everything on the car needs to be maintained, including the panels, doors, engine, battery, headlights, and bumpers.

On top of that, the more time you spend on each run, your car will develop “quirks” that create minor inconveniences like having your wipers turn on if you swerve too hard to the right or the radio breaking the fuel gauge. These quirks will stack on top of each other if you don’t do anything about them. To fix them you have to go to the tinker box — a DDOS-like computer where you “if this, then that” different problems until you solve them. For example: Car > turns left > wipers > toggle > Correct, here’s the solution.

It’s an evil exercise in patience, and even though the game has you drive from A to B, the stops and starts in between the entrance and exits of the map are where the real fun is to be had. Everything will break on you, and if it isn’t, it’s slowly wearing down as each piece of the car develops a status condition such as “weary” or “fragile” that you’ll need to fix as each zone is horribly irradiated. Your car is the only thing keeping you from turning into the Incredible Hulk. You’re gonna love this car, whether you like it or not, and that relationship is the central focus of the game.

Stalker meets Outer Wilds

Intererior view of a car while it's raining outside

This isn’t your everyday darkness, it’s advanced darkness.
Credit: Ironwood Studios

For starters, there is a plot, but it’s barebones and only exists to get you from point A to B. As “The Driver,” you’re helped along by shady scientists still living in The Zone – the exhaustingingly blunt Dr. Oppy and the folklore duo of Francis and Tobias. They’re well-acted characters, with the three endlessly bickering with each other while you silently guide yourself to the next objective they put on your map. You, as the player, have no agency within the plot – and that’s okay cause I’m not playing the game for the plot.

Lore-wise, Pacific Drive shares a lot of elements of other “secret government agency gone wrong” games like Control or Half-Life — overzealous mad scientists, paranormal creatures run amok, and mundane stories of employees dealing with low pay and government bureaucracy (join a union, y’all). What you see is what you get because the real stories are made in the Zone as you drive yourself insane dealing with anomalies.

The anomalies are unknown phenomena and creatures that inhabit The Zone and will be the main roadblock between you and your objectives (that and the lack of sunlight, this game is very dark). Anomalies include everything from gas clouds of radiation to UFOs or the mannequins that explode if you touch them. This also includes environmental hazards from pools of acid that can melt your car or large chunks of the road that’ll explode out of the ground, lifting you with it. You can deal with these pests by scanning them. Through in-universe notes, your logbook tells you how to deal with them. But a general rule of thumb with most anomalies is don’t touch them.

Roadside picnic

If that wasn’t enough for you, each area you enter is randomly generated and comes with a new set of map conditions each time. For example, one map will have a fuel evaporation condition that slowly sucks fuel out of your car or another will call in a storm shortly after you arrive, forcing you to be timely about your resource gathering lest you be stuck in the wide sweep of radiation that will either kill you or destroy your car — whichever comes first.

There are also the natural hazards of each map with boulders and construction signs littered along the road that you can ram into if you’re not paying attention.

Interior view of car that is looking at metal tower shoot lightning

Don’t touch that.
Credit: Ironwood Studios

Your baby is gonna get beat up throughout each run and you can feel every bit of it. The way the car slips and slides, how it grips the terrain, whether on the road or rough hills and through water, the game expertly crafts the feeling of driving this hoopty through hell and high water. And you’ll feel every bit of frustration when, for example, all four of your very hard-to-make off-road tires go flat in an area that is raining acid. So now, on the four spare tires you had to craft in the back of your van, you must frantically drive to a gateway (unless you want to get caught in “the storm”) and pray that your shitmobile doesn’t explode during the ride.

It’s moments like that that are juxtaposed with the more quiet moments in the garage where the real test of patience begins as you have asses how to go about fixing the car. There were many times throughout my playthrough that I stopped playing because the thought of having to tear apart, fix, seal, craft, and replace almost everything on the car exhausted me. It created an odd, repetitive routine for me that involved parking, refueling, recharging the battery, finding and purchasing new upgrades, and fixing the car. The controls don’t help much with most interactions, requiring a hold or a tap, but it’s never clear which is which. (It also didn’t help that during my early access with the game, the developers updated it and the UI and button mapping I got used to the past week suddenly changed overnight).

It was serene and also my least favorite part of the game. This gets better in the latter parts of the game as you turn your car into a mini-light armored vehicle. It also doesn’t make the game any worse but it does lead to frustrating moments of “what can I afford to fix” and praying that you can find what you need on your next run.

A chainsaw is used to scrap a car

You gotts scrap to survive around here.
Credit: Ironwood Studios

In The Zone

Speaking of looking for resources, the entire map is split into three zones: The Outer-Zone, the Mid-Zone, and the Deep-Zone. The former is the most Pacific Northwest-esque part of the game, with maps in this area covered in rich forests and where you’ll find most of the electric-based anomalies. The Mid-Zone is a fucking swamp and I hate swamps. It’s also where you’ll find most of the important mid-game resources to build things like a new engine, or better tires, so I just had to suck it up and wade into the irradiated waters while avoiding the exhausting variation of anomalies that shoot acid at you.

The final zone, the Deep Zone, is a barren wasteland that serves as the final evolution of everything you dealt with so far — especially if you love giant blocks of concrete that fall from the sky while you’re driving (I’m a big fan).

Each area gives off an air of impending doom as looming over you is a giant concrete wall. There’s a 24-hour weather cycle, but most of the time the areas are just dark, even during the day. It’s like that episode of Spongebob where he’s stuck in Rock Bottom. This isn’t your everyday darkness; it’s advanced darkness. And at no point in the game does anyone tell you to build a flashlight; you just have to do it.

The game heavily relies on player experimentation, to its detriment at times, like hindering progress with some upgrades until you scan a very specific anomaly (the game does not let you scan objects in your car, unfortunately). But it does lead to cathartic, brainblast moments, where, when dealing with a shortage of chemicals needed to make repair putty, I discovered that breaking down cosmetic paints will give you chemicals. This leads me down a rabbit hole of figuring out which resources can be converted into certain raw materials. However, much of the progression made during the game is built upon the risk/reward of what you’re willing to put your car through to find certain resources around the map.

You can also help upgrade your car by collecting arcs on each map. These are powerful sources of energy that keep the area around you stable and removing them will unleash hell. Along with upgrades, collecting Arcs around the map is how you generate sufficient energy to create gateways to escape back to the garage. Once there, you can use the amount of energy collected from each arc at the fabrication station that’ll allow you to craft car upgrades like better engines, better protection for your car, or upgrade work stations around the garage like a matter converter that’ll repair parts while you’re away on runs.

In the end, Pacific Drive is a game for masochists who enjoy being tortured, and honestly, it’s the most fun I’ve had with a game since Alan Wake 2. There’s a sort of sadistic thrill in the relationship between me and my decomposing rust bucket of a car every time I leave the garage — and that’s one of the game’s biggest strengths.

What I thought was a neat survival horror game turned out to be a deeply, complex survival game that, at times, felt like I was in hell, and endlessly fixing this car was my punishment. And for just $30, it’s the best punishment one could ask for in the afterlife.





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