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Home Road Trip ‘Pacific Drive’ Review: Unique Survival Horror Driving Sim Takes You On a Road Trip from Hell

‘Pacific Drive’ Review: Unique Survival Horror Driving Sim Takes You On a Road Trip from Hell

by Staff

Since time immemorial, storytellers have been fascinated by the near-supernatural connection between people and their trusty vehicles. At first, it was just with horses and their wheeled extensions, but the rise of the automobile and the freedom that it appeared to represent soon led us to bond with inanimate objects – and our stories adjusted accordingly. And yet, with the exception of certain racing simulators, few video games dare to focus on the more esoteric side of owning and maintaining a beloved vehicle.

This is what initially attracted me to Ironwood Studios’ Pacific Drive, a survival-horror driving sim that puts players behind the wheel of a quirky station wagon stranded in a supernaturally-afflicted version of 1990s Cascadia. And while traversing a wasteland from the inside of a customizable vehicle isn’t exactly a novel idea (we’ve seen commendable attempts in the past, such as 2015’s Mad Max and even Bend Studios’ Days Gone), it’s never been the central game mechanic quite like this before.

Taking place in an alternate history where a huge chunk of the Pacific Northwest has been sectioned off after a high-tech accident disturbed the fabric of reality, Pacific Drive is a strange roguelite that sees players dealing with radioactive storms, sentient dumpsters and other dangerous anomalies as the unnamed protagonist becomes supernaturally bonded to a mysterious vehicle and attempts to escape what is now called “The Olympic Exclusion Zone.”

In gameplay terms, this means gearing up at your garage and stocking up on tools in order to set out on unpredictable expeditions into the unknown. Once out in the open, players will then have to navigate hostile terrain while conducting missions for unseen scientists that keep in touch via one-way radio – all while making sure that their car is in good enough shape to survive the trip home.

On the road again…

Taking cues from games like Subnautica and Death Stranding, Ironwood’s title combines in-depth crafting with traversal mechanics that make the landscape itself your greatest enemy. Of course, the real star of the show here is your charming (if somewhat cursed) station wagon. It may start out as a barely functional heap of junk, but with enough care and resources, players will soon see it transform into a death-proof cruiser that would make the Ecto-1 jealous.

It takes a while for everything to click into place, as the wagon initially can’t even handle a simple off-road stroll and you’re limited to basic upgrades, but by collecting enough scrap and everyday items, you slowly accumulate resources and blueprints that can improve your vehicle and garage. Once you’re finally protected enough to start exploring at your own leisure, you’ll soon find that hours have gone by as you’ve become lost in an incredibly addicting gameplay loop where you set out on expeditions to gather more parts so you can set out on longer expeditions to gather even better parts.

It’s not just the mechanics that suck you in, however. From the heavily stylized recreation of the Pacific Northwest wilderness to the moody radio that keeps you company as you travel on lonely roads, it’s really easy to engage with this interactive master-class in atmosphere despite the general lack of traditional action. With indie rock blasting on the radio as raindrops wash over the cracked windshield on an eerily dark night, players will soon imagine themselves as a sleep-deprived delivery driver at the edge of the world, which is a lot more fun than it sounds on paper.

Unfortunately, this near-perfect balance of mechanics and immersion isn’t exactly a consistent experience. Small issues like the lack of interactive elements in the environment (you can only ever search the same handful of recurring containers) and the occasional unfair RNG add up over time – especially after hours of repetitive missions and same-y locations. That’s not even mentioning the bugs, which range from cute to game-breaking depending on your luck.

While most of the overall jank can be traced back to the game’s less-than-AAA origins – and some amount of repetition is to be expected in a crafting-driven roguelite – the lack of combat and a satisfying narrative means that your enjoyment of the experience will mostly depend on how willing you are to give yourself over to the title’s excellent ambience.

I don’t think the insurance will cover this.

This also extends to the game’s horror elements. While there are some legitimately spooky moments as you drive down supernaturally darkened roads littered with unexplainable phenomena, the lack of proper monsters or any other kind of tangible enemy means that, despite the masterful build-up, there are no real scares to be had here.

In fact, the story elements in general mostly exist to justify gameplay contrivances or serve as a cool backdrop while you explore. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the banter between Oppy and the other isolated scientists as they attempt to help the player (or the SCP-styled anomalies that populate this world), but it’s pretty clear that this aspect of the game didn’t receive the same amount of love and attention as the rest of the adventure.

Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed my time roaming the back roads of the Olympic Exclusion Zone and grew extremely attached to my pimped out ride. That being said, I often had the feeling that the experience was more of a polished proof of concept rather than a complete package, which is something to think about if you’re planning on purchasing the game for its launch price.

Of course, it’s often said that the greatest thing a work of art can do is leave you wanting more, and that is certainly the case with Pacific Drive. While I’d love to see these mechanics expanded on in the future, and more action-oriented players are likely to become bored with the down-to-earth gameplay, I still think that Ironwood’s debut effort is a journey worth taking despite a handful of potholes along the way.

4 out of 5 skulls

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