Pacific Drive Review: A Supernatural Adventure Behind The Wheel

One of our most anticipated releases of the year, Pacific Drive is a unique take on the survival genre where your car is your only companion. In this first-person driving survival game, the player gets trapped in an abandoned research site known as the Olympic Exclusion Zone. Survive supernatural dangers, upgrade your ol’ station wagon, and unravel the mystery behind this unpredictable, hostile environment.

Pacific Drive is the debut title from Ironwood Studios, a Seattle-based indie games studio focused on creating games set in rich and surreal worlds. They have a special focus on gameplay systems that inspire players to tell their own stories, as the systems and player collaborate to create unexpected and personal experiences. We’re glad to report that the game fulfills on this promise, and more.

Developed by: Ironwood Studios

Played on: Steam

Length: 35 hours

No risk, no reward

When Pacific Drive released in late-February, we were more than excited to hit the gas immediately — but first time players be warned, this game has a lot going on. It isn’t just its eerie supernatural setting, or the life-threatening dangers that inspire paranoia around every corner, the game has a ton of a mechanics and a steep learning curve to match.

Pacific Drive is split into two essential parts: The abandoned garage that acts as your home base, and the unforgiving landscapes of the Olympic Exclusion Zone. Its core gameplay is expedition-based, where you venture into the supernatural wilderness to gather precious resources, then regroup back at your garage to repair and upgrade your car.

For the first few expeditions, expect to fail constantly and painfully. Pacific Drive prefers a “trial by fire” method of teaching the player its mechanics, which feels equal parts refreshing and frustrating. In my playthrough, I found myself hitting roadblocks then finding ways to overcome them, allowing me to comfortably expand my knowledge as I progressed; while avoiding the trap of otherwise endless exposition at the top of the game.

With its open-ended map system, the game also allows you the freedom to progress at your own pace. Play it safe and accumulate upgrades before progressing to tougher terrains, or head straight for the main quest and troubleshoot on the go. Just bear in mind that when you fail an expedition, your station wagon takes a devastating hit and you lose all the resources you gathered on your trip.

Roguelite roadrunner

At its core, Pacific Drive is a roguelite survival experience. As you progress in the game, each expedition will take longer and take you further away from your home base. Prepping for each run becomes the most crucial — and initially overwhelming — part of gameplay with a plethora of upgrades and repairs waiting for you at the garage.

Some of the most unique gameplay elements are found in the garage, including the Tinker Station where you can diagnose vehicle quirks. These are randomly spawned “flaws” that can appear at any time throughout your journey. Sometimes they can be helpful, like a closed door that improves fuel consumption, and sometimes they’re downright annoying, like a radio that turns on every time you accelerate.

In my own playthrough, I was also a big fan of the Matter Regenerator which “heals” your car parts while you’re away from the garage and saves you plenty of resources in the early game. That’s only touching the tip of the iceberg with garage upgrades, and the game provides more than enough resources for you to unlock and try all of them.

But even the most well-prepared driver may be dealt a bad hand on the road. Each run features different road layouts, anomalies, and weather conditions even if you return to the exact same locations. If you’re a completionist like me, this gives the game a near-endless amount of replayability.

Although the game is challenging, it isn’t completely unforgiving. There are autosaves between maps on multi-leg journeys, and the game allows you to go back and recover any resources you lost on previous runs. However, it’s still not recommended to take unnecessary risks as you still have to spend extra resources to outfit your car with full defenses all over again.

A tribute to retro sci-fi

Gameplay aside, Pacific Drive boasts an intriguing sci-fi mystery that you experience through incredible voice acting by Tara Langella (Ophelia “Oppy” Turner), Jeff Wong (Tobias Barlow), and Michael Turner (Francis Cooke) who play our main NPCs. Paired with eerie sound mixing and excellent lighting design, the game will have you questioning whether it should be labelled a horror game after all.

Pacific Drive also features a prominent retro aesthetic that appears in everything from its UI UX design to its original music score. I especially loved seeing it translate to the game’s driving mechanics, which required players to manually shift their car into park, toggle their headlights, and even turn their “head” to check the map. Having to manage all those factors manually while on the road added even more tension to an already thrilling game.

For those who are worried about motion sickness, you can toggle one of the many accessibility features including reduced head and weapon bobbing, and fading to black when getting in and out of the car. Being a chronic motion sickness victim myself, I found myself having no issues after turning off selected features.

However, one of the best parts of the game didn’t happen in-game at all. While I was playing Pacific Drive, I managed to play in tandem with some friends and had a great time comparing notes and sharing unique moments that happened to me in-game. It’s a special thing for a studio to achieve, and we hope to see more of that special sauce in Ironwood Studios’ future titles.

Verdict: A must-play even if you hate driving

Pacific Drive is a smooth drive wrapped in the nostalgic exterior of a station wagon. It draws you in at first with its unique concept and loving tribute to retro sci-fi, but what keeps you on the road is its incredibly thrilling and satisfying survival gameplay. The game may have a steeper-than-average learning curve at first, but its intuitive game design and intriguing world building will make it impossible to keep your hands off the wheel.

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