Pacific Drive Review – Supernatural Road Rage

Pacific Drive Review

Although it isn’t maybe such a big deal anymore, America’s post-war love affair with cars was once a major cultural force. Cars not only transported people, they carried a lot of symbolic value. Stephen King’s Christine captured this with a sentient car that metaphorically channeled adolescent hormonal rage. I thought about this while playing Pacific Drive. 

In the Zone

There is more than a little bit of King in his supernatural-horror mode, and some Twin Peaks’ weirdness in Pacific Drive. A unique blend of RPG and survival/crafting, Pacific Drive is about you and your family truckster trying to escape a very bad place. Oh, and your mechanical buddy’s motivations might be suspect as well.

Pacific Drive takes place in the Olympic Exclusion Zone (OEZ) and the environments drip with Pacific Northwest atmosphere. The darkness, rain and fog pair beautifully with the unexplained anomalies that threaten you at every turn in the road. The basic gameplay loop is simple. First, you leave your home base garage to search and scavenge for materials to repair and upgrade your car. Second, you go on increasingly far-afield missions to gather more stuff. Third, well, you do it all over again. 

You’re aided by an unseen trio of scientists that sometimes give you cryptic missions or conflicting information about what happened in the OEZ. The dialogue ranges from humor to pathos and their banter – and the game’s excellent soundtrack – add some much-needed humanity to the experience. It doesn’t mean that either the narrative or mechanics are entirely clear. They’re not, and sometimes that leads to awesome discoveries. Other times, frustration and wasted time.

The OEZ is full of danger, but not traditional enemies that can be conveniently killed with RPG staples like guns. The dangers are supernatural or alien or however you care to explain them. These include deadly radiation, environmental hazards, weird creatures and all manner of other anomalies. They attack your car in dozens of ways, so the constant task of upgrading, repairing and reinforcing your station wagon becomes your new obsession. 

The Plot Thickens, the Circle Widens

Early on, the missions are short and, if not exactly sweet, at least reasonably compact and directed. As Pacific Drive progresses, missions take you through an increasing number of zones. Your ultimate goal is to reach a portal that brings you back to the garage. As you move through the zones, you scavenge through abandoned buildings and roadside detritus. If you’re really brave, you head out on foot and explore the woods for materials.

The game does a pretty good job of onboarding you about the basics, but at some point the tutorial mode turns into a bit of a deadly grind. Several hours in, those multistage missions – with randomized resources – are more apt to end in failure and death than success and relief. One of my constant frustrations was controlling the camera and car while driving. On one hand, it reacts appropriately to all sorts of changes to the world and its own condition. On the other hand, while I get that this isn’t Gran Turismo, I never really found it fun or easy to drive.

I’m ok with the story being vague and weird for its own sake, and I enjoyed the story’s sci-fi-horror theme. Back at the garage, the lack of clear instruction was less tolerable, like not knowing how or why to use certain machines, or why not to. In some cases, this resulted in the destruction of carefully gathered materials and wasted game time. Pacific Drive is not a good game for RGB or survival fans who value a close relationship between time spent and measurable progress.

E-Z Mode

There are a couple of good methods for easing some of the frustration, however. For one, players can modify the difficulty in lots of ways. This option will save the game for many players. Second, scavenging outside of the scripted missions can be a less frantic and often safer way to gather materials. 

As a resident of the Northwest, I can attest that Pacific Drive nails the moody, rain-soaked woods and lonely highways. Graphically, the stylized art is at its best giving us weirdness and supernatural danger. By intention, the car itself is blocky and lacking in refined detail. Even though you can customize it with literally hundreds of add-ons or cosmetics, your station wagon always looks beat down. 

Pacific Drive is a unique RPG and survival crafting game in a landscape choked with unimaginative copycats and clones. That alone makes it worth checking out. Its story, atmosphere and basic loop are engaging and satisfying. At the default difficulty though, its design and mechanics can frustrate in ways that neither skill or time can overcome. Pacific Drive offers a refreshing RPG experience but the ride is sometimes bumpier than intended. 

***PC code provided by the publisher for review***

The Good

  • Imaginative premise and story
  • Atmospheric setting
  • Deep crafting mechanics
  • Great soundtrack

The Bad

  • Default difficulty is very challenging
  • Can be opaque
  • Graphics are a bit simplistic