Pacific Drive header
Screenshot by Destructoid

Review: Pacific Drive

Love, loss, LIM.

When I previewed Pacific Drive, the standout moment for me was when, in a novice moment, I found myself driving through the hellstorm of reality’s collapse. As my car fell apart around me and my health was about to hit 0%, I managed to make it to the gateway and got shunted back to the safety of the garage.

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It was intense. But, I thought, that was never going to happen again. I had learned a lesson, and it was unlikely I’d experience a moment so exciting in Pacific Drive.

I was wrong.

Further along in my playthrough, I once again opened the gateway to escape and triggered the collapse of reality. It was then I noticed that between myself and safety was a cliff that my car could not scale. I would need to take a huge detour in order to reach the destination, and I had already wasted too much time. Once again, I made it just before destruction and pulled into the garage with a charred and beaten station wagon and only a shred of life.

Unfortunately, it requires more than a battered vehicle to keep me interested, and that’s something Pacific Drive struggled with.

Pacific Drive seems peaceful enough
Screenshot by Destructoid

Pacific Drive (PC [reviewed], PS5)
Developer: Ironwood Studios
Publisher: Kepler Interactive

Released: February 22, 2024
MSRP: $29.99

In Pacific Drive, the Olympic Peninsula in Washington (state) has seen some bad science and has been sealed off from the outside world. A massive wall was erected around the zone, but you play as someone unlucky enough to get sucked in by way of weirdness. Thankfully, you come across a station wagon that will help you survive. The bad news is that it’s actually a scientific freak show and will soon drive you crazy unless you find a way to detach from its influence.

The cause of this whole ordeal was a miracle creation called LIM. LIM is a poorly defined phenomenon. What I think I understand about LIM is that it’s an energy that can re-write reality, so I guess I can see the benefits. However, an accident has resulted in it rewriting reality in the wrong way, and now the Olympic Peninsula is filled with angry garbage that wants to kill you.

Aiding you on your journey is a small group of disgraced scientists. There’s Ophelia Turner (Oppy), who maybe discovered LIM, Francis, the nervous wreck, and Tobias, the enthusiastic cryptid hunter. The whole lot of them are a joy, and they kind of pass the responsibility of babysitting you around, so you get to spend some time with each. The story may have some weaknesses, but the characters do not share them.

The Olympic Exclusion Zone started off as a walled-off area, which is now known as the Deep Zone. As the anomalies spread past that initial area, the zone grew twice more. Unfortunately, your final destination sits in the Deep Zone, meaning you’ve got a long drive through two massive walls to get there.

Gameplay is broken into roguelite runs. Your scientist friends will give you a goal, and it’s your job to get yourself and your station wagon to those locations. Each run consists of a series of nodes that you hop between. You typically have to reach an open gate on one of these maps, which will allow you to choose the next destination on your route to your destination. At the end, you have to trigger a collapse in reality (a “storm”) and open a gateway that allows you to escape back to the safety of your garage. You then make necessary repairs and upgrades before setting out again.

It’s a well-handled gameplay loop. It pushes you to take risks, keeps you moving, and assures that each run will come with a risk of failure. You can choose to do gentle runs through safer territory to gather resources, but even then, you likely won’t come back unscathed.

One of the best things that Pacific Drive does is maintenance. You can fix the various parts of your car as much as you want, but they each have various ways to fail and will eventually just wear out entirely. Each quiet moment you have in the garage is spent inspecting your vehicle and ripping out its quirks to ensure it doesn’t fail you out on the road. When it does, it can often be a rush to patch gas leaks and keep the battery alive. Throughout the entire game, I never stopped having close calls, and that’s rather impressive.

Pacific Drive distant gateway
Screenshot by Destructoid

However, the great maintenance systems have a few drawbacks, the biggest of which is hunting for resources. On your drives, you have to strip down abandoned cars, find useful ingredients growing in the wild, and loot containers in buildings for the in-betweens. It’s the last of those that is the biggest chore.

It’s just boring. The positions of resources are randomized. You might go out looking for chemicals to make repair putty and have to scour each and every science trailer to find some. You might get lucky and come back with a trunk full, or maybe you’ll be emptyhanded. Either way, it’s an onerous task of putting your car in park, getting out, sifting through an underwear drawer, getting back in, and driving to the next building on your map. Slowly, constantly, endlessly.

Also, there are only, like, five buildings in the game copy-pasted everywhere. Random placement can’t save you from déjà vu.

It doesn’t help that the upgrade system is complete butt. Going from crude panels and doors to steel is straightforward enough, but it crawls from there. I didn’t have a better engine until late into the game, and at that point, I deemed the two upgrades that branch from there to not be worth it. Insulated panels have more strength than armored for some reason, and the device that lets you trade stored kLIM for functionless car décor isn’t even available until the last section of the game.

Finding the resources, collecting the LIM; it was never worth it. Pacific Drive seems like it wants you to prepare specific armor for each run. Something that is resistant to electricity, acid, or radiation, but no route seems to be free of some of that, so spending time on planning feels like a frivolous waste. I got so much mileage out of insulated paneling. I only started trading out for different armor because I got tired of looking at the same stuff. I think the fact that I didn’t need half the tech tree speaks volumes.

Pacific Drive Station Wagon
Screenshot by Destructoid

I mentioned before, but while the scientists who aid you are all great, the story has some weaknesses. The major issue is that no one really knows what’s going on. The characters continually throw speculation and theories back and forth, and I had trouble keeping up. By the end of the game, I was just doing what I was told. I no longer understood the significance of what I was doing.

There are definitely some great moments within, but it all comes down to the characters themselves. The story starts feeling like a series of destinations rather than a full-flesh narrative.

I was also aggravated by the soundtrack. Not the stylistic make-up of it, or even the songs themselves, but the fact that, despite the long list of tracks I saw in the credits, I’d swear I just kept hearing the same five songs. Over and over and over. Every time the radio flicked on it was something like Forty Five says Six Six Six. I stopped turning it on, even though I feel like the radio is an important atmospheric addition in driving games. I just couldn’t take hearing Doctor Juice for the millionth damned time. I couldn’t stand it any longer.

Pacific Drive End of the World
Screenshot by Destructoid

The aggravation is a tremendous shame, because I legitimately did fall in love with my station wagon. Some time ago, there was discussion about the diegetic map in Far Cry 2. That is to say, the map existed as an object in the game world rather than being an ethereal menu that interrupts gameplay. Pacific Drive is all about that, and it’s great. Glancing over at the map in the passenger seat, checking the radiation meter on the dash, or even opening the trunk to access the inventory felt perfect. I loved grabbing an anchor, slamming it into the passenger seat, hopping in the driver’s side, throwing the car into drive, and getting the hell out of dodge.

And to its credit, Pacific Drive comes as close to getting everything right. There were a lot of great moments when I was cruising peacefully down a highway or dodging trees while my car bounced across the rough terrain. Moments where I chased down a pile of floating trash that snatched the scrapper from my hands. Moments where I sat and listened to drama between the excellent characters unfold through my headset.

There’s a lot here that feels great, but it’s the inconsistency that lets it down. All those great moments are padded by a framework that doesn’t do them enough justice. Too much emphasis on scrounging, an unfocused narrative, and a generally poor feeling of momentum and progression. I’m still certain that there are some who will be able to overlook the game’s flaws and latch onto its unique charm. However, I think just as many people are going to bounce right off it. Either way, it isn’t a comfortable ride.

[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]

Slightly above average or simply inoffensive. Fans of the genre should enjoy them a bit, but a fair few will be left unfulfilled.

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Zoey Handley
Staff Writer - Zoey is a gaming gadabout. She got her start blogging with the community in 2018 and hit the front page soon after. Normally found exploring indie experiments and retro libraries, she does her best to remain chronically uncool.