‘Pacific Drive’ Review: A Station Wagon Can Save Your Life

Have you ever driven down an empty road in the dead of night?

You look out the window and see infinite rows of streetlights flank the eerie expanse of asphalt. Inside the car, the constant hum of the air conditioner harmonizes with late-night radio station music. It’s lonely but somehow comfy. On this liminal stretch of road, moments like these seem to go on forever. Existential dread slowly starts to set in. What if you aren’t alone on this empty road? Or, What if your car breaks down and nobody’s there to help? What if the road never actually ends? 

Pacific Drive takes those feelings and amplifies them a hundredfold.  

A Lonesome Road

As you drive along the roads of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, USA, a red orb of light inexplicably sucks you into the unknown. Once you awaken, you realize the Olympic Exclusion Zone, a supernatural rift in reality, has claimed you as its latest victim. With only a rusty station wagon, you must brave the Zone’s supernatural threats and discover the mystery behind its existence.

Although the Zone looks post-apocalyptic, the chaos within is largely isolated. Think of it like the Bermuda Triangle in the middle of rural Northwest USA. Even the government has given up on exploring it and instead discourages people from going near the extradimensional hotspot. Even so, The Zone looks gorgeous despite the danger.

The verdant forests of Washington are in full bloom, with tall trees and wild fauna engulfing the landscape. Abandoned trailers, decayed gas stations, and forgotten technology litter this nightmarish Garden of Eden. That said, there’s more to the Zone than photogenic locales.

The ever-present warp storms edge around the forest, consuming everything in their wake. Hostile anomalies litter the landscape, some even taking on unsettling forms like faceless mannequins. As the Zone’s landscape shivers and cracks, you become aware of how alive it truly is.    

All the while, Pacific Drive’s beautiful soundtrack serenades the supernatural surroundings. Wilbert Roget’s score gives the game an eerie ambiance, a welcome break from the monotony of engine noises and fluttering trees. The radio also plays over 20 licensed songs curated for maximum road trip enjoyment.

A Trip Down Memory Lane

You are not alone in Pacific Drive. While the Driver gives their best Gordon Freeman impression, the few other humans you encounter in the Zone like their chatter. Tobias and Francis join you on your dozens of incursions into the Zone. Unlike you, the pair stayed behind on purpose to uncover the Zone’s many mysteries for future generations. They also sound like an old married couple, often bickering over the smallest things. Still, the love they have for each other rings through. 

Another not-so-friendly voice is the cranky old Ophelia, nicknamed Oppy by everyone else. It’s her garage that the player finds themselves in between missions, and she’s responsible for pretty much all the technology you use throughout Pacific Drive. It’s a good idea to listen to her stories on the rare occasions she’s relaxed enough to share because she’s integral to the Zone’s fascinating backstory.

The trio’s dynamic is a good reprieve from the monotony that the road can sometimes bring. As the story progresses, the stress of the Zone starts affecting them badly, and they start revealing secrets about each other you wish you hadn’t heard. As a silent protagonist, you can only sit there, hoping the tension doesn’t cost you a chance at freedom. 

There are also various recordings from other unseen characters, most notably the news reports of Chiaki Saruhashi. Unlike Tobias and Francis, who seem more concerned about the Zone from a scientific perspective, Chiaki digs for dirt on its creators, particularly Ophelia. Thanks to her journalistic integrity, she’s far more blunt and direct with knowledge than the rest of the cast. 

The overall story brims with intrigue and surprisingly engaging character relationships. The Zone brought all these characters together for different reasons, and uncovering them is a great motivator for finishing the story. 

Without spoiling anything, I did cry over a few moments in the game. The heartfelt storytelling got to me in a way I didn’t expect from a spooky car game. All that said, the voices on the radio are just that. 


The Zone itself separates you from the rest of humanity. Thankfully, there’s another companion who will never leave your side. The station wagon, which I lovingly named Christine, is the heart of Pacific Drive’s gameplay.

Our Beloved Christine 

Pacific Drive divides the gameplay loop into two distinct phases. 

The first takes place entirely within your home base, Ophelia’s Garage. Every part can be modified and upgraded for your leisure. You can scrap broken car parts to build newer, better parts for your station wagon.  With how vicious The Zone can be, expect to go through more makeovers than a season of Pimp My Ride. 

There are several workstations in the garage. These stations grant the car a variety of upgraded and unique abilities. You can build a heavily armored station wagon that stubbornly survives warp storms or specializes in off-road trekking for exploration. Some stations even let you customize the car’s appearance to your liking.

As long as you have the resources, you can change your car’s look and playstyle when you enter the Garage. Once your station wagon’s set, it’s time to plan a route for the next mission. 

On your first mission, Tobias reveals your trusty station wagon is the farthest thing from a “normal” vehicle. It’s a Remnant, a possessed inanimate object with supernatural abilities. Remnants “attach” themselves to hosts with a permanent psychic bond. Progression doesn’t just result in mechanical upgrades for the station wagon.

It deepens the bond between you and the car, practically making you inseparable. Pacific Drive brilliantly subverts the typical video game progression system by making it a Stephen King horror story. The ludonarrative gameplay enhances the immersion of Pacific Drive significantly. 

Highway To The Danger Zone

The meat of the game comes from your excursions into the Zone. Unlike the safety of the garage, you have to make do with what you brought in the trunk and whatever you loot in the hostile wilderness. Each journey into the Zone brings a different type of horror. The station wagon handling like a piece of junk for most of the early game adds to the experience.

Sometimes, you feel dread from slowly traversing massive stretches of nothing blanketed by heavy fog. Other times, it’s adrenaline-filled terror as the hostile denizens aggressively seek you out. Every trip promises something new for you to discover, whether it’s forgotten technology or new anomalies that didn’t escape from the SCP foundation. 

To get home after a mission, you must charge up your car’s ARC reactor by finding anchor points scattered around the map. Once charged, you only have a few minutes to reach the gateway before the warp storm destroys everything. Sometimes, the game gets obtuse, telling you to find a gateway only for the map to show anchor points. Just pick up those energy cores and explore the map. Christine will eventually show you the way.

On a successful trip, you go home with a bounty of loot and answers to some of the Zone’s mysteries. Fail, and Pacific Drive reveals what it’s really about. When you die, the station wagon teleports you back to the garage, though at the cost of your items and several car parts. 

While the loss of progress sucks, at least you know what to do now, right? Not really. If you go back to the location, you’ll find that it’s no longer the “same location” at all. In short, Pacific Drive isn’t just a survival game. It’s also a roguelike. To be more accurate, a “roadlike.”  It’s a good time to mention that Pacific Drive does have an auto-save system. You can even reload to a previous safe during a bad run. There’s no shame in it. Christine ate pavement a lot.  

That gives Pacific Drive a ton of replay value. The developers claim that 12-14 hours is enough to finish the main story, but I only hit the Mid-Zone 17 hours in, as I felt getting upgrades and exploring thoroughly for secrets was a huge part of the game’s charm. Plus, being a roguelike, no two playthroughs will ever feel the same. 

But if you’re looking to chill and enjoy the story, there are options to decrease the difficulty in the game’s settings. Note, however, that doing so will lock you out of achievements on that save file. 

An Unfortunate Detour

Pacific Drive starts to get game-breaking bugs around mission triggers during the last few missions. For example, the logbook will have an objective that simply doesn’t spawn, even after I scoured the map. There are also times when Oppy sends over a mission-critical item in the pneuma tube, only for the tube to be empty or contain the wrong item. 

The worst instance came when I was soft-locked on the final stretch of a story-heavy mission. Instead of feeling awe after one of the most emotionally intense moments in Pacific Drive, I felt frustrated at the hour of progress I lost over a single bug. Backup saves are a must for Pacific Drive. 

Unfortunately, the Zone’s scale results in stuttering on midrange machines on High settings, and Ultra causes performance issues across the board. I recommend playing around with the settings until the game runs smoothly for you.

Ironwood Studios deserves some slack, as this is their first-ever release. I love Pacific Drive and want to see it flourish, but the technical issues bar it from being perfect. Hopefully, these issues get patched out in the final product.  

End of the Road

Pacific Drive delivers on its exciting premise and then some. The gameplay loop offered enough depth and variety that I never got bored, even on mundane supply runs. The progression felt natural, and seeing Christine get stronger with every upgrade was satisfying. The story is as temperamental as the Zone itself, jumping from lighthearted and quirky to utterly terrifying in mere seconds.

Although some difficulty spikes felt unfair and a few bugs threatened to ruin my enjoyment, the roguelike elements meant setbacks were always temporary. The mysteries and roguelike nature of the game mean I’ll be revisiting The Zone several hours past the main quest’s conclusion. If you love the thrill of exploration and certain death on wheels, take Pacific Drive out for a spin.



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