Pacific Drive packs up survival games and takes them on the road

Having already played a preview build of Pacific Drive, I felt confident going into my playthrough for this review. I’d learned a lot about this ornery but captivating driving/survival/roguelite game in those few hours — knowledge I thought I could apply from the get-go. I thought I could just start optimizing my resource collection and applying my understanding of some of its arcane systems. I envisioned a smooth run through the early missions as I explored the crumbling, glitching reality of the Olympic Exclusion Zone in the Pacific Northwest, and gradually reinforced my shabby station wagon against the wild hazards of this irradiated wilderness.

But the Olympic Exclusion Zone, and Pacific Drive, had other ideas.

I didn’t know everything, not even close. I hadn’t yet realized that it was a good idea to scrap the radios and computers littered around abandoned settlements for electronics. I had neglected to make myself a battery jumper. I was being careful to conserve fuel, always putting the car into park and turning off the ignition, but having not yet researched the recipe for a rudimentary portable flashlight, I was leaving the car’s headlights on to illuminate my foraging. Fatal mistake. On an early story mission, I ran the car’s battery down completely.

The dice roll deciding the conditions I was driving into was also much harsher this time around. It was night, it was raining hard, and the junction zone I was in was highly unstable. The ground rumbled and shifted. Pockets of sizzling, corrosive mist crackled around me. A floating, sentry-like machine grabbed my car with a cable capped with a suction cup and dragged it into a tree, severely weakening its already flimsy, rusting panels. I was on life support, metaphorically speaking, and I couldn’t see where I was going at all. I titled my view toward the glowing map screen on the passenger side and tried to navigate by that, but it was no use. I resorted to aborting the run, and my car limped back into its garage, battered, missing a door, and empty of all the loot I’d collected. Deep breath. Try again.

A view through a dark, rainy car windshield at dusk, with trees receding in dim fog. The car’s instruments glow Image: Ironwood Studios/Kepler Interactive

Pacific Drive is tough, original, and brilliantly conceived, pilfering design concepts and gameplay loops from several different genres and folding them into an identity that is strongly its own. It’s a driving game first, obviously: As a (maybe) unwilling explorer of the walled-off Olympic Peninsula, the site of disastrous scientific experiments in an alternate 1950s (it’s now the late 1990s), the unnamed player character — just referred to as “Driver” — finds and supernaturally bonds with an old station wagon that you use to drive deeper into the Zone in search of answers. You get out and roam on foot frequently, but the car provides essential transport, protection, and storage capacity for loot.

Structurally, Pacific Drive also has some things in common with roguelikes — specifically roguelites, though don’t let that distinction make you think it’s in any way forgiving — and even Soulslikes. You’ll be taken through a series of randomized runs, and you use a map to pick your route. With a few exceptions, the junction zones that serve as the links in the route vary in terms of layout and conditions each time you visit them. Alongside mission objectives, the aim is to get as far as you can, gathering as much loot as possible en route, before triggering a gateway that will get you home safe. If you die or abandon your run, the loot is lost and your car is further damaged.

This is where the stakes are really established. Missions or longer self-directed runs can last an hour or more, and there’s no way to save. As the stakes mount and your car takes damage and runs down its battery and fuel reserves, Pacific Drive can get scary and tense. All manner of eldritch hazards can pop up along a run: roaming radiation pools; networks of sparking pylons that spring from the ground; tumbling creatures made of possessed scrap that attach themselves to your car, forcing you to get out, pluck them off, and toss them away. Scrambling cross-country for a gateway — a huge pillar of light that pierces the ground — before you’re consumed by the raging storm it triggers is always a heart-in-mouth moment.

A giant anomaly in Pacific Drive, with a glowing red light surrounded by suspended railway cars Image: Ironwood Studios/Kepler Interactive

Pacific Drive also slots into the current trend for crafting-focused survival games — albeit in its own unique fashion. As you might in games like Palworld or Valheim, you spend your time gathering resources and pouring them into crafting tools, supplies, and upgrades, as well as researching new recipes in a very deep and multifaceted tech tree. But instead of investing all this work in your base, almost all of it goes into the car instead. You can reinforce it with panels that absorb radiation or electric charge; increase its storage; and add new lighting and gadgets.

The genius of Pacific Drive is that the focus for the traditional gather-and-craft loops of the survival genre is on a singular object: your car. It’s your base, companion, suit of armor, armory, and skills, all embodied in a single, stoic, rickety chassis. It goes everywhere with you, it takes every knock for you, and it needs constant maintenance and modification. It’s customizable but not enough that it doesn’t have its own character, expressed in its loose steering, springy suspension, and sturdy, rumbling momentum. One of the game’s loveliest touches is the “quirks” system, whereby your car develops weird, randomized peccadilloes — like the hood springing open when you go into reverse — which you can then diagnose and fix using an old computer back at the garage.

A disassembled station wagon, with a pile of panels, wheels, and components next to it, sits next to an abandoned gas station in Pacific Drive Image: Ironwood Studios/Kepler Interactive

Pacific Drive has a specificity to it, a sense of loving authorship that is often missing from the open horizons and do-anything mentality of survival games. As much as its setting is influenced by the monumental dystopianism of Half-Life 2, the surreal hinterlands of the classic sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic, or the eerie paintings of Simon Stålenhag, it’s also a faded postcard from childhood road trips or perhaps cross-country treks to college in a heavily laden old banger. The car stereo plays wistful indie rock, and the story is charmingly filled in by a bickering trio of Zone inhabitants who communicate with you by radio; they’ve been stuck here for decades, and play through your apocalyptic scenario like a comforting audio sitcom.

This distinction, I think, is what keeps me coming back to Pacific Drive, even when my runs are capricious and cruel, and hours of playtime yield meager rewards. It’s a game of many mysteries I have yet to solve, and seriously deep systems I have yet to fully explore; and every time I roll open the garage door and pull out, the game packs up all that complexity and brings it with me. It’s all invested in a world that is bewitching both for its strangeness and its deep familiarity, and in a car that is a truly great video game protagonist in its own right. There’s always another roll of the dice, and another turn of the wheel. Maybe this time the Zone will be kind; maybe this time, you’ll make it.

Pacific Drive is out now on PlayStation 5 and Windows PC. The game was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Kepler Interactive. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.