I've long been enamoured with the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, from the Douglas firs and waterfalls of Twin Peaks to the redwoods I once swam beneath on a road trip. Thanks to Pacific Drive's Steam Next Fest demo, I have now also barrelled through the woods and backroads of a spooky alt-history PNW in a banged-up car which is itself a S.T.A.L.K.E.R.-esque artifact. I've had my eye on Pacific Drive for a few years and after playing the demo, I am delighted by parts of it but not entirely sold on its roguelikelike survival scavenge-o-rama structure. Hmm! Give it a go and tell me what you think.
Pacific Drive is set in an alternate timeline where a strange experiment in the 1940s saw a corner of Washington's Olympic Peninsula overrun with strange and dangerous anomalies until the government it walled off. Now we end up trapped inside the Olympic Exclusion Zone and bonded with a supernatural station wagon. Off we go at the behest of voices on our radio to scavenge supplies, craft tools, craft new car parts, and keep the old banger running.
I suppose I'd say Pacific Drive is a roguelikelike dungeon-crawling survival game? The demo features the playable opening scene, the hub home garage, then the first mission. The structure is: teleport to a separate mission zone, drive and walk around hunting for key items and various crafting materials, avoid dangerous anomalies, charge your magical teleporter by yoinking science orbs, then desperately zoom towards a gateway while a battle royale-style storm closes around you.
I like the procedure to stop and start your car, turning the key then shifting from drive to park. I like all these physical interfaces inside the car, controlling everything from the wipers and radio to the high-tech map by looking about. I admire the confidence to have a soundtrack with lyrical songs, not chorals or instrumentals. I like the weird anomalies, like rising rock "bollards" and eerie explosive mannequins. I like the menace of seeing and hearing bad things through the trees. I like how much is unspoken. I like the radiofriends. I really like that you can hurt yourself by closing the boot while standing under it. And I do like that, unlike most survival games, your car is the entity with the complicated health system, not your fleshy body.
The tyres, engine, lights, doors, side panels, bonnet, boot, and bumpers each have their own health bars, and suffer secondary conditions too. Windows can crack, tyres can pick up punctures or go bold, and so on. It's not the bolt-by-bolt simulation of My Summer Car but it is more involved than most cybercarcare. To fix this, you'll need magic putty and a range of tools, or sometimes must craft a whole new part. To get these materials, you ransack buildings and chop up wrecked cars.
Unfortunately, the demo does a poor job of making the survival and roguelikelike elements interesting or appealing. Divorced from the structure of the wider game, where they should have more relevance, they're just frustrating. Because you and the car naturally take damage as you search for the parts you need, you must also pick up and break down trash to craft healing items and parts, but scavenging results in damage, so you'll need to craft healing items, so you'll want crafting materials, so you'll want to scavenge, but scavenging results in damage, so... and it's just not fun or interesting to endlessly ransack cupboards and wrecks. No puzzles, no real challenges, just chores. But these chores are important because if you die, you'll awaken in the garage and must restart the mission. It is a small mercy that you can find your car's corpse and loot it, like a Dark Souls bloodstain stuffed full of scrap metal, but I'd rather just not.
This is only the demo, only the tutorial mission. After completing that, it does reveal the persistent progression systems to craft new gadgets and abilities for your car and yourself, even if you can't play any more missions with them. Perhaps in the full game you'll want to do optional supply runs to scavenge materials to craft better gear. That is the structure of survival games, after all, and I think this roguelikelike mission structure is mostly filling in for the absence of a single coherent open world. Perhaps those upgrades will be important, invaluable, as you face wilder hazards and anomalies. I do like the sound of that. I want to tear through the woods of the Pacific Northwest with a car covered in weird gadgets and a hellstorm whirling in my rearview. I want to see where the story goes. But I don't want to spend hours picking litter to get there.
The Steam Next Fest runs until the 12th of February, so grab the demo while you can. We're playing heaps of Next Fest demos so hit our tag for more recommendations.