Pine Grove is built on an interesting premise that combines two genres we don’t usually see mashed up together: driving and crime-solving. It utilizes both without making them feel shoehorned together and does so in a package that is suitably dark while maintaining flashes of charm and humor. The problem, despite these positives, is that Pine Grove simply isn’t much fun to play.
The goal in Pine Grove is to solve your brother’s murder by collecting evidence related to his death and recalling the moments just before it. Our protagonist, detective John, has psychic powers that allow him to relive events briefly through related items. John’s brother, Patrick, was killed while driving by an unknown assailant that rammed him from behind with another vehicle. John learns that a number of other missing persons have died in an extremely similar fashion, indicating a serial killer who commits his crimes on the road.
The majority of Pine Grove’s gameplay takes place during the moments leading up to Patrick’s, and the other missing persons’, untimely deaths. You’ll drive their vehicle through the isolated, wooded roads of Oregon while being chased by the killer’s car. You’ll need to dodge fallen trees, construction barricades, and other obstacles in the way while being struck from behind by your relentless pursuer. Despite the panicked nature of this setting, the actual execution is surprisingly slow: your car feels like it plods along at a low speed, and a lack of music or repercussions for crashing–besides having to start a new run–detracts from any real suspense that might have otherwise been instilled.
These car chases play out like an endless runner, except with a strict time limit. Your car has been tampered with by the killer and your headlights are constantly dimming as you drive. After 20 seconds, the lights will fade out completely and your run will end. You can collect light orbs on the trip to extend your field of view and time limit, but their appearance is random and never guaranteed. The road is also dotted with three other types of items you can pick up: gold keys, boxes of evidence, and magnifying glasses representing clues.
These latter three items are used in your investigation, allowing John to unlock dossiers of suspects—the majority of which turn out to be victims themselves. When a new dossier is unlocked you can then play that character’s final moments, driving their vehicle along similar backwoods streets with slight variations—a snowy night, autumn-colored grass—although the obstacles and surroundings are all basically identical.
Each of these victims have three star tasks available to unlock, requiring completing goals in a single run, like collecting three light orbs or being hit from behind by the killer ten times. The stars you earn for completing these tasks can be used to purchase specific details about the killer, such as his/her age, location, and weight, which then helps you narrow down which of the remaining suspects could actually be the culprit.
Once you unlock the true suspect’s dossier—either by figuring out who it is or lucking into it through a random unlock—you’ll enter the final chase sequence to catch the killer. Of course, solving a series of murders couldn’t be that easy…once caught, you’ll learn your suspect was merely a copycat, your list of suspects will grow, and the investigation will continue.
There is a true finale after you apprehend enough fake killers, but it’s not really worth the effort it takes to get there. Besides the general slowness of the actual runner gameplay, there’s simply not enough variation for it to remain interesting. Despite unlocking new victims with unique vehicles, each victim’s final moments play out the same and every car drives like the one before it—whether it’s a sleek sports car or a double-decker bus or a tractor. The environments you travel over and over are all identical save the occasional snowflake or different-hued grass.
There’s no real strategy to the movement except swerving to avoid crashes and to pick up items: although there are twists and turns in the road which change the camera angle and give a sense of freedom to your drive, there’s no benefit to taking them. You’ll never lose the killer for any length of time or reach any sort of noteworthy destination. The item pickups, which make up the majority of the star challenges, are entirely luck-based: you’re just as likely to enter a run with four light orbs right at the beginning as you are to encounter none before your 20 seconds are up. And being crashed into from behind every few seconds—despite being part of the plot and point of the game—gets annoying very quickly.
There are some aspects of Pine Grove that are salvageable: the graphics have a lovely flat, geometric style that works well within the mystery theme. There are little Easter eggs, like suspects “Rock, Glin, and Dalon” that Walking Dead fans might recognize, or “Loel and Kelly” for Last of Us players. The combination of an endless runner with a car chase killer and evidence-collecting investigation is a great mashup that could be brilliant if executed more successfully. Unfortunately, the slow, repetitive gameplay; random, luck-based goals; and utter lack of variation mean this is one case that should remain unsolved.