Get in the Car, Loser! First Impressions

I love to learn about game development. While actually developing my own game is not something I am particularly interested in, I find that every bit of background info I learn about how games are created gives me a deeper appreciation for the craft. Understanding the intended emotion that a set of mechanics are trying to invoke, learning how technological limitations led to key choices about the design, these are all things that have helped me to look at games in a clearer light and enjoy them even more. And as is the case with today’s game, my fascination with game design sometimes leads me to discover games I’d never heard of.

I first read about Get in the Car, Loser! on Twitter in a thread shared by the creator of the game, Christine Love. In it, she described the process of designing a game which was inspired by the gameplay of specific titles without beat for beat reproducing the way those titles played. Her game, she explained, took inspiration from Final Fantasy XIII as well as Valkyrie Profile when designing the combat system (you can read that whole thread here). Hearing about the design decisions that drove the combat mechanics got me interested in checking out the game, and now I can finally say that I’ve tried out Get in the Car, Loser! for myself.

So what is this game? You play as Sam, a college-age Black woman who is waiting on her crush friend Grace to show up with a friend to pick her up in a car. The friend, Valentin, shows up in their car and introduces themselves as Grace’s boyfriend. After that awkward exchange, Grace hops in the car with an angel hot on her heels and a sword strapped across her back. “Get in the car, loser!” she yells as she, Val, and Sam then set off to save the world from the devil. You know, classic RPG stuff. It’s a premise JRPG fans will have heard a million times but delivered in a way that should feel fresh to a lot of players.

Getting this text right before bashing the enemy with your big fuck-off sword attack is deeply satisfying.

Let’s start with visuals. Get in the Car, Loser! is colorful as hell, with everything from the battle screens to the menus to the character designs featuring plenty of bright tones. It’s an evocative choice that immediately sets a bright and cheerful tone for the game. It also makes navigating the menus more than just a practical, boring exercise. For example, when you open the main menu the hair of the characters on their portraits seamlessly becomes the background for the breakdown of their basic stats. The colors do have practical design applications as well. When equipping trinkets (more on that in a bit), the colors of the various abilities help you quickly understand which types of actions you’ll gain by equipping that trinket to a character. The game isn’t breaking any boundaries in terms of technical power but it has “good graphics” in the way that resonates with me personally: bold, artistic choices as opposed to hyperrealism, a color palette with seven shades of brown, and big terraflips. Terrflorps? Whatever.

Another great aspect of the presentation is the sound design. Rather than asking you to read a paragraph about it, just listen to this absolute banger of a battle theme. Good stuff, right? The soundtrack was created by Christa Lee with vocals by Jami Lynne, and while this is my personal favorite song so far there are plenty of other really good tunes along the way as well. I find the themes do a good job of capturing the energy and mood of the game broadly; while the combat themes are energetic and work side by side with the momentum of battle, the songs during the visual novel sections are more subtle and put the emphasis on the text. Whoops, ended up writing a paragraph anyway, huh?

Alright, so let’s dig into the mechanics. Get in the Car, Loser! is a turn-based RPG with a little bit of road trip thrown in for good measure. While on the road, one to three “lanes” will present options as to where you want to go next. Each lane will have its distance from your current position displayed in kilometers, as well as what kind of stop awaits you. Most lanes will feature either a battle to fight or a place to rest, with the substance of the battle or the rest stop displayed as you choose the lane. This allows you to pick how often you are fighting or stopping, though there will be set times when the game pushes you into a certain type of event by having all three lanes present the same option.

These road trip sections are also where the visual novel portion of the game takes place. As you are driving the characters engage in conversation with one another, with each text box corresponding to one kilometer of travel. This means some conversations will be interrupted by combat, but the fights are short so you don’t lose much and if you need to review previous dialogue there is a log button which allows you to do so. Conversations vary in content from details about the world to learning about the characters. The game does a good job of tossing you into the action and spreading the exposition out slowly – it understands that it is dealing in common tropes and uses that to brush past unnecessary elaboration on familiar themes and instead focuses on the drama of the characters and the relationships between them.

Once you’re in battle, it’s time to get out of the car and take down some monsters. Battles are turn-based but use the active time battle system, which means that everyone’s turn runs on a timer and you can only take action when the timer hits zero. Each character’s action is mapped to a specific button press, so when their cooldown ends and they can act again all you have to do is press their button and BAM, damage dealt. Or some other things happens, because you see different characters have different specializations in combat. Sam, for example, doesn’t really do damage but instead can provide support to allies or increase the enemy’s stagger meter. Val on the other hand can either attack or fill the party tank role, drawing aggro from enemies so no one else gets hurt.

“But Ian,” you might say, “if I only have to press one button to input a character’s next move, how do I know which of their moves I am going to use?” Great question! Your party as a whole has three different sets of abilities they can cycle between during the battle. You customize these sets with the actions you want them to have. So for example, one set might be all offense (Sam staggers while Grace and Val attack) while another may be largely defensive (Val tanks, Sam heals the party while Grace deals a bit of damage). When you want to change abilities, a quick button press takes you to the next set and resets your cooldown, allowing you to immediately take action again. This can be used to essentially ignore the cooldowns on your actions – unleash your actions, jump to the next set, immediately unleash those actions, and keep the battle going. This leads to fast-paced and very active combat that also requires a bit of strategy to master.

The taunt animation is perfection, 10/10, no notes.

What kind of factors are you juggling? Well for one, the stagger meter on enemies is your primary tool for dealing big damage. When the stagger meter reaches a certain threshold, the enemy becomes staggered and you get a damage multiplier for your attacks. Increasing the stagger meter on a staggered foe increases the damage multiplier. In other words, you deal your biggest hits by staggering foes and increasing the multiplier while pelting them with attacks when they are vulnerable. But of course they are attacking too, so making sure you’re protected and have good health to endure those blows is important to remember as well. The healing from Sam’s abilities is temporary so it won’t carry over from battle to battle, but it serves as a buffer to prevent the character’s actual health from taking further damage. And you’re not the only one who can heal, so making sure you keep up an aggressive offense against enemies using support abilities is an important tool in your belt.

If all that sounds stressful to you, there are a couple of options for making the game more approachable. One is to set the battle speed to half, giving you more time to think through your decisions. You can also set the active time battles from active to wait, where time won’t pass while you are choosing your actions. And if you don’t like that your damage carries over from fight to fight and don’t want to manage consumables, you can just set it up so that you heal after every battle. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you want to challenge yourself then you can purchase the Devil Clock after defeating the first boss. This gives you optional challenges which come with additional rewards, which can be selected on a per-battle basis or automatically turned on for every single fight. All of these features are great for customizing your experience.

As you win battles you earn money, referred to in-game as “gas points.” These can be spent on – surprise! – gasoline for your car to keep it moving, as well as additional trinkets for battle. Trinkets are items that are equipped to characters to give them abilities, and they are the primary form of character progression in the game. Trinkets are purchased in packs of 10 kind of like surprise toys; you don’t know which ones you’ll get, but one of them is guaranteed to be a rare + rank trinket. Trinkets with a + on their rank essentially function as one rank higher and are key to unlocking more powerful trinkets – only when every character is wearing all + rank trinkets can you start buying gear for the next rank up. Other than getting these randomly in pouches, you can use your other trinkets as materials to upgrade the ones you want to boost. The game does a good job of letting you know not to horde old trinkets like in a typical RPG and the system rewards you for quickly moving on to the next rank.

The practical ability descriptions are balanced by the hilarious item descriptions.

This, then, is the rhythm of the game: enjoy the dialogue between the characters as you choose what battles you want to participate in by switching lanes on the highway. Battles are quick and intense, giving you money to spend when you reach a rest stop. After a series of battles you stop to heal up, put gas in the car, and load up on new trinkets to unlock new abilities, making your characters more powerful so they can face tougher opponents. Then you hit the road again to enjoy new conversations, new battles, and progress the game. It’s a neat system that keeps the game moving at a brisk pace and never keeps you committed to any one task for too long.

I’m really enjoying Get in the Car, Loser! so far, and if based on this article you’re thinking you might like it too I have good news: the base game is free on Steam! You can play through the main story and then afterward if you want more content or want to support the developer, buy the soundtrack or the DLC as a little gift to yourself and as a way to say thanks for the game. Alternatively, you can pay what you want on itch.io and get the DLC bundled in if you pay at least $10 or more. I’m excited to dig in more and to see both where the story and the action go after the first boss battle. This loser did indeed get in the car, and now I’m along for the ride until it reaches its destination.

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