PC, Nintendo Switch
October 3, 2019
Neo Cab has something subtler to say than many Cyberpunk tales I’ve played in recent years. Its particular style looks a lot like ‘Neon Punk’; the same themes of social struggle, but a little less grunge and a little more – you guessed it – neon. In fact, in an interview with Rock Paper Shotgun, creative director Patrick Ewing described it more as “Nowpunk”. The city of Los Ojos is fictional, yet it would fit right in the world we know, allowing for a couple of decades of technological advancements.
There’s no evil villain, no extra-terrestrial threat. Just the struggle of people trying to live their best lives in a socially complicated world. And in Neo Cab, we experience it through the eyes of the protagonist Lina. In this narrative adventure, Lina juggles her job as a driver for the Uber-inspired ‘Neo Cabs’. She’s one of the last human drivers in a world of increasing automation, and it’s her job to ferry the busy people of Los Ojos to where they need to be. Oh, and she also needs to investigate the disappearance of her best friend Savy while she’s at it. No pressure or anything.
I got invested right away into this one, thanks mostly due to the fantastic character writing. Lina is easy to identify with, and her motivations relatable while avoiding being too predictable. Her history with her estranged bestie Savy is an especially great source of tension, as I related with Lina’s barely-disguised insecurity and doubts.
The actual gameplay involves Lina driving around the city, picking up passengers and visiting locations in the hopes of finding out more about the city. Lina’s passengers always have something going on in their own lives, which she can choose to engage with or ignore. She can be a hard-ass, sympathetic, or meek, but be mindful of her attitude – going off on a customer feels cathartic, but Lina needs all the 5/5 star reviews she can get.
Savy’s last gift to Lina before her disappearance is a FeelGrid: a glorified mood ring, that displays Lina’s current emotion in colours. Depending on the FeelGrid’s colour (red, blue, green, or yellow) certain dialogue options become available, and other ones are locked out. If Lina gets too angry, she may not be able to answer in measured or reasonable ways. It’s a pretty cool take on the familiar dialogue tree mechanic. After all, there are times where intense feelings can make us say things we ordinarily wouldn’t, or distracts us from what we mean.
I like that this isn’t just a mechanic, it’s weaved into the story. FeelGrids actually come into play in the story, with passengers commenting on them and Lina coming to rely on it to gauge her own mood.
It did a lot to put me inside Lina’s head, however it didn’t always feel natural. Every so often Lina would be locked out of a choice due to an emotion that didn’t really feel relevant to the choice at hand, leaving me feeling a bit cheated. By and large though, I was content to let the scenes play out as they occurred, and it made for a very smooth narrative experience.
“there’s a lot of love and thought that went into this project that just shines through, especially in the character writing.”
This is developer Chance Agency’s first game as a studio, and it’s an incredible achievement. There are some telltale signs of a budding studio: it’s lacking graphical and gameplay customisation options, and the game is short enough to be finished in a just a few sittings. But there’s a lot of love and thought that went into this project that just shines through, especially in the character writing.
The story of Neo Cab is almost entirely character-driven, which does wonders for making the setting seem real. Each passenger has their own thoughts and opinions on the struggles affecting their worldview, meaning that you get a clearer picture of the world with each passenger you ferry.
The passengers Lina can encounter range from reasonable to eccentric to downright weird. If real cabbies have to deal with even half this weirdness, they deserve a pay bump. Each passenger is totally unique: there are no fillers. They range in age and gender, including a couple of welcome LGBT inclusions. I loved each and every one of them… except for Luke Howard. He knows what he did.
I love that every passenger is unique, but there aren’t very many of them. You can easily encounter every one in the same playthrough, which doesn’t exactly lend itself to the feeling of driving through a bustling city. That said, I’m unsure how they could have fixed this without drastically increasing the scope and cost of the game, so in the end it didn’t bother me too much.
The whole experience is simply choosing dialogue options and pickup locations, and yet it feels like so much more than that. Each pickup is its own mini story, many not even relevent to the plot at hand, but they never felt like a chore. Set only at night, the game has a unique look that utilises beautiful deep blues and contrasting neon lights from the surrounding traffic lights and billboard signs. Everything combined with a chilled-out soundtrack, it made for a great couple of hours. I really only wish there was more of it. The game can be easily finished in a couple of sittings, and as the story pulls to a close, things feel kind of rushed. There were also some issues with the ‘timeline’ of the game, whereby characters would sometimes mention passengers that I hadn’t picked up yet, or dialogue options I hadn’t chosen. Again, a pretty small issue that didn’t take away much from my experience, but still could have been ironed out to make for a seamless playthrough.
- Engaging characters and setting
- Emotional story at a chill pace
- Beautiful art direction
- A bit short
Neo Cab makes me wish that big-budget publishers did games of this nature. Neo Cab is full of potential for more. The only things holding it back are born from its small scale. I’m a fan, and if Chance Agency get the funding to do bigger projects like this, then consider me sold already.