The introduction of Neo Cab is reminiscent of the theatrical cut of Blade Runner. If there’s a moment where a relationship or concept could be set up with tact and subtlety, an obnoxious inner monologue smashes that notion with a sledgehammer. The emotions of these moments are not implied but flatly told. However, while the theatrical cut of Blade Runner suffered this grievous injury for its entire runtime, Neo Cab soon sheds the clunky exposition and stilted character interactions of its opening.
Once more mechanics, plot points, and interesting characters come onto the scene, Neo Cab’s quality skyrockets. While the monologue never truly disappears, and some emotional beats don’t stick the landing, Neo Cab offers a colorful cast of characters, intriguing conversations, and a main storyline that takes a compelling, remarkably realistic turn.
- What is Neo Cab? It’s a narrative survival game where you take on the role of Lina, a newcomer to Los Ojos, California. She’s out of her depth as a ride service driver in “Automation City,” where AI-driven cars dominate the streets. Worse, her best friend (and prospective roommate), Savy, has gone missing. Lina has to track down Savy, navigate the fraught political situation in LO, and try not to be worn down by the little indignities heaped upon her by Capra, the megacorporation which essentially owns the city; all this, while ferrying people around town and trying to make enough money to scrape by. Welcome to Los Ojos.
- Reviewed On: Nintendo Switch
- Expect to Pay: $19.99
- Developer: Chance Agency
- Publisher: Fellow Traveller
- Release Date: Oct 3, 2019
- Website: https://neocabgame.com/
Neo Cab significantly improves after the opening, but it isn’t problem-free after that point. As mentioned above, the protagonist, Lina, has an internal monologue that often grates and undercuts the subtlety of a given moment. Furthermore, her reactions sometimes feel disconnected from those of the player. There was one character I met early on, who left a rather bland impression on me (particularly compared to later characters), but whom Lina seemed to regard with profuse admiration. There were also moments where the consequence of a dialogue choice wasn’t entirely clear, and the outcome was confusing and off-putting.
There are also more surface-level issues. Lina wears a FeelGrid, basically a high-tech mood ring (except it’s a bracelet), which openly displays her emotions and also dictates the sort of responses you’re able to give, based on Lina’s mood. At first, this felt restrictive and strange, but as I came to grips with how to navigate it, balancing Lina’s emotions with her physical needs felt more intuitive and engaging. Her facial expressions change based on her mood as shown by the FeelGrid, but they don’t always line up perfectly, and a couple of dramatic moments communicate one feeling while the visuals convey another. Overall, the game’s most persistent problems come from these moments where the link between the player and Lina becomes strained.
Conversely, its best moments arrive when the player and Lina are emotionally in-sync. Lina previously worked for Capra as a driver but lost her job when Capra’s ride service became fully automated. Naturally, she has a healthy distaste for the gigantic corporation, and she avoids giving them money whenever possible — quite a difficult task in what one police officer describes as “a Capra town.” This served as a nice roleplaying cue, so I made a point to avoid having her stay in Capra capsules (techie, torpedo-shaped hotel rooms) whenever the night was winding down.
However, one night, having been financially drained by a fine from the aforementioned cop, and with my car almost out of juice, I was forced to do just that. It made the stress, exhaustion and the constant compromising of principles that accompany modern labor come off the screen. It also served as an organic low point in my story, a point which made both Lina and me pine for our first night in Los Ojos — excited to move in, staying on Luisa’s glorious mattress, before Savy disappeared and everything went to Hell.
Moments like these reveal an ambitious move on Chance Agency’s part. They attempt to configure the mechanics and dialogue in such a way that Lina’s emotional state begins to reflect the player’s. Indeed, there were times where a line would make me remark out loud, only for my exact words to appear as a dialogue option. While there aren’t countless moments like this, they’re memorable and engaging when they do appear.
The climax of the story is the epitome of this idea, and the dialogue of that scene was eerily reminiscent of some emotionally intense conversations I’ve had in real life. One of the obvious benefits of using a regular person like a ride service driver as a protagonist is that she’s very relatable. These high points, where I began to intensely feel what Lina was feeling, were truly special and quite unlike anything I’d played before.
High Ground View
Another important factor running through the game is the political situation in Los Ojos. Neo Cab takes place in a near-future that feels simultaneously ridiculous and prescient, ruminating on technology, disproportionate corporate power, and the ever-widening gap between people that seems to be a byproduct of the Information Age.
While I doubt we’ll see rich kids walking around in mech suits, it’s a good metaphor for a horrible methodology to child-rearing that one might encounter even today. Rather than trying to remove violence and danger from everyday life, privileged people compromise the freedom and emotional health of their children by fortifying their spaces against attack and instilling in them a constant fear of the outside world. Granted, some of the metaphors get a little muddy–Sophie’s Law feels like a strange chimera of corporate overreach and the gun debate, which don’t necessarily go together. That said, even when it’s clumsy, Neo Cab’s topical and speculative approach to politics never fails to be thought-provoking.
The true heart of this game, however, is the relationship between Lina and Savy. The introduction tells us too much about the pair of them, not allowing players to pay attention to their first encounter in the game and think for themselves about what their words and actions might indicate. That said, once they’re given space to simply interact with one another, Lina and Savy are sometimes frustratingly real. Their conversations are bubbly and familiar, but they’re constantly affected by an underlying tension. When you’ve seen the best and worst of someone, that’s how conversations with them can often go. There’s a desire to return to old habits, to reclaim past joys, but these desires eventually bump up against that omnipresent reality-check: change. And who can say just what — or who — will be irrevocably changed by Lina’s frantic search through Los Ojos? By the by, if you want a hint, the English way to say Los Ojos is “the eyes.”
When you’ve seen the best and worst of someone, that’s how conversations with them can often go. There’s a desire to return to old habits, to reclaim past joys, but these desires eventually bump up against that omnipresent reality-check: change. And who can say just what — or who — will be irrevocably changed by Lina’s frantic search through Los Ojos? By the by, if you want a hint, the English way to say Los Ojos is “the eyes.”
Game title: Neo Cab
Game description: Find your best friend Savy and try to survive in Los Ojos while you’re at it. Plot out your routes so you don’t run out of juice, balance the emotions of yourself and each pax you pick up (you wouldn’t want a bad rating!) as you converse and discover more about Automation City, track down leads, and finally find an affordable place to crash. Then wake up the next day and do it all again!
Writing and Choices - 8/10
Audiovisuals - 7/10
Survival Mechanics - 7/10
Setting and Worldbuilding - 8/10
Despite a lackluster introduction, Neo Cab engages with emotional intelligence and political commentary in ways that other games would struggle to accomplish. It’s not a bump-free ride by any means, but with characters like Oona and Agonon to hold your interest, and moments like the game’s climax to look forward to, Neo Cab is certainly a trip that’s worth the fare.
- There are some stellar high points where the player’s emotions and Lina’s mesh perfectly
- Lots of characters have quirky, interesting perspectives, and some of them feel strikingly real
- Los Ojos is a great setting with some thought-provoking, topical political issues
- The introduction is heavy-handed and a little boring
- There are moments that pull players out of the experience, disconnecting them from Lina’s emotional state
- Some elements fall flat: boring small talk, uninteresting characters, excessive inner-monologues