As we continue to become more technologically advanced day in and day out, for better or for worse, visions and predictions of the future in pop culture and media start to seem less fantastical and begin to appear as more of a potential reality. Mega-corporations are no sci-fi boogeyman, but more of a growing concern as companies like Disney, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook continue to grow in size, scale, and evidently, power. Neo Cab is a text-based adventure game that is all about those harsh potential realities of a corporate power fueled future, and how it can have a ripple effect on the lives of people and their very nature at that. You get behind the wheel of your very own Neo Cab (one of the last remaining human driver services ala “Uber”) as Lina, who is uprooting her life in the small town of Cactus Flats to move to the bright, bustling city of Los Ojos. There, her lifelong best friend Savy would be waiting with a spare bedroom and the promise of a fresh start. Life was getting tough for Neo Cab drivers, as mega-corporation Capra has all but monopolized the automated driver service in much of the country, and their influence is as strong as can be in Los Ojos (LO for short). But with the support of Savy, who knew her way around the streets and people of LO, it should not be too hard to settle in, right? Right?? Well let’s just say, things in LO get interesting pretty fast.
After a brief link up with Savy, you drop her off at a club and anticipate a happier and longer reunion shortly after. But those hopes exit the car as quick as a client at their stop, as Savy falls off the map. No communication, no contacts, and no idea what is going on. With little choice in the matter, Lina opts to continue working. This allows you to hunt for information on LO and Savy while earning coin to keep your car charged up and put a temporary roof over your head via hotels and shared living spaces (bed and breakfast type deals.) The bulk of the gameplay comes via text-based actions, and every action has a reaction. The narrative in Neo Cab is rich, emotional, and very engaging, and it is all thanks to a multifaceted system that has you not only worried about Savy and your genuine interactions with those around you but also worried about your job.
Neo Cab is a fantastic piece of interactive art, as it is one of the few games recently that made me genuinely feel attached to characters past face value. I was all-in on developing relationships with these people and retaining them, for that matter. The gameplay is pretty similar to that of ROM 2064, in that you make conversational decisions to progress forward and essentially solve a mystery. It is much different in that you not only run a business the entire time but that you also have a visible “mood” that sometimes dictates what you can and cannot say. This takes the otherwise simple gameplay and adds a whole new depth to it. With the future comes futuristic gadgets, not excluding the Feelgrid. The Feelgrid is a sort of modern “Mood Ring” that features a ranged palette that helps Lina, you, and the clients hone in on exactly how Lina feels, even to varying degrees of intensity. Certain feelings unlock certain responses, while if a feeling is too intense, it may prevent you from saying something. It is an incredible dynamic and really manipulates how a conversation can go. Sometimes I would be dead set on a response and would ultimately be blocked by a mood swing or a mood-related observation. Managing this was key to managing your business.
Working for Neo Cabs is an uphill battle. Not only are your clients unpredictable, but Neo Cab watches your star rating closely. Having less than a 4 can get you fired (probably not really…), and a lower rating can also mean a limited clientele pool too. Certain premium members only accept drivers with a 5-star rating, which means you could miss out on a decent fare. Typically, you get to pick from 3 available clients on a map of Los Ojos. Not only do you earn different amounts of coin from these, but each takes a different amount of gas too. At the end of each night, you have to put yourself up at a hotel, so saving money on gas and making smart decisions during your fares (there are some special events where you can gain or lose coin outside of the standard ways.)
The beauty of this game is the power of your choices. Along the way in my playthrough, I made friends with people I favored, one of which wasn’t even a client, but rather one I was a client for at a bed and breakfast style place I spent the night. Even in this “end of day” scenario, there was a moving connection made by Lina. Some other interactions went south, with me being duped by a client or running into trouble with the law for trying to go the extra mile for a customer just for the sake of my rating. All the while, you dig deeper into Savy's whereabouts. I had genuine emotional reactions to characters and the world around them, as these little branches that connect to the overall spiritual tree of Neo Cab are all really thoughtful. There are several different endings, and surely several different ways conversations can play out, so I can definitely see myself replaying this one just to realize the scope of everything. Hell, there are some characters I never even picked up, just because I favored the friendship of another, so who knows what else LO has in store for me.
The game has a very fitting graphical style, with neon vibes and flashy tech playing a large role in the visual connections. People have all sorts of tech they rely on, towering glass buildings are burdened by the over-saturation of advertisements, and the style of each passenger is more unique than the next. While the world outside the car can sometimes feel a bit empty in passing, the characters that sit in the back bring enough pizazz to the show that you won’t feel the need to look for it elsewhere. There is also something incredibly refreshing about these pitstops Lina takes, whether it be to interact with someone outside the car or stay at a motel because the areas are so detailed and vibrant. The Aztec themed motel is a standout, and when staying there, the still shot is just a work of art to behold as you read about the surreal dreams Lina has there after a rough week of feeling out of place in a new city. The music is perfect for the game too. Its got just enough synth, bass, and futuristic vibes to be chill most of the time and subtly intense when it needs to be too, all without being overbearing so that you can keep reading and stay in tune with everything happening on screen. I definitely would not mind adding a vinyl copy to my growing collection of gaming OSTs on vinyl.
The game, at least on Switch, has only very minor problems. For one, anytime Lina goes to grab her phone to review notes, pick a gig, or look at recent reviews, there is this really ugly screen tear that almost looks like she takes a long blink. This is, thankfully, the only time it happens. There are a few instances of slowdowns too, but nothing overbearing or detrimental. I also think that some narrative scripts do not always line up. I was pulled over twice by the robo-police in the game, and Lina had some similar reactions the second time that would have made it seem like it was the first. There was also an interaction with a client via text that happened right after he was dropped off, but the text made it seem like it was the next day. Those are the only two narrative inconsistencies that ring a bell, other than maybe a few emotions feeling not inline during the last verbal “battle” you have towards the end. Otherwise, everything was smooth, deep, and narratively gripping. I don’t think I have been this emotionally invested in my choice of words in a game since the Mass Effect trilogy, except for maybe Night in the Woods, and that is saying something.
Like Night in the Woods before it, Neo Cab is a really easy game to put yourself in the shoes of the protagonist and really embrace being the character. We make choices every day, some are over thought, some are on a whim, but all are of our own doing. This game truly makes you feel empowered that way, and having to manage your job and even keep your emotions in check really keep this title from being just a read-along or a visual novel, and makes it one of the most unique and special titles I have played this year. While my ending was disappointing, it still gave me emotional responses. I hated how my run ended, I was upset that my efforts to better things did not work out, but as the player, I loved that Neo Cab elicited these feelings. Art is anything that can do something like that to you, and if that sounds up your alley, you should consider keeping real-life drivers on the streets of Los Ojos, and grab a copy of Neo Cab to do so.
*Note: A copy of this game was provided for the purpose of the review.
Final Score: 9/10
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