It’s perfectly reasonable to be wary of the future. Nationalism is on the rise, an economic recession is brewing, and the specter of climate change looms. Another potentially devastating development is the increasing prospect of automation. Great for businesses, but devastating for the job market. One such career that would be hit hard would be drivers for hire, which is something the protagonist of Neo Cab is all too familiar with.
Sometime in the future, technology has advanced to the point where AI drivers aren’t just possible, they’re practically essential. Tech giant Capra rules the industry with an iron fist, particularly in the neon paradise of Los Ojos. An unfortunate reality for Neo Cab driver Lina, who has just moved to the city to be with her best friend Savy. As one of the last human-for-hire drivers out there, she’s determined to make it work. Unfortunately for her, her friend disappears soon after her arrival, leaving her homeless and alone in an unfamiliar city. In order to discover what happened to her friend, and to survive in Los Ojos, she’ll need to do what she does best: drive.
The mystery of Savy’s disappearance may drive Lina, but the real meat of Neo Cab‘s story comes from the passengers she picks up. Customers – or pax as they are called in-game – are an essential group. Every pax has a story, and each one is worth seeking out. Unfortunately, there are only so many hours in the day, so you can’t give everyone a ride. Do you pick-up a repeat customer in order to hear about any recent developments? Or do you grab someone new and hope for the best? No matter what you do, you’ll be learning more about the moody Los Ojos — specifically, the technology, the people, and how the two intersect in nefarious ways.
These conversations go a long way towards fleshing out the world of Neo Cab. It’s where you learn just how far Capra’s reach goes, and just how reliant society has become on them. The more you learn, the more you realize just how awful it all is. How little control you actually have. Each conversation also helps fill in the blanks on Lina. Developer Chance Agency could have easily made her a blank slate for the player to inhabit. However, the studio went the extra mile to ensure that she acts like a real person with real feelings. She can experience true growth over her time in Los Ojos, as long as you put her on the right path.
Between the colorful cast and harsh commentary, the central mystery of the title kind of gets lost in the shuffle. What happened to Savy was ultimately the least interesting part of the narrative for me, probably because you don’t really get to know her before she disappears, so it’s hard to care about finding her. And the ending, at least the one I got, landed a little flat as a result. It doesn’t help that some of it culminates off-screen, which takes away some of the impact of your actions. Ultimately, it’s still about the journey, and not the destination. You can still be disappointed when you reach the end, though.
Despite Lina’s profession, you don’t actually do any driving in Neo Cab. That’s all handled automatically. Instead, you’re only focused on conversing with pax. How your interactions go with customers will determine if you can see the story through. The Neo Cab service requires all drivers to maintain at least a 4 star rating. Obviously, if you get along with your patrons, then you have nothing to worry about. If the conversation turns antagonistic, though, you could crater that rating. It seems like ratings are calculated daily, so if you have one bad ride out of your typical three, that’s a big deal.
You need to be in a good mood to bond with a pax, though, which is where the Feelgrid comes into play. Given to Lina by Savy when she first hits Los Ojos, the smart band keeps track of the driver’s mood, with the color on the band representing how she is feeling. Green and yellow are good, while blue and red are bad. That’s simplifying it, but you get the point. Depending on how Lina is feeling, she may only be able to respond to passengers in certain ways. If she’s mad, she’ll lash out, and if she’s feeling great, she could whip up a compliment. There’s a push and pull to the conversations where you need to keep the pax happy, but not at the expense of your own mood. It gives each discussion an appropriate amount of weight and realism.
Visually, Neo Cab is a bit of a mixed bag. I love the character designs. They strike the perfect balance between realistic and far-out futuristic. Lina looks like she would fit right in Brooklyn, while some of the pax look straight out of a sci-fi spectacle. The styles don’t clash, though, and work well with one another. However, what we see of Los Ojos is kind of drab. Recycled scenery and limited viewpoints make looking out the window kind of pointless. And considering the mood and tone of the game, the soundtrack is not nearly synth-heavy as I’d like — it feels like a wasted opportunity.
The performance on the Switch leaves quite a bit to be desired. Every time Lina goes to pick up her phone, a noticeable amount of lag/delay rears its ugly head. The screen also tears when it switches to the view of the Neo Cab app and I came across some odd quirks during different nights in Los Ojos. Early on in the game, you are pulled over by the police. Once the officer left me alone, the flashing lights of the patrol car still kept going, even after I picked up another passenger. There were also a few times where dialogue choices wouldn’t disappear after being selected, which would lead to them staying on-screen on top of a follow-up question. These issues popped up both when the Switch was docked and undocked.
With biting commentary and a memorable cast, Neo Cab is worth taking a ride with. It’s a uniquely engaging title that wants to talk about topics that other games may be scared to bring up — namely, the problems with the tech industry and how these companies keep infecting our lives with promises of making them better. It’s important to take stock of these things, and realize that just because it’s easier, that doesn’t mean it’s better. It’s not without its flaws, but much like the company Lina drives for, there’s something endearing about the off-kilter experience. In the future, these stories may become casualties, so we should savor them while we still have the chance.
This review was based on the Nintendo Switch version of the title. A copy was provided to us by Fellow Traveller.
Though encumbered by technical issues and a forgettable mystery, Neo Cab is worth the fare thanks to incisive commentary and a colorful cast of characters.