Neo Cab – Review
02 Oct, 2019
In Neo Cab, we drive passengers in a city where driving is going automated. Did we lose our jobs to our AI overlords? Here’s what we think.
The moment I was most into Neo Cab was after I finished a good ride, picked up my phone, and then several bated seconds later, I saw the star rating I’d received. It was a four. I sighed and I swore, but that four wasn’t going to magically turn into the five I needed to pick up a Prime passenger. But that’s exactly it. That’s exactly what the game wanted me to feel.
In Neo Cab, you play as Lina Romero, a driver running gigs for the ride-sharing service Neo Cab. She’s new in town: it’s her first night in the city of Los Ojos, in fact. After her best friend—who invited her to the city to begin with—straight up disappears, Lina is left at the mercy of the city. Now, she’s struggling to make ends meet and search for clues about her missing friend.
It’s a game about a driver in the gig economy, but the gameplay involves no driving at all. Instead, it revolves around conversations, emotions, and the all-important star rating that your passengers (“pax”) will give you after each ride. If your rating goes down, then you run the risk of losing your only job and livelihood.
With its glitzy, futuristic world and conversation-focused gameplay, Neo Cab calls to mind VA-11 Hall-A more than once. Like that game, Neo Cab is about meeting with a bunch of ‘regulars’ and learning their different personalities, connecting with them, and ultimately making decisions that could affect both their futures and yours.
But here’s the sci-fi twist: a major conceit that the game introduces is the ‘FeelGrid’, an all-too-plausible dystopian slice of technology that openly displays Lina’s emotional state on a bracelet. If it turns green, then Lina is feeling feeling chill. Yellow, and she’s happy. Red, and she’s burning up with rage. You can just tell there’d be customers for it if it existed in real-life.
The science-fiction commentary of Neo Cab is rooted in present-day concerns and predictions. It’s a game that asks questions about the gig economy, automation, social engineering, surveillance, sousveillance, corporate power, and the abuse of all of the above. Otherwise—and thankfully—it stands apart from the ornate trimmings of cyberpunk.
Every invention of Neo Cab’s world feels uncomfortably balanced on the line of plausibility and implausibility. “This shouldn’t happen in the future,” I told myself, and then followed it up with “Right?”.
Neo Cab sticks its spear into present-day corporations like Apple, Tesla, and Google, all of which are bundled up into the fictional megacorp Capra. The regular “pax” you pickup will usually have an opinion on the company. There’s the one who wants to line up for their next product without even knowing what it is, and then there’s one who wishes Capra destroyed. Oh, and there’s one strange cultist masochist ripped straight out of Stygian. I’m uh, not really sure what he’s doing there.
Your conversation choices in Neo Cab affect more than just your relationship with these passengers. The game’s core is about striking a balance between keeping them happy (thus ensuring a 5-star rating for you), keeping yourself emotionally positive (represented by your FeelGrid), investigating the disappearance of your friend, and of course, keeping your money and fuel in the green.
A single playthrough of the game lasted 4 hours for me, which I felt was just right for the main story that it wanted to tell. Unfortunately, it was barely enough time to unravel the mysteries of only one or two passengers. For the others, I’ll have to have a few more goes at the game, which I’m entirely prepared to do, given how smooth and stimulating the game’s experience was.
Despite the pleasant, soothing visuals, Neo Cab’s greatest strength is its punchy writing. The characters of Neo Cab are vivid and designed to elicit strong opinions, and the game’s imagination soars beyond its visual world. It takes you to distant memories and dynamic situations, all with the power of its text. The game is also masterfully crafted in terms of the interactive choice that’s offered.
My choices had direct consequences on how the game played out, as well as on who got involved in what. The most immediate consequence of your conversations is, of course, the emotion represented by your FeelGrid. If you feel an emotion too strongly, new dialogue choices may appear for you, while others may be blocked off.
The latter is an interesting concept, because I felt it simulated that sense of thinking about things to say, but then feeling emotionally blocked about saying what you wanted to say. It’s not satisfactory, especially as we’ve come to expect games that let us roleplay any dialogue choice that is available.
It’s a bit different from the ‘skill check options’ that you’d find in Western RPGs. In those, you can see the ‘meta’ of how your character could have been different had you rolled your character differently. But in Neo Cab’s blocked dialogue choices, you know that Lina has already thought of that dialogue option. She just won’t—or rather, can’t—say it because her emotions won’t let her.
The choices you make (or that get made for you, as is the case sometimes) will eventually affect the ending that you flow into. In my case, I landed with a real bummer of an ending. It would’ve soured my opinion of the game, had I not enjoyed the ride until that point. Of course, there is the promise of things turning out differently in my next run, if I just play my emotional cards right.
With its topical writing and interesting characters, Neo Cab is a compellingly-crafted science-fiction adventure that sparks important questions on where technology and society might be headed.
Developer: Chance Agency
Country of Origin: United States
Publisher: Fellow Traveller
Release Date: 3rd October (PC, Mac, Switch, iOS)
This review of Neo Cab is based on a copy provided by the publisher. The PC version of the game was played for this review.
WHAT DID IND13 THINK?
FOUR OUT OF FIVE STARS
Neo Cab is a slick, topical narrative about technology and society, and how the two might collide in the near-future.