Have you ever wondered what it might be like to drive a cab? Uber and Lyft seem like great, flexible options, but what really goes on when you get behind the driver's seat? What's more, what kind of people do you meet? Futuristic cyberpunk adventure Neo Cab attempts to answer these questions and more, throwing criticism of the gig economy (yawn) into a blender with heavily-stylized artwork, heavy narrative moments, and wearables that share your emotional state with others. Change Agency's narrative game is certainly ambitious, but does it swerve or keep its eyes on the road? Here's a hint: I hope you're wearing your seatbelt.
Road trippin' to Los Ojos
Neo Cab has you jumping into the driver's seat as Lina Romero, a Neo Cab driver who's just trying to make it in the city of Los Ojos, California. She's one of the last human cab drivers in the city. The rest have been replaced by automated cars controlled by an organization named Capra, which is the monolithic corporation most of the public seems to rally against at every opportunity.
Lina feels alone and ostracized as she struggles to find her place in the city she now calls home. She traveled quite a long way by car to meet her best friend Savy there, who invited Lina to come live with her. After a falling-out before Savy left home (and Lina) behind, Savy hopes to rekindle their friendship by moving in and rebuilding their relationship. But things are off to a rough start when Lina arrives in Los Ojos and Savy immediately asks for a ride to a seedy location and seemingly vanishes into thin air afterward, effectively ghosting her best friend for the rest of the night.
Alone as Lina, you're stuck working shifts as a human cab driver picking up passengers ("pax") and taking them where they want to go, all the while waiting for your "friend" (who really seems more like a vapid waste of space instead) to let you know where she's gone. I mean, come on. Lina came all that way to live with Savy and instead of the pair immediately going to their home together and getting Lina settled in, Savy begs for a ride and ditches Lina. It's like you're set up to hate Savy from the start. Or maybe the writers don't really understand how decent friends treat each other. Straight away after meeting Savy I was practically begging Lina in my head to abandon this plan of staying in Los Ojos with her and urged her to go back home to find a friend who didn't think she was disposable. Unfortunately, that didn't happen, so I pressed on.
A typical shift for Lina means driving to a spot to pick up a pax, then taking them to their location. Occasionally, Lina must make a pit stop to charge up her car, or get some sleep for the night at a capsule hotel. It's your choice when it comes to figuring out how to manage her time. A productive shift includes picking up a few passengers and getting them to their destination to rack up good star ratings and cash. Exploring Los Ojos at night is a treat, and the aesthetic is soothing as well as oddly oppressive, as you can practically feel how alienated Lina is by being a human driver at all times, even though you never really see anyone on the streets or anything other than stills of most buildings you roll up to.
You don't have to worry about doing anything but answering questions and making decisions in Neo Cab, though I wish you could have had the option to actually drive people around instead of just talking to them. So all you have to do is make conversation and try to accommodate each pax to the best of your ability. At the end of each ride, you'll receive a star rating out of five and some cash. If you let your rating dip below 4.7 you risk penalties, so it's best to kowtow to passengers the best you can. And what a motley crew there are. While there are some nice, pleasant passengers who share poignant stories about their lives (I particularly enjoyed an ex-convict's tale about wanting to start up a cookie business), there are others who are just as annoying (or more) as Savy.
I was particularly irritated by one pax named Azul, who literally opened my cab door and helped themselves in. I refused to help Azul, but they pressed on until it appeared my only action was to accept that they “needed help.” But after climbing into my cab, the whole time Azul complained about cars being death machines, and how anti-car they were. I bristled at their audacity then, and later when they refused to let me into a night club to seek out Savy.
It’s the same kind of entitled, whiny attitude I see day after day from others my age or younger (and honestly, the older crowd too) and it robbed my enjoyment of the game. I’m not playing a game to constantly be annoyed by people who aren’t appreciative of what others do and try to push their agenda on them, all the while asking for things. It’s not my scene.
One accused me of having puke in the backseat of my cab, and then insisted he wasn't responsible. Another was constantly asking questions for a survey as she worked for Capra. Others just had an attitude because they found Neo Cab a relic, representative of a way of life that had been looked down upon for some time based on accidents and deaths surrounding cars. All of them, however, were made much more frustrating by the presence of Lina's "Feelgrid."
Green doesn’t always mean go
A Feelgrid is an accessory that citizens in the world of Neo Cab wear on their wrists as a bracelet (or a necklace, in Savy's case) to broadcast their emotional state by way of color. A blue glow indicates sadness, where green is peaceful, happy, and relaxed. It's like an electronic mood ring that “forces” you to be more open and honest about your feelings. Except it also limits your conversation options.
So if you take too many rides and Lina’s on edge, you might be stuck with a red Feelgrid, and you can’t say anything nice. You’re just stirring the pot every time you open your mouth, for instance. While I understand this system and that it’s supposed to behave as something of a morality system that affects your relationships a la Mass Effect (or at least something similar), it ended up seemingly swapping at random and disallowing me responses until I was faced with one. This resulted in several conversations that felt as though I was being steered in a direction I didn’t want to go in.
For instance, I couldn’t tell someone off when I was in a great mood, and I wasn’t really able to patch things up as well as I wanted to once Lina had gone off the red deep end. This was a problem several times, and I couldn't properly shape the game the way I wanted because of it. Making choices in a narrative game shouldn't be relegated to how "tired" a character is or what an arbitrary mood reader says about how they're feeling.
While I liked the idea, it was one of the things I ended up disliking throughout Neo Cab the most. It felt like a rudimentary way to force me into having conversations I didn't want to have. I just didn't like having my hand held to be walked through branches of conversations. I wanted to have te license to screw up myself had I wished. Because there are several pivotal situations that require the utmost of care when replying to some of your pax, this system really should offer more freedom and leniency, trusting that players know how to steer their conversations.
Not quite a 5-star ride
Neo Cab is a muddled mixture of themes that work together well at first blush – that is, until you spend any significant amount of time with it. I wanted to like the game a lot more than I did. I enjoyed the demo I had played at PAX West 2018 far more than the final product presented to me in this package, and often during my time with the Switch edition, I found myself longing to play "that" version again because I had come away so pleased with the experience. Perhaps it was because I was able to skip over many of the segments that frustrated me in that curated look at the game.
Maybe it’s because Neo Cab is really not meant to be played in long stretches. Unfortunately, I surmise it’s because, while flashy and immediately arresting, it just isn’t that compelling. Being frank, it could have used a bit more drive. As it stands, it's getting a middling driver rating from me.
This review is based on a Nintendo Switch code provided by the publisher. Neo Cab is available on October 3 on NIntendo Switch and PC. It's available now via Apple Arcade.
- Great atmosphere and visuals.
- True-to-life experience similar to Uber or Lyft drivers.
- Plenty of passengers to meet.
- Grating dialogue and passengers.
- The Feelgrid only serves to detract from the experience.
- Wholly unlikeable side character derails the main plot almost immediately.
- Some passengers appear to spout nonsense for the sake of being "quirky."