Developer: Chance Agency Publisher: Fellow Traveller
Release Date: October 3, 2019 Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Steam, Apple Arcade
Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch
Prior to Neo Cab, I don’t think I’ve ever rolled credits on a game and started a new save file on that same game immediately. It’s safe to say that I enjoyed my time with Neo Cab on both play throughs. The fact that the game is a relatively short experience, provides a variety of choices, isn’t difficult in the traditional sense but challenging in the emotional and moral choices it presents, makes this an accessible game that is easy to recommend.
The game is set in a cyberpunk, dystopian future, dominated by large companies and their apps. You play as Lina Romero, a gig worker who drives at night for the company Neo Cab, a sort of Uber or Lyft service. There are few actual drivers left as rival corporation, Capra, has come to dominate transit with its autonomous vehicles. Lina is moving from her hometown of Cactus Flats, a smaller, rural location, to the big border town of Los Ojos, a dense urban ultra-modern metropolis. Lina is uprooting her life to live in the big city with her old friend Savy, who she has just reconnected with after a falling out in the past. Lina’s outsider status as a new resident of Los Ojos allows you, the player, to experience the sights, and most importantly the inhabitants, of this bleak tech-driven landscape, for the first time. You learn about the ongoing political issues and new technology in a natural way that doesn’t feel too expository.
Neo Cab’s gameplay is primarily akin to a visual novel. For most of the game, you’re making dialogue decisions, navigating the awkward space between trying to maintain your required star rating with Neo Cab, and not letting your passengers push you around. In many visual novels, you move from place to place and engage with the people there, but in Neo Cab, you are tied to your car, and choose which passengers to pick up, or occasionally, which physical location to drive to. You do this through an app on Lina’s phone, and while this is just another take on that typical visual novel gameplay, it’s different enough and the UI integrates so well with the game that it makes it feel unique and seamless. In addition to worrying about your star rating, as the player, you’re concerned about Lina’s bank account, how much charge is left in the car, and whether you’ll have enough money to survive another day. The choices are fraught with the difficulty of trying to navigate between doing what is right and making ends meet. You’re often choosing between emotional honesty and placating others.
The game deals with emotions in depth; the developers describe it as “an emotional survival game.” Lina uses a FeelGrid, a wearable that displays her emotional state, by color, on her wrist. The FeelGrid, and accompanying app, showcase for Lina and her passengers how she’s feeling. Lina’s condition can affect what dialogue options are available to the player, both granting and removing dialogue choices. The FeelGrid affects not only these possibilities, but can impact the player, as they may want to reduce Lina’s anger or sorrow. If the idea of the FeelGrid makes you uneasy, then perhaps you’d be glad to know several of the characters in the game feel the same way. It is one part of the game’s social commentary on how technology, corporations, apps, and gig work have come to dominate our lives.
Between difficult passengers, the threat of police, finding close but reasonable prices for charging stations, and the required star rating from Neo Cab, the game does a great job of conveying the anxiety of being a gig worker just trying to get through the night. It also dives head first into some of the difficult questions around technology, wearables, surveillance, and companies collecting people’s data. In addition, there are characters with strong feelings about autonomous vehicles, human drivers, and the very existence of cars. While the game may be set in the future, and the technology may be more advanced, the games speaks to the reality of today’s debates around these topics.
I’ve been focused on the gameplay and story so far, but it’s important to note that the game has a great and fitting aesthetic as well. The soundtrack, consisting of electronica and synthwave sounding material, connects with the game’s tone. The art style is a sort of mix. While the characters appear in a hand-drawn, Western comic book style, the city itself, which we see only at night, is a hazy wash of neon colors, and has a more 3D, boxy look. Those two styles work well together, and with the vibe of the game.
If you can’t tell already, I really enjoyed playing through this game. It’s no surprise to me that Neo Cab made the Boss Rush Games list of top 50 games released since 2014. If there’s any criticism to be leveled, it’s that the stand out moments of the game come from interacting with Lina’s passengers, and not from following the main story line. That’s not to say that the main story beats are bad, but rather I didn’t feel as much connection with the main story, or motivation to follow that thread over picking up repeat passengers I became invested in. But ultimately, the game hooked me, was an easygoing (if sometimes anxiety provoking) experience, and left me interested in the characters, world, and thoughtful about the connections to our society.
Have you played Neo Cab? Did you enjoy the game? Let us know in the comments below or join the conversation on the Boss Rush Discord.
Patrick Knisely is an associate writer for Boss Rush Network. In addition, he’s a freelance video game writer, with his most recent work being on the VR game Totally Baseball. Patrick also co-hosts the podcast Super Switch Headz. You can find him on Twitter and Twitch.