"Gamers easily get the sense that they're the ones driving down Los Ojos' roads as the story plays out."
Confession time: I'm not the best at driving, and I prefer to avoid it whenever I can. Ironically, one of the games I am most excited about this year is a narrative adventure title that puts gamers in the role of a driver-for-hire in a futuristic city! Neo Cab has players take the mantle of Lina Romero, a woman who just moved to the nearly fully automated city of Los Ojos at the request of her best friend Savy. Lina is a driver for the titular Neo Cab, one of the few taxi services that still employs human drivers. The company's cabs are a rare sight in Los Ojos, which happens to be the headquarters of Capra, an automated business that threatens to put Neo Cab and other human-based companies out of business.
Lina's arrival in Los Ojos occurs just as things begin to figuratively hit the fan. There's conflict between Capra and anti-Capra protestors, along with an anti-car group known as Radix. There's even a proposed safety law that threatens to completely ban all human drivers in the city. To make matters worse and add some more personal stakes, Lina's friend goes missing shortly after the pair reunite, and there are hints that Savy might be connected to both Capra and Radix. Not knowing anyone else in Los Ojos and being incredibly short on Coin, Lina continues picking up pax — Neo Cab passengers — as she searches for Savy, all while trying to keep her cool within the looming shadow of a company threatening her very livelihood.
Neo Cab is a thoughtful, personal story set in an excellently built sci-fi setting. Los Ojos' nighttime is dark but set aglow with neon lights that perfectly fit the cyberpunk feel and premise of the game. Character art is detailed and expressive, with futuristic sci-fi touches to hairstyles and clothing. For the most part, you see Neo Cab's story play out from the inside of Lina's car. The camera cleverly pans around to give either a clear view of Lina and her pax during their drive, or the pax is displayed over Lina's shoulder in the rearview mirror. Gamers easily get the sense that they're the ones driving down Los Ojos' roads as the story plays out.
Each pax varies greatly in terms of personality and design, and your job as Lina is to not only drive them but also serve as a confidant. Because each pax has their own vastly distinct stories and goals, Lina's approach to keeping them happy (and therefore making sure that her oh-so-important star rating doesn't decrease) will be quite different depending on just who is in the backseat. Dialogue trees in Neo Cab have quite a few options that help steer the conversation and mood. Sometimes Lina simply has to play the role of an agreeable listener, and other times players can put up a sterner approach as having Lina speak her mind might just be the way to earn the respect of her passenger for the night. How you approach these interactions really just depends on paying attention to the cues the characters give Lina.
Emotions also play a key role in these pax conversations. Early on in Neo Cab, Lina is given the gift of a FeelGrid bracelet, a piece of new technology that reveals what the wearer is feeling through colored lights. Feeling too much or too little of a certain emotion can block off dialogue choices entirely, or it might make a pax feel off-put and cause them to refrain from speaking on certain topics. The way the FeelGrid and emotions in general are incorporated into Neo Cab's story is fascinating, though I do admit feeling somewhat frustrated when Lina's mood kept me from gaining a good rating and even once guaranteed me a bad, despair-inducing ending on my first playthrough.
Beyond simply trying to please Los Ojos' pax and help them through their own stories, Lina also has to be aware of the amount of Coin she has on her person. Naturally, the easiest way to gain Coin is driving pax around the city. Coin is used to do pretty much anything in Los Ojos: from charging up Lina’s car in order to ensure you can actually pick up passengers to making donations to using a bed-finding app cleverly called Crashr for a good night's sleep at the end of a shift (which is vital to boosting Lina's starting mood the next day). I often found that I'd have to accept one extra ride even after meeting Lina's quota for a night just to get the Coin I'd need for the next day, though I imagine thriftier gamers could probably figure out ways around that.
Neo Cab's characters are colorful and diverse, and I loved learning more about Lina's pax and seeing how their stories developed as I accepted their returning ride offers. In fact, the cast is so large that Neo Cab is rife with replayability because you are encouraged to form close relationships with Lina’s pax along with keeping up her star rating. On my good ending playthrough, I was close enough with just two of my pax to potentially have a final ride with one of them, and that's only a tiny fraction of the characters you get to know while traversing Los Ojos. I didn't even meet a few of them in my playthroughs due to the different routes I took.
Replayability and choice are key elements in Neo Cab as there are differing outcomes to individual rides as well as the overall plot. I know that I didn't see everything Neo Cab has to offer in my first two playthroughs, and that made me want to play even more to see what might happen if I chose to approach certain scenarios differently. The game even makes wry meta commentary on this replayability factor in the form of the pax Oona, an eccentric quantum statistician who talks about all of the possible diverging timelines that Lina can uncover.
Overall, my largest complaint with Neo Cab is its auto-save feature. The game keeps multiple save files for each night that you play, but I found the times where the game would actually save frustrating. I'd often have to replay scenes whenever I returned to the game after closing it on my Switch simply because the auto-save had happened earlier for that night and I hadn't yet reached another save point. Ultimately, the auto-save feature is a minor annoyance in an era when saving at any time has pretty much become the norm, particularly in visual novel/narrative adventure games such as this.
Neo Cab's controls are fluid and easy to pick up, and I didn't notice any typos in the English language version of the script. I loved that even the loading screens offered some world-building information, as that revealed plot elements quite nicely. The game is text- and dialogue-heavy, but even with the lack of voice acting, I found that the words conveyed a lot of emotion and personality.
While Neo Cab's story does have the trappings of corporate espionage and fighting against a larger power than oneself, this isn't the sort of epic sci-fi yarn one might expect from such a setting. Rather, Lina's journey is far more personable, with her tale as well as the individual stories of her pax fitting nicely into a larger whole. Pulling away from a toxic relationship to do good both for yourself and others; encouraging people to follow their own paths if needed; just being there to offer a supportive ear while someone decides what to do on their own: there is something wholly human about Neo Cab's plot despite the mechanical environment the story takes place in. I appreciated that this message was at Neo Cab's core and thought it was approached rather creatively through the cyberpunk atmosphere.
Neo Cab is a short but altogether engrossing and clever game that offers players a lot of replayability. Lina's journey in Los Ojos was ultimately very fulfilling once I reached one of the game's better endings, and I regretted none of my time behind the virtual wheel. Those who crave an original cyberpunk setting might find this creative, independent title worth playing.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.