Neo Cab Review — Deep, Dark, and Moody
Neo Cab does it's neo-noir thing, but you'll often feel more like a passenger than a driver.
Neo Cab offers a relaxing alternative to the hustle and bustle of modern gaming. It doesn’t ask you to grind levels, learn complex battle systems, or execute difficult jumps. Instead, it is entirely narrative-oriented: the only thing Neo Cab asks is that you read carefully and answer questions thoughtfully. In return, you’ll meet several vibrant characters and interact with a story that deftly blends science fiction and noir. Despite lacking eye-popping AAA visuals, Neo Cab is a great example of the unique way video games can carry a narrative.
As far as the neo-noir setting goes, Neo Cab gets the big things right. Perennially night? Check. Synthwave soundtrack? Check. City ruled by a nefarious corporation? Check. That’s all great, and every time I booted up this game I instantly felt the “mood” of Neo Cab. I felt the touch of gloom, with suspicious characters lurking around every corner. The ruinous wake of a hostile corporate takeover cast over the city like a net. I felt ambiance.
However, some of the details of the game aren’t quite so committed to the neo-noir shtick. Some characters are a bit too goofy, and in general there just doesn’t seem to be enough seediness in Los Ojos. Outside of a few isolated moments, the city feels a little too lifeless. The reigning king of neo-noir, Blade Runner, is great because its world feels lived-in and even somewhat threatening. Los Ojos, on the other hand, is a bit sterile and a bit toothless. The writers took an austere approach to the city’s design, and I think it’s a case of wanting to have a cake and eat it too. They want Neo Cab to be both a hard-boiled neo-noir and also a jaunty, family-friendly cartoon. They want the cyberpunk crowd, but they’re a little squeamish about showing blood. Ultimately, the total vision of this setting lacks cohesion.
For the most part, though, this is a minor distraction. In broad strokes, the setting of Neo Cab is fine, and every individual interaction with a character is essentially well-written and entertaining.
Additionally, there is a common thread tying all of your experiences with the game’s characters together–an interest in exploring what’s left of humanity in a city ruled by tech. Every character you meet wants to talk about what it means to be human in a machine’s world: the importance of human contact, intuition, and love. Their society’s reliance on technology troubles them. For example, the protagonist drives a Neo Cab (a cab… from the future…), and she hates the driverless cars that populate the streets of Los Ojos. She becomes visibly angry when a passenger (or “Pax”) expresses any kind of sympathy for the company that builds them. It threatens to take her job, and she fears for a future where this company micromanages every aspect of human life and interaction.
When characters become too upset or run-down by life in Los Ojos, it’s your job to select good dialogue options. Your answers have two distinct effects: 1) an effect on the protagonist’s mood, and 2) an effect on her relationship with her passengers. If your answers are too deferential and obsequious, the mood of the protagonist may suffer. However, if you’re too “honest” and stubborn, you’ll cause the driver and the passenger to fight. For the most part, I found “correct” answers to be pretty intuitive and in-line with my own sensibilities. Your mileage may vary.
After a ride, each passenger gives the driver a rating based on the way you talked with them. If her overall rating gets too low, her cab might get shut down. I never tested the limits of this mechanism—I aimed to please. However, at one point I did kick out a Pax who was a real jerk. I received a bad rating for my service, and I never saw him again. Even though that passenger was morally repulsive, I was sad to lose touch with him. I’m sure there was some kind of redemption arc that I missed.
Furthermore, missing out on a character’s story is missing out on the point of Neo Cab–responding to dialogue prompts is its only gameplay element. For the most part, I enjoyed this and was eager to see what the characters would say next. The protagonist is relatable and capable, and her dialogue options are meaningful and often funny. Likewise, the supporting cast of characters is interesting and well-rounded. Through them, Neo Cab puts its finger on the pulse of a lot of important and contemporary social issues, and yet it maintains a balanced view of humanity and society. All in all, Neo Cab has a good sense for the subtlety of real human emotion. A game driven entirely by narrative is an awfully simple premise, but good writing goes a long way.
So the writing is good, which is awesome, but I do wish Neo Cab offered a little bit more. It is basically just a choose-your-own-adventure novel with graphics–and it doesn’t really feature many graphics. I don’t know about you, but I play video games because I don’t just want to read about the cool stuff, I want to look at it. For example, when I hear about a bicycle gang vandalizing a driverless car just outside my cab, I want to take a look at the brouhaha. Unfortunately, in Neo Cab, all you can do is read about this situation. Your passenger in the back seat tells you what’s happening. In fact, you’ll spend most of the game looking at a two-shot of the protagonist and whatever passenger she’s driving around–and even they will seem very static and lifeless.
That’s not to say Neo Cab doesn’t look nice. It does. The art style of Neo Cab is minimal, but it’s distinct—a blend of Art Deco and pop art sensibilities. The color palette is also cool. Since it’s eternally night in Los Ojos, most everything features deep blues and purples. This helps make the lights—traffic lights, window lights, etc.—really pop out in comparison. The characters look a little funny to me, honestly, but they aren’t too bad.
Again, my main issue with this game isn’t how it looks, but with the fact that it doesn’t show more of it. Neo Cab’s lack of commitment to visual storytelling is disappointing precisely because its aesthetic and world are so good. Basically, I just want to see more of Neo Cab and Los Ojos. The lack of follow-through is definitely a bit of a sore spot.
The soundtrack of Neo Cab complements its setting and art style. You’ll find appropriately deep synth lines at every turn, and I think they do a great job of driving the action and intrigue of the game. It often reminded me of John Carpenter’s work on films like Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China—the music is present, good, and synthesized, but it never overwhelms the action of what’s happening on screen. It paints a mood, and it lets the characters take it to the next level.
And ultimately, I think playing Neo Cab takes a mood. When you’re tired after a long day and can’t bring yourself to deal with anything more challenging or more involved, Neo Cab will be there. It isn’t going to amaze you with ornate animations or deep gameplay, but it might calm you down. It’ll get you to think about life and society, and it’ll take you on a bizarre trip through a futuristic town and the fragile psychological state of its denizens. Be prepared, though, for a game that is entirely devoted to storytelling. What gameplay it offers is just icing-on-the-cake, and it could probably use a bit more sugar.