Talky Taxi

HIGH Affecting dialog and top-flight world-building.

LOW Rough edges can undermine the narrative impact.

WTF Put on your seatbelt, lady!

One only needs to look at the huge market for simulator games to know that even the most mundane activities can be entertaining when couched in the concept of play. They can even convey an engrossing narrative, and though it stretches the definition of “simulator”, Chance Agency’s sci-fi tale Neo Cab puts drama and emotion into the context of working life.

In Neo Cab’s case, the work in question is driving, which is done by Lina, a contractor working for the titular, Uber-like ride-sharing outfit. Lina just so happens to be one of the last remaining human drivers on the streets of Los Ojos, a hive of tech innovation on the verge of outlawing old-school manual cars in favor of AI-driven taxis run by Capra, a huge multinational conglomerate. Lina must navigate the city’s nightlife, hunt down clues to a missing friend’s whereabouts, and perhaps determine the fate of Los Ojos itself.

Of course, doing all of that necessitates making it to the next night, which brings us to the core of Neo Cab‘s gameplay — driving customers around.

Neo Cab isn’t exactly Crazy Taxi, though. If anything it’s the opposite, as players don’t actually do any of Lina’s driving themselves.  Instead, they control which passenger Lina chooses to drive during her shift. Each one is unique, and, in the manner of the seminal HBO reality show Taxicab Confessions, players gain insight and influence into their lives through conversations they strike up during the ride.

The denizens of Los Ojos are an interesting, diverse group spanning the cyberpunk spectrum, such as a cultist who believes in an immense underground worm that feeds on human misery, a privileged child locked by overprotective parents inside a “Kindermech” cyborg exoskeleton, a quantum statistician who views alternative timelines to hack her way past corporate and private firewalls, a car-hating bicycle activist trying to balance their anti-car views with wariness over handing corporations a monopoly on the streets, and more.

Neo Cab‘s writing is strong with naturalistic and genuinely funny exchanges that serve as clever ramps into interesting sci-fi topics as diverse and interesting as privilege, race, surveillance, automation and AI training, and even recidivism among ex-convicts in one scenario. Through it all, the sharp and witty writing helps players see the different characters as people, rather than human-shaped mouthpieces for whatever topic the writers wanted to bring up.

Of course, Neo Cab is hardly the first game to address such topics, but two things set its storytelling apart from the crowd. The first is its unusual, gig-economy framing. As a rideshare driver, Lina is rated by each of her passengers, meaning she (and by extension, the player) needs to cater to them by choosing her responses accordingly and even taking risks to make them happy. Should Lina risk getting fined to pick up her fare in a no-loading zone? Should she hide negative opinions about Capra when she ferries a Capra employee around, or would they appreciate her candor? Feeling each passenger out and finding the best (or truest) thing to say adds a sense of dynamism and reactivity to Neo Cab‘s storylines.

The second twist comes courtesy of a gizmo on Lina’s wrist — the Feelgrid. As a near-future cross between a mood ring and a FitBit, the FeelGrid changes color based on Lina’s emotional state. Being in the blue might mean she’s feeling sad or depressed, and sticking in the green might show Lina’s feeling cheerful or energetic. This helpfully clues players in to the nuances of tone that can’t be delivered purely through text or the characters’ animations, and certain emotional states can unlock new dialog options, or even lock out others.

For example, Lina, incensed by a customer’s behavior, might be too angry to bury her natural reactions and play nice, potentially endangering her driver rating. While the ability to constrain one’s options could make the FeelGrid system seem too restrictive, I appreciated its effect in establishing Lina’s character as more than a simple cipher for the player, and emphasizing that people are indeed sometimes ruled by their emotions, for good and ill alike.

Unfortunately, some rough edges keep Neo Cab from meeting its full potential. For example, the performance drags in spots, with dips in the framerate being particularly noticeable when playing on the Switch’s handheld mode. Luckily, narrative titles like this are hardly dependent on framerate, so it’s a mild annoyance at worst. More impactful are bugs that can affect progress by accidentally locking players onto an empty map with nothing to do, or even failing to account for key choices that determine the ending. Neo Cab is so short that even the most heinous bug wouldn’t cause too much damage, but to see them present at all is disappointing.

Bugs aside, Neo Cab stands tall as a thoughtful and genuinely affecting piece of sci-fi fiction, and one of the better attempts at dialogue I’ve seen in my long career playing games. Hopping into Lina’s cab and touring Los Ojos is a ride I would be happy to take again.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Chance Agency and published by Fellow Traveller. It is currently available on PC and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Switch. Approximately 6 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode. There are no multiplayer modes. The game was completed.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T with no descriptors. More detailed information was unavailable at the time of writing, but the content features no violence. Characters are rendered stylistically. Storylines refer to adult situations and characters swear occasionally.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue is reflected in text and visual interface elements. There are no audio cues needed for gameplay, though some audio cues used do not have a visual accompaniment and may make notifications easier to miss.

Remappable Controls: This game’s button controls are not remappable. Movement is controlled via the analog stick or face buttons, with options selected via face buttons. When used in the Nintendo Switch’s handheld mode, the game features full touchscreen control.

Josh Tolentino
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