We all know just how awkward cab rides can be. After the initial greeting, there’s always that feeling - that dread - that you’ll be spending the next goodness-knows-how-long making awful small talk until you finally make it to your destination. Neo Cab takes this idea and runs with it, placing you in the shoes of a cab driver in a cyberpunk world monopolised by automated machines. It’s certainly a unique take on the concept, but does it work?
The answer, thankfully, is yes. Neo Cab has its fair share of awkward encounters as you explore the futuristic city of Los Ojos, but more often than not, these will develop into genuinely meaningful conversations that - despite the game’s limited graphical capabilities - make its citizens feel real. This isn’t necessarily a realistic portrayal of real life cab rides, but we were surprised to find that after our first few pickups, we were completely hooked.
You play as Lina, one of the last remaining human cab drivers after Los Ojos is taken over by the mega corporation known as Capra, whose automated cabs threaten Lina’s very way of life. Desperate to make enough money to make ends meet, you’re tasked with ferrying the citizens of Los Ojos around the city, ensuring that by providing a unique, memorable experience (and keeping your emotions in check), you maintain a high enough customer rating to continue in your role.
Starting within a digital map of the city, you can choose one of several potential pickups at any one time. Which one you choose will depend on a few things: their location on the map, how far they have to go, and whether or not they’re a member of Neo Cab Prime (which requires you to have a full 5-star cab rating). The first two variables directly impact your cab’s battery level, which you’ll need to top up at several Capra recharging stations located throughout the city. This, of course, costs a chunk of your hard-earned money.
When driving your customers around, the game shifts into a kind of visual novel format, with Lina’s interaction with her customers taking centre stage. Here, you can drive the conversations in different directions with various dialogue choices. The citizens of Los Ojos are remarkably well thought out and unique to one another - you might have a deep, philosophical conversation with an elderly lady at one moment, and then argue with a drunken layabout about whether or not they threw up in your backseat the next. There’s no right or wrong way to steer the conversations, but your precious customer rating will always be at the back of your mind. Which brings us onto perhaps the most interesting feature of Neo Cab.
Early in the game, Lina acquires a bracelet that visually communicates what emotion she’s currently feeling (even if Lina herself doesn’t necessarily know it). This is called Feelgrid, and it’s a great way of predicting how a conversation might play out - you can even utilise it to open up new, unique branches of dialogue that otherwise might not be available. The grid displays a total of 49 shades of red (anger), blue (sadness), green (contentment) and yellow (excitement), with a more intensifying shade of colour indicating a stronger emotion. It’s not the deepest mechanic in gaming, but it works, and having a visualisation of Lina’s emotions at all times is a great way to ensure that you’re not only looking after the well-being of your customers, but Lina’s as well.
Aside from performing your day (night?) job to the best of your abilities, the game also has an overarching plot involving Lina’s best friend Savy, and her mysterious disappearance. This dark shift in tone almost feels at odds with the nature of the gameplay, and whilst that plotline is visited periodically throughout the game, we never felt that much urgency in resolving her disappearance. We were far more content with simply meeting and conversing with the wonderfully endearing inhabitants of Los Ojos.