When we're presented with a cyberpunk future it's always a bleak dystopia, overrun by corporations and augmentations that haven't made the world a better place in any sense. This is no different with the world of Chance Agency's Neo Cab, but just like other titles such as VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action (which we were reminded of when playing), this shows us the perspective of the ordinary folk on the streets of such a world, rather than the lofty heroes we're used to seeing in cyberpunk fiction like Blade Runner.
Neo Cab sees you play as Lina, who arrives with her taxi in Los Ojos, California to start a new life. This is a city that is almost exclusively controlled and monopolised by Capra, a corporation that is even threatening your job with their self-driving cars. You're here to come and live with your best friend Savy, and all looks bright at the beginning of the game. Sure, the world is a bleak place filled with greed and selfishness, but at least you'll be living with your BFF, right?
Wrong. At the game's opening something seems off with Savy, and before long we notice that not everything is as it seems with her. She goes off the grid, and in order to stay afloat financially and gather clues as to her whereabouts, you need to keep operating your Uber-esque service, ferrying clients around the city and talking to them (visual novel style) while making regular stops at charging points. As a result, Neo Cab is all about balancing your financial needs - like paying for a charge, a room to sleep in, and fares for rides - with the search for your friend.
What's also interesting about this is that you often have to balance your morality with the realities of life as well. Capra hotels might cost less than an Airbnb-style place to stay, but that's like selling your soul, for example, although that might be what you need as money gets tight. You also need a four-star rating or above to continue operating your cab as well, so is it worth parking in a restricted zone and risk a fine in order to get to the place the passenger wants picking up from? You decide.
This also impacts the way you handle dialogue as well. Since customers decide your rating, you might need to hold your tongue if they're saying thins you don't agree with, but alternatively, you might want to speak your mind if they're being rude. They may also have information on Savy as well, and you'll need to play these conversations very cool if you want leads on your friend and what's happened to her.
This balancing act is a really interesting concept Chance Agency uses, as it really illustrates the bleakness of this dystopia. People might be sick in your car or downright abusive, and sometimes you just need to play along to get the rating you need and the money to survive. You also need to pay the bills, after all, especially after being abandoned by the one person you're meant to live with in this new city.
To top it all off, you're given a Feelgrid at the start of the game, a bracelet that has several nuanced colour options depending on your mood, which are subsequently on display for all to see. If you get angry, for example, the passenger will see your emotions plain and simple, although not all of them will notice. It's an interesting concept, and you can see your emotions shifting as the conversations ebb and flow in different directions.
These emotions also change what dialogue options are available to you as well. If there are two options when you're furious, for example, and one is lit up red, Lina might not let you choose the other one, and instead you're left only to go into a rage. In this way dialogue choices impact your emotions, but your emotional state subsequently impacts your dialogue choices in the same way, and it's a vicious cycle if you go down certain avenues.
There's a colourful cast of characters that get in and out of your taxi, and they're a mixed bag in terms of how pleasant they are. Some are strange but friendly, while others are needlessly hostile, albeit with information that might prove useful. Above all else, each is complex, and it's not immediately clear what will make them angry and what will get them on your side. One decision you think is best for them might leave you with a one-star rating afterwards, and vice versa.
Each has their own storyline in the vibrant tapestry of Los Ojos too, and you'll have the chance to pick up customers more than once, learning about their lives, the city of LO, and how they can maybe even help you. At certain points you can visit them in particular locations as well, like an underground doctor who practices illegal medicine, or a bouncer that has a key clue to Savy's location.
The visual design of each character is unique as well, and that applies to the purple glow of Los Ojos too. This is a dark city in more ways than one, and the colour and personality shines through via the people that cross your path every day, showing you the various areas of the city. While you might spend all your time just in the cab, the visual style is simple but effective, using sombre neon glows to great effect.
The one gripe we'd have with this whole system is that the dialogue at the end felt restrictive, right at the moment where we wanted entire freedom of choice. We'd built up in our head what we were going to do, but there were so many frozen options in conversation that we felt railroaded into a certain finale, whereas really we wanted to take things in an entirely different direction at the climax.
Still though, Neo Cab is a very special game indeed, despite the wobbles at the end. In one sense it's a visual novel, but it's more of an exploration of how to keep your morals with all these harsh realities, portraying the human side of a dystopia we've seen so often in the past. It shows how ordinary people live their lives in this corrupted world, and what they - as well as yourself - must do to survive when very few are on your side.
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