By Terris Harned (NWOrpheus)
It seems that for some people, all you need for a piece of work to fall into the cyberpunk medium is some cybernetics or an online virtual world. Kind of like how people think if you put a gear on a tophat it’s somehow steampunk. Sure, those are common enough themes in cyberpunk and steampunk, but it’s missing one crucial element: the punk.
Now I’m not talking about the music movement from the ‘70s and ‘80s (not that punk is dead), but rather the ideology that spawned from that movement. Anti-establishmentarianism, defiance, free thought, and expression of discontent were what was truly at the core of the punk movement.
In cyberpunk, we often see this ideology represented as resistance to the oppressive corporate overlords that will inevitably have more power than the governments, which even now they’re buying up piecemeal. But we’re here to talk about the quasi-dystopian cyberpunk of Neo Cab, not the dystopia we currently live in.
In Neo Cab you play as Lina: a young woman who has recently moved from a quiet small town to the big city of Los Ojos at the bequest of her best friend, Savy. Lina works as a rideshare operator for the company sharing a name with the game’s title, Neo Cab. Neo Cab is one of the last holdout companies operating real human drivers. A mega-corporation, Capra, has replaced the majority of drivers on the streets of Los Ojos, which its denizens colloquially call Automation City.
Lina and Savy have some history, and it is because of this history that Savy gifts Lina with a piece of technology called a “feel grid” bracelet. The bracelet reads Lina’s hormone levels and other biometrics in order to discern, and display, what her current emotional state is. Think high-tech mood ring/bracelet.
This bracelet is a central part of the Neo Cab gameplay experience, as is Lina’s emotional state. The other core mechanic, dialogue with passengers, is heavily influenced by Lina’s mood. Lina’s mood will influence the things she is able to say and the ways she is allowed to react to her passengers.
For example, if Lina is extremely happy, she’s likely going to be unable to tell someone off. Similarly if she’s irate because, say, the passenger puked in her back seat and lied about it, she’s unlikely to smile and shrug it off. Lina is, quite literally, ruled by her emotions.
As much as I love this mechanic and how the two blend, I also feel it can be a bit limiting. It often seems as though you’re forced into situations that have no possible positive outcome for Lina, regardless of what you might say or do. It can feel very much like you’re on rails in a way that I didn’t quite like, although I did understand it was part of the narrative. It made it feel more like I was experiencing a visual novel than playing a game, at times.
One reason that these passenger conversations are important is that passengers will always give you a star rating when you give them rides, in addition to Coin (the currency used by Capra corp, which seems to have taken over the USD for accepted currency). Your driver rating is an average of your last five ratings from passengers. In order to access certain portions of the story you must have a five star rating.
Perhaps there is ultimately a way to have a positive outcome with passengers such as the aforementioned puker, but when you immediately become so angry with said passenger that it limits your reactions for the rest of the trip, where you simply become more and more angry, it is hard to see.
There’s also no way to save the game to go back and try again with that passenger. If you screw it up, you have to either move on, or just start a new game. You can’t even just say “Well, I’ll never pick him up again!” because they’ll throw that passenger in with another one when you least suspect. Again, I understand that this is part of the narrative, but I found it to be more frustrating than satisfying personally.
The final mechanic you’ll find yourself faced with is money. As I mentioned, you earn Coin for driving people, but you also have to charge your vehicle at one of the many service stations scattered around Los Ojos. Depending on which station you’re at, this can range from extremely pricey to a real bargain, so there’s an element of strategy in regards to when, where, and how much to recharge your battery.
In addition to needing to keep your car running, you’ll need to find a place to stay at night. The whole reason you’re driving around Los Ojos is that your friend Savy first flaked on you, and then disappeared, leaving behind a distressed message and a mysterious clue.
Unfortunately Savy never gave you a key to the apartment the two of you are supposed to be sharing, nor even its exact location. As such, you’re left staying at various hotels around town at the end of each day. Hotels vary in their accommodations as well as their price, from the cheap Capra Pods to higher end suites.
I honestly didn’t do much testing to see if there were mechanical differences between the locations, because I didn’t really have the Coin to do so, but I did manage to stay at the Aztec hotel, rather than Capra pods, because Lina distinctly expressed her distaste at the idea of staying in such a place.
The Coin mechanic was mostly okay, but at times also felt a bit off to me. You’re given a daily objective to drive three passengers and to earn thirty-five Coin. In fact, you cannot, as far as I can tell, drive more than three passengers, but each passenger I’ve driven, even when receiving a five star rating, seems to give between five and seven Coin. This means you earn around eighteen dollars per night, twenty-one at best. Far less than the thirty five that you’re tasked with achieving.
All that being said, mechanically the game is overall enjoyable. The feelgrid system is quite innovative, and the developers over at Chance Agency really did their research when designing the game. Where the game really shines however is in its respect as a work of art.
I don’t just mean the artistic style of the game, which I loved, with its sort of cyberpunk noir aesthetic. Nor am I talking about the soundtrack, by Obfusc, which I fell in love with – it does wonders to create an ambiance within Neo Cab, that is in tune with the emotional impacts of the game’s dialogue. So, surely, you think to yourself, he must be talking about the game’s narrative, with its twists and turns and unexpected betrayals.
First, don’t call me Shirley! Second, all of the above. Neo Cab is one of those rare titles in the video game industry that transcends mere entertainment and makes its way into that realm of art. It is an emotional roller coaster filled with stunning imagery and synthwave music, with a healthy dose of social commentary.
Neo Cab’s central premise is one discussing the automatization of the modern world. Meanwhile it touches on LGBTQ social issues without making a flash about it. It’s done incredibly tastefully and subtly. At times it felt that Neo Cab was trying to dip its toes into was mental health issues, but this is one area where I felt they were lacking in breadth of research.
Lina felt at times as though she was being portrayed as a person with a mental illness, because of her… let’s call it emotional transparency. It’s never suggested she had an illness overtly, but there was some inference on my part that it was being hinted at, and not in a way I entirely liked, given my own struggles with mental health issues.
Still, it doesn’t feel like it was done maliciously so much as condescendingly; like those people who tell someone with depression to “get out and exercise more!” or to just “get over it!” I fully admit that could be my own experiential bias at play.
I really think that Neo Cab is a lot of fun to play, despite any of the minor issues I might have with certain aspects. It’s on point where it really counts. I 100% recommend playing it, and I’m in fact hopeful they’ll make another one. I give the game an 85% and 4 out of 5 Woahs.