I must confess: I am a sucker for all things cyberpunk, so enthusiasm might cloud my judgment, but I cannot help but feel that Neo Cab is one of the coolest games I’ve played in a while. It is a game that does not only capture the general aesthetic of the setting (think neon lights, cheesy synths, high-tech gizmos), but its fundamental core: a struggle of an individual faced with a soul-crushing march of high-tech corporations. And Neo Cab achieves that not by projecting an image of some distant dystopian future. Instead, it narrows the gap between reality and the imagination until I could not help but think that the world it has described is waiting for us just around the corner.
Fare Runner – the Premise
At the center of Neo Cab is Lina, an almost cliche cyberpunk protagonist. She resists the change, decidedly untrustful of the Capra Corporation, clinging to the remnants of the past. One of those remnants is the titular Neo Cab, an Uber-like cab service. Neo Cab is being rapidly phased out in favor of self-driving cars, courtesy of Capra Corporation. The last few Neo Cabs are seen as relics, distrusted by many as unsafe and dangerous means of transport. Unsure what future holds for her, Lina decides to move to Los Ojos, to reconnect with her old best friend Savy.
I might have called Lina an almost cliche, since that how she felt to me at the beginning, but she quickly reveals that she is much more than an archetype. Instead of being deeply devoted to the anti-corporatism, there are hints that Lina could have felt much better about it all, given the other circumstances. When she is using Capra’s sleep pods she cannot help but admit that they do feel good, and, perhaps, her bitterness is driven by the fact that they are merely driving her out of business. Because that means change and reluctance to let things go is what characterizes Lina the most, as does her entire quest of reconnecting with Savy.
Paxs in the Cab – the Characters
This sentiment is shared by all passengers (or paxs, as Lina calls them) in Los Ojos. When you meet a new face, they do feel like a pastiche of a stereotype: a doomsayer, rebellious teenager, chill sage, mysterious lady – you name it. Meet them for more than once, however, and you will begin to see behind their mask: a morose cultist who dedicates his life to sadness and pain feels happy that his cult got popular in Los Ojos. Ironically, his happiness makes him sad because now he is NOT sad, which is the ultimate paradigm of his belief.
It feels weird typing it out, but Neo Cab’s writing magic makes it all, somehow, makes sense. Save for a few exceptions, all passengers felt like real individuals, conflicted about their identity, whatever that entails for them. These conflicts, more often than not a byproduct of life-altering technological advancements, consume those strangers so much that they simply have to share them with someone. Luckily, you’re that someone and it is up to you, and Lina, whether you want to lift them up or beat them down.
Lina, like everyone else in the dystopian future, is a very conflicted person with a deep emotional turmoil. Thankfully, you do not need to decipher what she feels that much, as that is kindly solved for you by a bracelet known as FeelGrid. FeelGrid is something like an advanced mood ring, which lights up in different colors, depending on Lina’s mood. If she’s depressed it will be deep blue. Feelings of extreme happiness radiate with deep amber yellow. You get the idea. And this bracelet is not just for show, as the dialogue options vary depending on Lina’s emotional state. If she is infuriated, she would not bother to diffuse an argument with a light-hearted quirk. She would probably just snap at the passenger, losing on some bits of information in the process. This addition turns Lina into something bigger than just an avatar of a player, but a fully-fleshed character whom you guide along her journey.
I’m out of cyberpunk puns here – the Philosophy
What really fascinated me are the open-ended questions which game brings up through these odd encounters with strangers in the night. The game talks about the automatization of labor, the pressure of social media to constantly hide behind a facade of a more successful, prettier person. It talks about people who were left behind by the unrelenting train of progress and how that said progress seeks to eliminate the individuality by directly controlling one’s emotions and thoughts.
All of these dialogues felt oh too real and too applicable to our contemporary times, albeit with more flashing lights and holo-projections. While I did not expect the game to give me answers to its heap of hypotheticals, when I finished my first playthrough, it felt like the writing was too grand in its ambitions. The culmination of the story did not stand up to the grandiosity of its set-up, and I was more excited about getting to know more about the friends I’ve made on the streets. Ironically, Neo Cab says much more when it seemingly does not try to.
As verbose as I love to be, I think that saying more about the game would spoil the pleasure of unraveling the secrets of its neon-lit streets. There are some game elements, but they deserve only a passing mention, as I did not think they impacted the game in a meaningful way. After each fare, you get a rating much like that of an Uber. Falling behind a 4.0 average means the suspension of the license, but it does not seem to do anything.
It does give some food for thought on stresses of being governed by algorithms as one bad ride invalidates all 5-star ratings you got beforehand. If you are looking for some engaging gameplay, I would suggest you look elsewhere. If you are looking for a story that is as engaging as it is eccentric, the one which would linger with you for a while after finishing the game – then hop into the passenger’s seat and let Neo Cab take you to the future.