Before I go into how much I really like the new video game Neo Cab, I want to speak to the clever new way that some people can pay for and enjoy it.
Last month, I gave a nod to the video game Gears of War 5 as a no-brainer reason to throw a few bucks at Xbox Game Pass. Instead of paying $60 and going into the game with high expectations, you could jump into the XGP subscription service at a promotional rate, sample the variety of Gears 5 solo and online modes, and get out unscathed, if not quite entertained.
This comes to mind when I recommend Neo Cab as a perfect bonus for the new, $5/month Apple Arcade subscription service. Do you own an iOS device and want an awesome, not-too-long game that leans into the limits of a tablet or smartphone? Neo Cab is arguably the coolest game outside the subscription service’s premiere deluge of quick-burst, twitch-and-tap games, and its brief, genre-blurring impact is easier to suggest within a reasonably priced subscription.
The other option, a $15 standalone purchase, adds just enough friction to a universal recommendation. (It’s this version I tested, launching this week on Windows, Mac, and Nintendo Switch after an Apple Arcade exclusivity period.)
Though the game swims in incredible atmosphere and hinges on a cool premise—you’re a gig-economy taxi driver in a dystopian future, determined to uncover a mystery—this isn’t a steering-wheel drive through busy streets. Think of Neo Cab as “Emotional Conversation Taxi,” not the arcade classic Crazy Taxi. The result is one of the most unique and self-assured games of 2019, but its niche appeal is worth minding.
Capra’s in control
How many years in the future does Neo Cab take place? It’s not entirely clear. Some of its citizens’ faces are smothered in high-tech headsets, which generate “augmented reality” grids of data or cover people’s faces with “digital beauty filters.” (That seems a bit more futuristic than even a folding smartphone.) And the game’s dense, handsome cities resemble the neon-lined vistas of your favorite far-future sci-fi. Yet the populace of Los Ojos relies so heavily on smartphone apps and handing data over to massive corporations that its conversations could easily be copied and pasted from the year 2019.
The mix makes for a dramatic setting to drive into as Lina, a struggling young woman who has moved to the nearest big city to reboot her life. She’s a rare breed: a human gig-economy driver, as opposed to the automatic robo-driving fleet operated by a massive corporation (Capra) whose robo-claws are planted into every facet of Los Ojos’ infrastructure. (Capra runs the city’s gas stations, capsule hotels, apps, and even a surveillance force made up of everyone from robotic cops to gig-economy spies.)
Thus, the game opens with Lina setting up her Neo Cab driver account in the new city, then giving her day’s first ride to Savy, a longtime friend and new roommate. Lina and Savy immediately get into a fraught conversation, and an hour after their shared ride ends, Savy disappears. Whoops: there goes Lina’s sole connection to a giant new city, not to mention her free bed.
Thus, players spend the game as a car operator with a few priorities: find clues leading to Savy’s whereabouts, make enough money to pay for gas and sleeping accommodations, and maintain a high driver rating to continue pulling customers and fares. You might expect a resulting video game to revolve around a steering wheel, but in Neo Cab, the focus is on a conversation wheel and an emotions wheel.
Every interaction with a cab passenger brings up at least two conversational reply options, if not three or four, and players get a few context hints about how to reply. First is a high-tech mood ring. While it represents a giant range of emotions, it revolves around two axes: from sadness to happiness, and from lethargy to excitement. Depending on the intensity of either axis, Lina could feel furious, terrified, or even alarmingly neutral, and the answers you choose can lead Lina into any of these directions.
While managing Lina’s emotional state, smart Neo Cab players will also keep an eye on their passengers’ words and faces, which are equally emotive. The game’s realistic-cartoon aesthetic benefits from an advanced facial-emotion system, and this makes it easy to read your passengers’ moods, from neutrality to anxiety, and from glee to gloom. Do you want to curry favor with your passenger, either for a nice financial tip or a really useful piece of intel? Start with emotional empathy, and you may have more success. This matters because certain conversational options only unlock if you nudge Lina’s emotions in a particular direction.
A game for any mood
The resulting chat system is more advanced than the likes of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and it makes room for some particularly tense and surprising conversations. What kind of person are you supposed to be to each passenger to curry their specific kind of favor?
In some cases, that means leaning into your dry, cutting wit while making fun of the omnipresent Capra corporation. In others, that means expressing interest and delight in the latest high-tech nonsense, because your passenger is a near-religious convert (if not a developer of said tech). And then there are those rides where you have to fake like a therapist—all while occasionally slipping into your own emotional truths because the passenger dragged your mood wheel into “blue” territory.
This is where Neo Cab avoids the biggest sci-fi clichés. You’ve seen these ruminations before, about the exponential growth of technology and its impact on feeble, emotional humans. What’s unique here is how the game smoothly asks you to mind characters’ emotional responses to so much rapid, high-tech change. And, yes, it’s significantly interactive; a second playthrough proves that some conversations diverge in meaningful ways.
That doesn’t always happen; some passengers’ spiels are meant to be linear, but when these emerge, they are welcome respites from the tension and stakes of the game’s more common conversations. Not only are these simpler chats funny and touching, they also build rapport for possible repeat customers, which can lead to plot breakthroughs down the line.
All of this would be a tougher sell if Lina didn’t cement the narrative-driven game as a believable, likable mess of a young person. We immediately learn about Lina’s harsh edge via a doodle-filled journal, which grows over the course of the game based on conversations and choices. Her backstory is left a little more open and unexplained than I wanted, but Lina’s sense of “reluctant hope” is consistent, and it grounds her many temporary emotions—which is to say, the game makes room for her edge cases of anger, happiness, and despair in conversation without betraying her core traits.
Few games offer so much believable elasticity in their lead characters, and that is the electric future-car fuel that makes Neo Cab stand out from so many other narrative-driven games over the past decade. The resulting gameplay scales well to touchscreen devices like an iPhone or Nintendo Switch—you’re just tapping on dialogue choices while beautiful scenery and finely rendered characters whiz by—and that’s honestly the biggest consideration you should mind before diving in.
Does your definition of “a good video game” include a dialogue-focused rumination on corporations, the gig economy, and how a rapidly evolving workforce can land on a populace like a bomb? Then the brief-but-compelling Neo Cab is a 2019 must-play. If not, consider the $5/month Apple Arcade path as an excuse to play this game for at least 10 minutes and let its finely tuned twists charm you into sticking with its mix of solid writing and compelling choices for a few hours.
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