The technology that runs everyday life is progressing at an alarming rate. From embarrassing teenage fan fiction to previous workplaces and lost loves, a great deal of a person’s history can be found with a simple Google search. Mass transit is at the cusp of a revolution, the first driverless cars only held back from the roads by beta testing and government legislation. Neo Cab depicts a not-too-distant future dealing with these issues, with protagonist Lina driving one of the last cabs amongst a sea of automated vehicles. The first title created by Californian developer Chance Agency, this visual novel with a survival twist takes the player on an emotional journey.
Lina has mixed feelings about moving to Los Ojos. Although the town is full of Capra technology, a company that threatens her job with its driverless vehicles, moving there is also a chance to make amends with Savy, her estranged best friend. Although they had made plans to catch up after Lina’s first shift in the new city, when the end of the night rolls around Savy is nowhere to be seen. Driving to her last known location, Lina finds Savy’s phone shattered on the ground, a strange logo displayed on its case. Fearing the worst, Lina delves into the underbelly of Los Ojos, gathering information from passengers to pinpoint the whereabouts of her missing friend. What initially appears to be a simple disappearance quickly spins into a tale of intrigue, with Savy leading a much more complicated life than she let on. Time is running out, and Lina must weigh every decision carefully to find the right path to saving her friend.
Neo Cab is fairly non-linear for a visual novel, with each night structured around choosing different cab fares to take. Apart from taking fares from individuals that might know something about Savy’s disappearance, Lina also needs to earn money and preserve a high star rating to keep her job. The people of Los Ojos are a picky bunch, and Lina is often forced to choose between keeping the customer happy and following her job to the letter. Pulling into a Capra parking spot may please the passenger, but doing so risks a steep fine from the police. Hanging on to some dubious medication left behind could be helpful for the customer, but dangerous for Lina. Other times, it is often a case of finding the right kind of conversation that a passenger may be seeking, choosing a cheery tone for the light hearted, or commiserating with someone having a hard time.
Along with customer’s emotions, gameplay is affected by how Lina is feeling, indicated by a colour grid in the corner of the screen. The current emotion will determine what conversation options are available, with a happy Lina lacking access to angry responses, or a sad mood leaving her unable to stand up for herself. In this society, many people literally wear their heart on their sleeve, with the ‘Feelgrid’ technology indicating someone’s mood in bracelet or necklace form. Therefore, customers can see what Lina is feeling from the colour of her bracelet, further heightening the importance of manipulating Lina’s mood. A highly emotive person, her mood can be shifted quite easily by the flow of conversation, and influenced by outside factors like where she chooses to sleep at the end of the night. This use of emotion is a clever way to vary gameplay, and also presents a kind of puzzle to solve, matching the right tone for each situation. The game will carry on regardless of these choices, unless the player performs poorly enough to make Lina get fired or run out of money, but the variance offers great replay value to see how conversations might have played out differently.
Aside from the hunt for Savy, Neo Cab features a light survival element in managing Lina’s customer rating, money, and the battery charge on her car. Customer rating is the trickiest to achieve, with a rating lower than four stars out of five risking deactivation of the cab. Choosing passengers with a higher star rating is less risky, but no-one is guaranteed to give a good rating. Thankfully, the system gives several warnings before deactivating a poorly performing cab, and maintaining a good enough rating to complete the game is easily achieved. Money management is also not much of an issue. Sleeping in a nice hotel will improve Lina’s mood, but the cheap one doesn’t do enough damage to cause any real harm. Charging up the car’s battery is also quite affordable, and should only be an issue for the most forgetful of players. The systems are perhaps a touch too forgiving, present for flavour rather than a core challenge to the game. Adding a difficulty option of a sliding scale that would adjust Lina’s starting money and battery depletion rate would really give the survival aspect a chance to shine, while still leaving an easy mode for those only interested in the story.
The world of Los Ojos is immediately engaging, with a gorgeous cyberpunk aesthetic and relatable issues of the near-future. Animation is limited, but the character models are colourful and expressive, bringing their personalities to life. Each cab fare is a beautiful little short story, revealing something about the passengers or the world around them. The focus on manipulating emotions as a gameplay mechanic is cleverly mirrored in the plot, a revealing look into gaslighting and dysfunctional relationships. The short stories of the customers and the overarching plot of Lina looking for Savy interweave beautifully, creating an engaging experience that is hard to put down.
Coming in at around five hours long, Neo Cab is short, but highly replayable with many possible passengers and several different endings. It would have been nice to be able to make manual saves, so one could see the difference in specific branching paths rather than starting the whole game over. The autosave is also fairly sporadic, saving roughly after each cab fare. As these sections can be quite long, being able to save whenever desired would be preferred.
Neo Cab is a smart, engaging visual novel. Containing light survival mechanics, emotional manipulation, and customer service, this combination of short stories and overarching plot choices create a unique voice in the visual novel genre.
Reviewed on PC. Also available on Apple Arcade and Nintendo Switch.