by Quinn Levandoski
previewed on PC
Preamble to Mystery
You awake from a coma in a Parisian hospital, unsure of where you are or why youíre there. A nurse slowly coaxes you into conversation, informing you that something unthinkable has happened: you were assaulted by the serial killer known as The Judge. Thereís no time to rest, though, as the cops are waiting right outside the room ready to throw some tough questions your way. Cut to a few months later, when while working your cab you pick up someone familiar- one of the police officers that was at the hospital the day you woke up from your coma. Far from a friendly, familiar face, she immediately gets confrontational. She says she knows your secret, that youíre really an ex-con using a fake name in order to get the loans necessary to operate your cab and turn your life around. While she applauds the effort, she also knows that this means sheís got a one up on you. If anyone finds out who you are, your current life is over. In order for her to hold your secret, youíre going to have to work for her, and itís not going to be easy. She needs you to find out who The Judge is. Using your status as a cab driver, youíll have to talk to people and follow the clues to figure out just who this deranged person is terrorizing Paris.
So begins the noir narrative of Night Call, a mystery-cab simulator with a lot of promise and a lot of charm. In any narrative game like this, the experience lives or dies on the quality of the writing. While itís hard enough to come up with an interesting story or concept, playing it out via engaging dialogue is another thing altogether. Thankfully Iíve been very pleased with the quality of the dialogue so far. The demo version Iíve been able to play through only has a few passengers to speak to, but even the ones that donít contribute to the main mystery have interesting things to say, and I was genuinely interested in hearing most of them out. A personal favorite conversation of mine was the very first person I picked up after receiving my ďassignment,Ē a programmer determined to figure out if he was living in a computer simulation, which I thought was a rather apt thought for a video game character to have.
Short and Sweet So Far
The build of the game I have doesnít get far enough into the mystery for me to comment on it holistically. In fact, only being able to play one night, the mystery isnít really delved into at all. What Iíve seen so far is largely preamble, but I do want to know more, which is about all you can ask from the start of a mystery. In the first night, all of the passengers available to be spoken to seem fairly disconnected from the mystery. One asked me to do something a bit suspicious, but nothing came of it before the end of the demo, and the other too just had their own stories to tell. Eventually, though, passengers will provide more direct insight and evidence in to the identity of the killer, and youíll have to choose who to spend time with and how long to stay with them as you get closer to the truth. After my first night of driving I found myself back in my apartment with the evidence Iíd acquired so far (at this point, all of my evidence was from the police officer who blackmailed me into taking the case). There, thereís a nifty little evidence board with quotes and clues and connective strings that can be manually moved around, and bios of relevant people that are involved in whatís going on. There wasnít much to play with yet, but itís an interesting start.
What makes me a bit nervous, though, is that the game promises the killer will change on different playthroughs. I havenít been able to play enough to see how itíll work out, but I do know that I have a bad history with randomly-selected killers in murder mysteries (see my review of The Shapeshifting Detective). Part of a mystery is the ability for the player to follow along and try to solve the case with the protagonist. All evidence should be intentionally laid out to work towards an ending that makes total sense in retrospect. This is tough, but not impossible, to achieve when there isnít a specific character that the narrative can be hand-crafted around. Time will tell if Night Call is able to handle this element of change well, or if the climax will be left feeling a bit out of left field.
Gotta Make That Money
While figuring out the mystery is puzzle-y enough, the game also makes you consider the actual logistics of driving a cab. Youíll have to consider time and distance when deciding which fares to take, and youíll also need to consider your fuel level and proximity to gas stations. At the end of the night youíll take your earnings and tips, subtract things like upkeep costs, and only add the rest to your pocket. Itís not exactly simulation, but it is more than I was expecting, and it added to the roleplaying aspect of the game and made me feel a little more involved in the life of my protagonist. Unfortunately I didnít have to make any tough decisions in this demo version. With only one night and two fares per playthrough I never had to consider gas or cash, but the system seems to be set up well.
Given that almost the entire game takes place inside of a taxi, I was pleasantly surprised with the gameís ability to build mood and ambiance with its limited graphics. The black-and-white noir aesthetic is brought to life with nice visuals and some varied camera angles that did a lot with the confined nature of the game. A few of the buildings flying by the car stick out a bit as their computer-generated models clash with the hand-painted look of the characters, but it didnít bother me too much, and overall I was perfectly happy with the presentation overall.
Unfortunately I was only able to play a small bit of Night Call for the sake of this preview, but I liked what I say, and Iím looking forward to the gameís release in late July. Any mystery story lives and dies on its narrative, so the jury is still out on how satisfying the experience will be once players can fully dive into the case of The Judge, but Iím happy to report that thereís at least a solid foundation of potential.