Night Call Review

July 31, 2019
Also on: PS4, Xbox One, Switch
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Fare game

It’s surprising that more books aren’t written by taxi drivers. Their unique perspective on the world and the fascinating characters that enter their vehicles would undoubtedly make for some incredible stories. What if you were the unwitting driver for a serial killer, transporting them to their next victim? Or what if you inadvertently saved that same potential victim, just by being on the right street at the right time as they flagged you down? Better yet, what if you were asked to use your occupation to help catch a serial killer, by casually taking notice of the people you met, the things they said, and the actions they took? Night Call takes this last intriguing premise to the streets of Paris, wraps it in a gritty noir shell and thrusts you into the role of an unwitting übercop. Or more accurately, an Uber-cop.

Your motivation for helping the police is explained not long after the opening sequence — you’re the survivor of an attack by a serial killer which left your passenger dead and you in a coma. Yet your past is also murky, given you previously spent time in prison for murder when you were younger. The cab is your shot at redemption and a normal life, but a manipulative police detective who has discovered your past has other plans — you need to help her track down criminals, otherwise she’ll make your real name public. There’s no other option than to break out your best Columbo impression and start grilling your fares.

It's like a Buzzfeed quiz for goths

Each of your passengers has their own distinctive personality and voice which makes conversing with them a joy. You’ll pick up cosplayers, philanderers, business types, poets and tramps. You may even find a cat, or perhaps something trippier later on at night when the early hours play havoc with your senses. These characters may pop up again on subsequent nights, allowing you to follow their story through to their natural conclusion. Their conversation trees feel varied enough for your choices to bear weight, at least initially, and steering the chat onto the potential killer where possible may yield further clues. 

Your cab doesn’t run on air, of course. Refills at the petrol stations dotted around the city can often unearth more hints from chatty cashiers, as well as info from newspapers and potential cash from winning scratchcards. Money is needed to keep your car fuelled, pay for your living and even bribe people for information. Aside from the gas and backhanders most of the admin work is done passively, so all you need to do is make sure you pick up enough paying jobs to make it to the next night. Traversal across the city is soundtracked by a distinctly chill lo-fi beat which meshes perfectly with the uneasy surroundings of your cab. 

Get on board

But what of the actual detective work? This is where Night Call becomes even greyer than its visuals. The clues you gather are often accidental: picking up someone here, noticing something in the paper there, hearing a news item on the radio… none of them felt like I was truly involved in gathering intel. I, along with my passengers, were simply along for the ride. It’s when you get back to your home after work that the sleuthing begins. Each clue will be placed on a board, linked to potentially multiple suspects. Your goal is to look at how compelling the evidence against each possible killer is, based on where that evidence came from and how circumstantial it is. Have multiple people reported the killer’s height? Are there clues about the weapon which may swing a case? Are the accused’s motives sufficiently solid to point a finger at them?

As clues build up, suspects become easier to rule out.

After a few nights collecting clues, you’ll be asked to present who you think the killer is. I started with the first case — The Judge — and found that the evidence was almost too obviously weighted in favour of a specific person, which turned out to be correct. Great, I thought. That’s the training episode done; onto a harder case! 

And herein lies the problem. The most egregious aspect of Night Call is its laziness after the first story. I was fully expecting three distinct challenges, a trio of self-contained stories which would have kept me glued to the screen. Instead, I was given an almost identical introduction, while the dialogue for most of the fares was exactly the same as before. I cannot fathom why the game was developed this way, allowing players to plot a course through a near indistinguishable series of dialogues, with only a few clues and changes separating proceedings. The great narrative work that the first chapter does is unpicked within twenty minutes of the second, culminating in a finale which is a mere rehash of what came before. 

Make a U-turn where possible

Similarly, the finely honed atmosphere is often shattered by an interface which sometimes struggles with basic inputs and general instructions. On the second night I was leisurely flicking around my suspect board while a number of dossiers sat unopened on the desk, not realising that the clock was ticking down. When I came to pull the folders open, it turned out I’d run out of time for the night, but the game hadn’t advised that I was on a timer. Worse, clicking a fare would occasionally cause the screen to zoom in but prevent you from zooming out from without restarting, while the location marker tracking the path to your clients often juddered inexplicably. Other questionable design choices include the inability to skip dialogue (which, due to the previously mentioned repetition, would have been an absolute godsend), and a focus on making ends meet without hitting the negative bank balance that results in a game over state. The autosave will punt you back, but not to a point in which you can rescue yourself financially. In essence, if you don’t watch your cash, you can torpedo your entire runthrough.

Nice narrative touches break up the driving and conversations.

These issues conspired to pull me out of the game’s well-written prose, where simply splitting the game’s Passidex (the list of all possible passengers) into three distinct groups for each story would have been a far more compelling reason to keep playing. Instead, complex threads such as the protagonist being an ethnic minority with a troubled past are lost among the repeated conversations and a dull interface. Sure, you can choose to pick up people you haven’t taxied around before, but when the game is steering you to find information on suspects you recognise from your board, collecting a homeless man who can’t afford to pay you just to have a nice chat with him is simply counterintuitive.

As a conversational whodunnit, Night Call just about makes a case for playing its first episode. The writing sparkles, painting a grim but intriguing portrait of Paris nightlife. Once you’ve solved that initial case though, only the truly determined will consider the remaining two stories worth getting on board for. 

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An initially fascinating murder mystery that descends into repetition for its final two-thirds. A real shame.
Rob Kershaw

I've been gaming since the days of the Amstrad. Huge RPG fan. Planescape: Torment tops my list, but if a game tells a good story, I'm interested. Absolutely not a fanboy of any specific console or PC - the proof is in the gaming pudding. Also, I like cake.