Being a taxi driver has to be one of the hardest occupations there is. Not only are the hours long and the job tiring, but the customers require you to be “always on”, to always lend an ear and not let personal stress interfere with their experience. It’s all about putting on a front of the friendly stranger, someone who they can unload their worries and concerns on without ever worrying about the blow-back. They are priests on wheels without the clergy collar, which is why Night Call is such a fascinating game as you drive your way through the darkened streets of Paris and listen to eclectic tales from all walks of life.
Developer by Monkey Moon Studio and Black Muffin, Night Call sees you playing as Houssine, an unassuming cab driver who finds himself embroiled in a murder mystery after being attacked by a serial killer. Set across seven night shifts, you must piece together the clues to find the killer from a board of suspects with the corrupt police breathing down your neck, threatening to unveil your true identity. While you can find dockets of info out in the noir world of Night Call, the real hook of Night Call is piecing everything together by talking to your customers, and what an eclectic bunch of delinquents, misfits, and oddities they are. Some of them aren’t even human.
You start each night with an overworld view of possible fares and places to scout out with a finite amount of time to squeeze it all in before your shift ends. Night Call becomes a balancing act (at least on its regular difficulty) of bringing in enough customers to keep the coffers afloat, the gas tank full, and collecting enough evidence to put the bad guy away before the end of the week. While this management aspect helps to distinguish the game from a simple visual novel, it’s in the writing where Night Call truly excels.
Dialogue feels natural, reminding me often of the breezy but simultaneously important conversations shared in VA-11 HALL-A. However, Night Call is far more involved than Sukeban Games’ cult classic, it allowing you to directly respond to customers with your replies often determining how much of a tip you receive, or even possibly them giving you some intel for the case. Some fares will be very forthcoming, while others need more care before they open up.
The cast of characters is numerous, ranging from a couple trying to live out young love’s dream to a grouchy Japanese businessman, the word “Yakuza” being the only word the two of you share in common. Night Call deals heavily in social commentary of the state of modern day France, your fares switching from prejudiced old farmers, to an LGBT couple trying to find a sperm donor, and to a far-right spokesperson who has lost his head. While there is a political slant to Night Call, the developers never really beat you over the head with their messages or beliefs, dealing with the customers and strife in a nuanced and delicate way. It provides necessary insight into a metropolitan culture that is always shifting, it sometimes struggling to balance the old guard with the new.
Beyond the “heavy” conversations, Night Call also isn’t afraid of letting loose with some bonkers fares. Early on, you will meet a cat who is sick of his clingy owner and wants to retire to the seaside to eat some fish, but that’s probably the least random encounter of them all. A sozzled Santa will tell you what a naughty boy you were, and a ghost child will appear in your cab and demand a lift to the palace to have dinner with the (equally dead) president. There’s even a stressed grandmother who seems to have a temporary bout of Tourette’s, though her story becomes more affecting than her titter-inducing condition would initially lead you to believe.
Once your shift is over, you return home and examine your clues to try and stitch things together on a board of suspects. Some of the people on the board are unassuming, people you would never suspect of being a killer — they may even jump into your cab at one point. While the mystery aspect of Night Call is compelling, it’s the fares that really make it such a unique experience; the sharp, wonderfully descriptive writing and personable tone really bringing the varied citizens of Paris to life.
The characters are so good, in fact, that they overshadow the flawed management system that can bring an end to your playthrough to utterly frustrating effect. While the regular difficulty is what the developers intended as the true Night Call experience, you may actually be better served playing on story difficulty, which makes money much less of an issue. I discovered the financial struggles of a Parisian taxi driver far too often as I bled money each night with outgoings that simply didn’t make any sense. While I eventually finished a playthrough as intended, the next scenario flowed much better when on a lower difficulty and really allowed its cast to flourish. All I have to ask is: how much do cigarettes really cost in France?
Any failures wouldn’t be quite as deflating if Night Call would allow you to manually save, or if its fares were a bit better spread out. They seem to be procedurally generated during each night, though I kept encountering the same 10-15 people over the course of my nights. This is another reason why a lower difficulty feels more agreeable in Night Call — there’s no way you can go through the prerequisites to unlock certain passengers as well as balancing everything else without a lot of luck or trial and error.
Similarly, Night Call seems to be a couple of patches away from being as smooth to play as its visuals are to look at. I had roughly seven crashes over ten hours of gameplay (both pre and post-launch), and thanks to the game’s save system making me have to repeat things after each crash, it was a major deterrent from extended play periods. As good as the writing was, my finger grew tired of clicking through conversations and cutscenes I had already experienced.
To Night Call’s credit, it does have three different scenarios to play where new passengers may await, so it’s a shame that these scenarios appear to be so similar to one another. The scenarios are based on three different serial killers, but the bulk of the narrative plays out largely the same with only a few small things to distinguish them, such as the complexity of the cases. Still, the attempt at variety is commendable, so anyone looking to meet every single weird and wonderful Parisian they can will no doubt appreciate the change-up.
Though it may lack polish and be too repetitive beyond the first couple of hours, it’s hard not to feel captivated by Night Call’s diverse characters and the slick, timely writing that bolsters them. Oozing a sophisticated style and packed with personality, Night Call is a sedate ride that you will want to hitch a ride for.
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Technical and pacing issues aside, the writing of Night Call is what makes it such a fascinating and, at times, enthralling game. Sit back with a cup of coffee and become an unofficial therapist for a few hours with this dark descent into Paris.