If you gathered all the most honest people in the world and stuffed them into a taxi, you’d end up with something like Night Call. A visual novel/adventure game developed by MonkeyMoon, Night Call puts you in the role of a Parisian taxi driver with an endless parade of passengers who constantly and unhesitatingly pour out their life stories to you.
The game alternates between two identities – it’s a slice-of-life driving simulator as well as a murder mystery. Night Call doesn’t always balance these two elements perfectly, but on the whole, it still manages to be a fairly smooth ride. It achieves what it sets out to be: it paints a poignant picture of life up and down the French social ladder.
Night Call is available now on PC via Steam for $19.99.
Opening with a slick animated cutscene, Night Call tells the story of an Arab immigrant in Paris named Houssine. Endeavoring to escape his dark past, Houssine works as a taxi driver, hoping to earn a modest living and a quiet life. This all changes when he is assaulted by a rampant serial killer. However, he survives, becoming the only person to live through this murderer’s attacks. Realizing that he has a unique experience with the killer, the police enlist him to hunt down his assailant.
Houssine will encounter numerous passengers throughout his shifts. Some of them will have connections to the killer, while others will simply be strange, random individuals. Countless conversations will ensue with these characters. As mentioned earlier, these customers are generally very open about their personal problems, to the point where they can seem unbelievable or unrealistic. I don’t know about you, but I’m generally not predisposed to give my entire life story and personal struggles to a random driver I’ve just met fifteen seconds ago.
You’ll nevertheless encounter plenty of such talkative people. The bizarre cast of characters includes disillusioned politicians, washed up businessmen, terrified college students, musicians, travelers, aristocrats, cosplayers – and even cats (it makes sense in context, trust me). Listing them out in this way, the customer lineup may sound so strange that the entire setup should be unrealistic.
Yet Night Call manages to bring each and every one of these strange individuals to life with its exceptional writing. The game may only be in black and white, but the characters’ distinctive dialogue makes them as colorful as possible. The game discusses a huge amount of social issues, from racial strife to the struggles of immigrants. Regardless of how serious or silly the scenarios may be, the writing makes every situation feel real. It even manages to make a mime’s backstory sympathetic and relatable – no mean feat indeed.
That being said, Night Call boasts on its website that “Every run is different…a guilty suspect in one playthrough may be completely innocent in the next.” The game is completely randomized – you’ll never know who you’ll pick up and who the murderer will be in each run. This theoretically gives the game endless replayability – but in practice, it makes the experience endlessly repetitive.
There are three separate mysteries to solve. However, given that these are all randomly generated, they essentially end up telling the same stories with the same characters. They all feature an identical setup: you’re assaulted by the serial killer of the week, and the police charge you to go and find your assailant. The only thing that changes each time around is the name and true identity of the killer.
With each mystery being a new adventure, you’ll have to reestablish your relationship with every one of your customers. Although the characters may be colorful, it’s tedious to re-read lengthy conversations with them when you’ve already met them in a previous campaign. This does allow you to choose different dialogue options with them and slightly change the conversation, but this generally doesn’t lead to anything meaningfully different.
Night Call’s story is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. On one hand, its randomly-generated nature keeps it from achieving its full potential. With each mission having a random assortment of customers with every run, it often leads to repeating the same conversation with the same passenger. Worse yet, it can also make most conversations feel completely disconnected from the larger story. If each mystery had been specifically designed with a predetermined sequence of events, every customer encounter and conversation could have been so much more meaningful, building up towards a satisfying, predetermined conclusion.
Yet the writing still remains excellent across the board. It masterfully alternates between the irreverent and the somber. With one passenger, you might have an aristocratic woman who uncontrollably shouts expletives (again, it makes sense in context), and with another, you might find a couple dealing with the disintegration of their family. All across this spectrum, every passenger remains equally believable.
No matter how ridiculous the subject may be, Night Call emphasizes that everyone has their own story and their own struggles. I often found myself looking forward to seeing what colorful character I’d pick up next and learning how surprisingly emotional their story could be. The randomization can make it lose its luster, but it doesn’t keep the inherent strength of the writing from shining through.
As a visual novel, Night Call’s gameplay inherently takes a back seat to its story. After all, the vast majority of the game is spent clicking through its numerous conversations. However, in between these dialogue sequences, there’s still a fairly involved gameplay experience to be found.
While finding the killer is your primary task, you’ll also need to focus on keeping your job and making enough money to pay rent. After all, it’s hard to catch a serial killer if you don’t even have a place to sleep at night. Before each drive, you’ll see a map of Paris full of potential customers, and you’ll have to make quick decisions – will you focus on driving the customers who could help you in your case, or will you instead try to drive those who pay the highest rate?
You’ll need to balance between these two interests. Above all else, you’ll have to make enough money to pay for rent and gas. However, you’ll also need to take detours to investigate your suspects in each case. This must all be achieved within a roughly seven-hour shift each night. Yet as long as you keep track of your time, money, and the accumulating evidence, the game isn’t too difficult.
These light time management elements effectively diversify the game to make it about more than just reading dialogue. Thankfully, they feature none of the grueling complexity of true management simulators. Instead, these quick decisions kept the game interesting and enlivened the brief lulls between conversations, without being too overwhelming.
At the end of every shift, you’ll return to your studio apartment and arrange all the evidence you’ve gathered. There, you’ll have a bulletin board with your suspects on it and you can arrange the evidence against them accordingly. There’s nothing critical here – you’ll just need to set up the evidence in a way that will help you determine the killer’s identity once the time comes.
Again, the game’s procedural generation presents an issue. More often than not, most of your passengers will have very little bearing upon the case – and even when they do speak about the murders, you won’t actually get to hear what they say. Instead, the game will simply summarize it in a narration, saying that “They discussed rumors about the murderer,” or something along those lines. Very little actual evidence is discussed in the gameplay. Generally, evidence will simply appear on your bulletin board at home with little fanfare. It threatens to make the mysteries feel like they’re simply tacked on to the main experience, as opposed to a natural part of it.
Graphics and Sound
Night Call deals with plenty of dark subjects, and this atmosphere is perfectly captured with its visuals. It adopts a striking noir graphical style, with many scenes looking as if they were ripped straight out of a vintage film or cartoon. The character designs themselves are also strong, vividly portraying the characters whether they’re typical teenagers, cosplayers, or outright maniacs. Animations are generally limited to only a handful of different frames per character, but they contribute to the comic book feel of the visuals.
Things also hold up well in the audio department. The music is an especial highlight, adopting an atmospheric approach meant to emphasize the mood of each scene. From smooth jazz to classical strings, the music heightens the emotions of every moment. The ominous thumping bass that plays when you’re in the cab with the killer was a particular favorite.
There is no voice acting, but with the lively dialogue, the characters have plenty of personality without it. Likewise, the audio design is solid, with the sounds of vehicles flying by on the freeway and doors slamming once passengers leave your cab. Unlike the gameplay itself, Night Call’s presentation perfectly captures its aesthetic ambitions with a healthy blend of variety and repetition.