Citizen Sleeper Review – Slick And Succinct Sci-Fi

It was right around the point that I made the choice to go foraging for rare mushrooms over helping a stranded father and daughter get their one shot at a fresh start, that I realised Citizen Sleeper had made an arsehole out of me. I don’t know what it is about tabletop or tabletop-like games that does it, perhaps it’s the combination of high stakes and low odds that triggers a certain response, but I wind up looking out for me and myself alone. The dozens of names and faces aboard the doomed company-town-on-a-space-station-turned-intergalactic-refuge, Erlin’s Eye, became little more than stepping stones on my path to freedom but now that I’m on the outside I can’t say I care to look back in.

How did we get here, though? That’s the blank chapter in Citizen Sleeper’s slice-of-life narrative that you’ll be filling in. This bold new title from In Other Waters developer Jump Over The Age (Gareth Damien Martin) casts you as a ‘Sleeper’, a digital copy of a human consciousness in an artificial body, that has escaped the clutches of corporate ownership and found themselves aboard the Eye without so much as a plan to hang onto life let alone start a new one. Thanks to a built-in planned obsolescence, time is ticking before your physical form falls apart and so every moment and every decision counts as you explore the station, make allies and enemies and do what you must to survive, thrive or leave alive.

To say I fell in love with the world this game presents would be an understatement – I’m obsessed. Here’s a genuine sci-fi adventure game packed with intrigue, drama and challenge, but one that eschews putting a stick in your hand in favour of putting the world in your mind. Or is it your mind in the world? Citizen Sleeper tackles the heady subject matter of the coalescence of biological and synthetic life and the blurring of the lines between nature and data. Then it imagines how we might fuck even that up in the name of greed, putting your synthetic arse to work for scraps in the shell of a corporate space station like the data-digging equivalent of a hard-rock miner in a company town.

All of this is put together through the lens of a tabletop RPG, the world around you barely more than a top-down map of Erlin’s Eye adorned with icons representing places, people and tasks. The game plays out in Cycles that represent the passage of time – within a Cycle, you’re able to explore the Eye and take various actions, most of which require a roll of a dice to perform and determine their level of success. The number of dice you have at your disposal each Cycle depends on the current condition of your physical form, which degrades as your progress time and also as a result of work done. You’ll be able to take measures to ensure your energy levels stay high and your condition gets better before it gets worse, but it’s a careful balancing act between keeping yourself alive and using your time constructively.

The actions you’ll take aboard the Eye, things like undertaking work in a scrapyard, extracting data from terminals or navigating tricky social interactions, are all means to fulfil your Drives. Drives are your goals, they unlock as you meet new people and uncover new mysteries and they’re what will eventually see your story through to some kind of conclusion. Some can be treated with a certain degree of leisure, but others are at the mercy of Clocks – meters that count up as you perform certain actions or simply as Cycles pass. Between trying to achieve your Drives and manage the various Clocks around Erline’s Eye it almost feels like juggling pins and spinning plates at the same time. The juggling part is fine on its own, but those plates are a constant, looming threat to your ability to keep the pins up in the air. Also some of the plates will cause intergalactic bounty hunters to come and shoot you in the face if they stop spinning.

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The result though is a game that hinges on two things – hard choices and bold risks. Not only will you need to gripe with your own time management, forethought and conscience when deciding what to focus your limited efforts on each Cycle, but even once you’ve formulated a plan there’s an element of chance that can completely undo everything. Actions that work on a dice roll can have positive, neutral or negative outcomes that are dictated by both the value of the dice you choose to play for it and your character’s own affinities. At the beginning of the game you’ll be asked to choose one of three classes with their own stats and unique buffs that can then be augmented with upgrade points earned from completing Drives.

The way that all of these different systems interweave and feed into the vast many narrative possibilities is an incredibly slick feat of design, especially once you get over the initial sense of being overwhelmed by them and start to understand how to focus on the outcomes you genuinely want to see. After that it’s just a matter of praying things work out – if you’re anything like me trying to leverage my Interface skill to score a job on a colony ship as a Junior Tech you’ll learn that part the hard way. It can all be quite stressful initially, but also just forgiving enough in the early hours that your failings feel more like new forks on your road to success than genuine disasters.

Citizen Sleeper is also a game that feels genuinely replayable. It can easily be finished in around five hours or less if you can stomach leaving friends, enemies and answers behind for a quick getaway. Or you can push yourself, play the long game, explore deeper and deeper into the Eye and seek out everything the game has to offer. Luckily, finishing the game creates a return point right beforehand so you can easily go back and forge an alternate path ahead should you want to, but it’s just as rewarding to start completely fresh and see how differently it can all go.

Life aboard Erlin’s Eye is presented with a clean and stylish aesthetic that works far harder than its combination of mostly static environments and text-based narrative would imply. For starters, the character portraits from acclaimed comic book artist Guillaume Singelin that accompany story beats are gorgeous and add incredible dimension to the game’s already-fantastic writing. When it kicks in, the game’s soundtrack from returning composer Amos Roddy swings deftly between ‘illicit underground fetish club in the year 2090’ and ‘metaphysical contemplations on a Korg MS20’ and it honestly slaps fucking ass. For a game where the most important bits are delivered mostly in text and numbers, Citizen Sleeper is an absolute vibe

It's not often that a game grabs me in quite the way Citizen Sleeper has. By stripping a video game adventure to its barest components and then manipulating those components to create just the right balance of hope and despair it successfully conveys the drama and danger of its small slice of sci-fi storytelling. Top-notch writing, impeccable narrative design and inviting tabletop mechanics accompanied by gorgeous art and music serve only to elevate it even more. Play this bloody game.
Gripping sci-fi slife-of-life narrative
Excellent use of tabletop mechanics in narrative design
Gorgeous character art
Slick, sparingly-used soundtrack
Can be overwhelming at first
Controls on console are occasionally awkward

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