You awake inside the cramped shipping container that you call home. Your body aches from yesterday’s work and you feel like you can’t do as much as you could the previous day. Funds are low, so you need to work hard. The diner job is cushy, but the pay is low and relies on good tips to be worthwhile; instead you opt to do a side job: back breaking labour that could cause more damage to your already beaten body, but at least it offers solid pay. You spend all your energy earning some money, which is great as you could do with a solid meal – but then the bounty hunter who has been blackmailing you comes knocking and reminds you that it’s the final day to clear his tab. Shit. I’ll have to go without food today, but at least I get to see tomorrow.
This is just one of the days I had over my eventful journey through Citizen Sleeper. Yours will no doubt differ, depending on the decisions you make. Your story will certainly provide a struggle, but hopefully you can make it through to the other side in one piece.
Citizen Sleeper is one heck of an experience.
Many thanks to Fellow Traveller for the review code.
Set in a dystopian cyberpunk world (is there any other kind?), you play the role of a Sleeper: a human consciousness inside an artificial body. You are not a person though – you are property. And the company wants you back. You’ve escaped to the edge of society in an attempt to find home on a space station known as Erlin’s Eye. Things aren’t exactly glamorous here, but hopefully you can find a way to survive – just like the other thousands of inhabitants that reside there.
Despite being effectively a robot, Citizen Sleeper is a deeply human story all about surviving in an oppressive society where you have to make difficult choices in order to survive. The world has its share of scumbags, but most people are in the same situation as you. You may have friends that abandon you, but they too have survival as their number one priority. It may be sad, but you never feel resentment. Would you do the same in their situation? Maybe. The Eye is full of good people who want to help, but they’re also just trying to live.
LET THE BAD TIMES ROLL
At its heart, Citizen Sleeper is reminiscent of a tabletop RPG. There’s an unnamed Dungeon Master that details the events happening around you as you proceed through the story and there are decisions you’ll make that affect how the story plays out – some minor, but some have a more serious knock-on effect too. You spend your time viewing the ship from overhead, choosing one of the interactable locations that you’ve discovered so far. Each location will either trigger an event, such as chatting with a character, or will contain actions that you can perform. These actions, such as hacking, working, or eating will be dependent on the money, items, or – importantly – the dice you currently have. Each cycle (basically a day) will grant you up to five dice depending on the state of your body. Your body is in a constant state of deterioration, due to being constructed like a smartphone, so you need to keep yourself in repair if you want to have more dice to help you do things.
It’s not quite as easy as that though, as some actions can involve an element of risk that can result in damage to your body should it fail. Higher dice rolls will offer more chances of success, and there are additional modifiers that can help improve your odds too depending on which of the three characters you choose and how you spend your upgrade points. My character had the ability to detail with digital interfaces easier, making doing those actions a doddle in the early game. That came at a cost to my endurance, however, reducing the odds of success for any endurance related activities. Upgrades can help you survive, so completing certain quests (aka: drives) for upgrade points is definitely something you should do. Lower dice aren’t completely useless, however, as you can also engage in some hacking and these require certain dice numbers for success, usually lower ones. It’s a nice touch and ensures that lower dice rolls aren’t a complete waste.
The dice though are just a way for the game to help make things interesting, as it stops your character from just doing every task with no chance of failure. The main star of the show is the narrative and how things progress. There’s a big emphasis on cycles, giving you the feeling that you’re trying to survive each day, but there are lots of decisions you can make and ways to spend your time. Working on the shipyard is hard work, but you can make new friends there and earn a steady wage – or you can use your lower dice to hack data from enemy agents to sell off for some solid cash – or you can spend your money helping out a vending machine who promises that it can help stave off the hunter that stalks you. There’s a lot of ways you can spend each day, and some days can become particularly intense when you’re down on your luck and forced to do desperate things just to survive. The medical injections you need to maintain your body don’t come cheap – but neither is anything else on the station. Things do trail off a bit towards the end as you gain more than enough supplies to make survival a non-issue, but at that point you’ll likely be ending the end point so it’s just a matter of letting the rest of the story play out. That removal of threat in the late-game is a little disappointing, perhaps, but it does feel earned and fits in with the overall narrative.
SLEEPER IN SEATTLE
It’s the writing and the characters that steal the show, as both are absolutely top notch. The sci-fi narrative offers an excellent portrayal of humans as commodities on a space station where few people are truly happy. All the characters have some really stylish character portraits too, which match the bleak and beautiful world that they inhabit. Every person (or machine) that you meet has a genuine charm to them, and you’ll actively want to know about each and every one. As someone that finds the narrative in most videogames to be pretty poor, I was captivated by just how excellent it was in Citizen Sleeper. That being said, the emphasis on the story is definitely going to be the deciding factor on whether or not this game is for you. If the idea of a visual novel in a Blade Runner-eque world complete with some RPG elements sounds like it would be your thing, then this will no doubt be one of the best games you’ve ever played. If the thought of reading walls of text sounds infuriating, or you’re not into sci-fi, then this game probably won’t win you over.
It’s a fantastic experience, but not without its issues. Navigating the world can be a little clunky at times, and selecting certain options proved quite fiddly for me on numerous occasions. I found that the d-pad usually works best, but sometimes the analogue stick can be the better option. The screen that gave me the most issues was the upgrade screen, as selecting what I wanted always ended up being a faff – and that’s not mentioning the bug that causes the screen to often tell you that you have upgrade points available, even when you don’t. A patch could sort out these issues for sure, and they certainly don’t spoil the experience, but still disappointing nonetheless.
Despite some navigation issues, Citizen Sleeper is the best narrative game I have played so far this year. With it’s cyberpunk setting, and it’s cast of extremely likeable characters, it is something that will stick with me for a while. It may not be for everyone, but those interested in a captivating narrative experience will adore this gem of a title.