Citizen Sleeper Review
What does it mean to be human? This is the question at the core of Citizen Sleeper, the new indie gem from solo developer Gareth Damian Martin, aka Jump Over the Age.
You play as the eponymous Sleeper, a human mind digitally inserted into an artificial body. In the game’s vision of the future, humans still have rights and AI is strictly regulated, so Sleepers have become a sort of legal loophole that allows a mass workforce of sentient beings without any rights whatsoever. Essentially, you are permitted to sell your consciousness to a megacorporation called Essen-Arp who implant it into a cybernetic body to be used as slave labour.
The game starts immediately after you escape from Essen-Arp only to end up destitute and alone on a rundown space station called Erlin’s Eye; a sort of floating Mos Eisley full of seedy bars, bounty hunters, low-level criminals and ship workers all trying to eke out a living in a forgotten corner of the galaxy. You join this multitude of human flotsam and jetsam in an attempt to rebuild what’s left of your existence and hopefully find freedom.
Of course, there’s a problem: Sleepers were created with planned obsolescence. Each sleeper will only survive twenty “cycles” (the in-game term for days) unless you take a regular dose of serum provided by the corporation. You’ll need to earn enough to buy this on the black market. What’s worse you’ve also been fitted with a tracker - these evil corporations really like to protect their investments - so you’re in a race against time to escape the corporation’s clutches by either disabling your tracker or escaping the station.
If the plot sounds familiar it’s probably because it’s been used in numerous other sci-fi stories before, most notably Blade Runner. But Citizen Sleeper manages to bring new life to this well-worn sci-fi trope and give you something new to think about.
The game is described by the creators as “inspired by tabletop RPGs” but in my opinion, it’s actually a very difficult game to pigeonhole. It’s part resource management sim, part RPG, part visual novel, part point and click and part… well it’s really diverse, put it that way.
Most of the game involves exploring “The Eye” and meeting people, working with some of them, hiding from others and basically just trying to survive — quite literally since at any given time you are at most twenty cycles from your robotic body shutting down on you.
Gameplay is segmented into these individual cycles. In each cycle you are given a set number of dice to use on tasks that need completing on the Eye. Different tasks have different difficulty levels and will need different dice scores to be completed. Once the dice have run out it’s time to go to sleep and start the loop again the next cycle. Stats can be boosted with experience points which will give you points bonuses against certain tasks. If you’ve played a tabletop RPG before you’ll be very familiar with the gameplay mechanic, but if you haven’t it doesn’t take long to get to grips with it.
The whole game is really about resource management. You have multiple tasks to complete while at the same time trying to manage your health and hunger levels. There are never enough dice to do everything you need to, so the only way to succeed is to keep everything in a delicate state of equilibrium. You need to complete tasks to earn money, you need to earn money to keep your health levels up, but the more you spend on health the less you have to spend on other tasks.
To make matters worse the lower your health drops the fewer dice you are given to complete tasks which makes earning enough money to stay in full health harder and… well you get the idea. It’s a fine balance and, full disclosure, I had to restart the game about two hours in because I messed everything up and just couldn’t keep my health levels high enough to do anything. Strangely it reminds me of town builder games like Cities: Skylines where one misplaced sewage pipe ends up with the whole town collapsing around you.
The artwork is minimal but functional. The entire game is viewed from a bird's eye view of the space station and most of the worldbuilding is done through on-screen text, the writing of which is excellent throughout. My only gripe with this is that the world the developers have created is so interesting, I’d kind of like to have seen the locations you visit for myself rather than just picturing them through the descriptions in the text.
I liked this game. I liked it a lot. However, the only disappointing thing for me is that decisions didn’t seem to matter to the extent I would have liked, especially in a self-professed RPG. Although the game lets you choose gameplay paths to a certain level, they aren't dependent on how you interact with your fellow residents, it’s more to do with what tasks you complete and in what order. And even though there are nine different endings, it does feel like the game is on rails up until the point where you decide whether to end the game or keep on playing.
I would also like to have been able to make moral choices that affected the storyline more than they actually did. With a premise this strong and a world this immersive I’d like to feel like my choices actually shape the character I’m playing. One example of this is when my character was betrayed by an NPC in the game. After running into them later they apologised and offered me the money they stole from me. The game gave me the choice of keeping the money or throwing it back in their face. To me, this seems like a pivotal point that would determine your future relationship with this NPC for the rest of the game, but in reality, the decision makes no difference whatsoever. Your future interactions are the same regardless of what you pick. This really felt more like a missed opportunity rather than a game-ruining problem and it takes little away from the overall experience the developer has created, and I may be expecting too much from a game created by a single person.
Citizen Sleeper took me around six hours to complete and it’s a testament to the game that even though I’d done pretty much everything there was to do, I really felt like there was more story to be had in the world the developer had created. I was pleasantly surprised to see that this is exactly what he had in mind. The post-release roadmap already has new content for July, October and 2023, so I’m really looking forward to the new stories they have come up with for us.
Even so, this title won’t be for everyone. There are copious amounts of text to read and the minimal graphics means that players will be left to imagine much of the world they exist in while playing the game. But this is a perfect example of how games can tell stories as rich as any novel or film and it’s certainly worth escaping into the world of Citizen Sleeper for a couple of days.
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