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Saturday, July 20, 2024

Citizen Sleeper review

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Need to know

What is it? Dice-spending RPG about struggling to survive in a space station city.
Expect to pay: $20/£15
Release date: Out now
Developer: Jump Over the Age
Publisher: Fellow Traveller
Reviewed on: Windows 10, Ryzen 9 5900X, 32GB RAM, RTX 3080
Multiplayer? No
Link: Official site

Citizen Sleeper is like Blade Runner, but you’re a replicant. A synthetic being who has escaped from the corporation that built you, you hide on a space station that’s become a rogue state—home to revolutionaries, refugees, and a pirate gang. While you’re worrying whether you’ll be hunted down and dramatically shot in the back, you’re also worried about day-to-day survival. 

Citizen Sleeper is great at encouraging you to live a routine. Where in Cyberpunk 2077 I only went to bed if I was trying to trigger a sidequest, here I lived a day-to-day cycle that included sleeping, eating, working, and feeding a stray cat. Some of it was mechanically necessary, and some of it was pure roleplay.

Each morning, your synthflesh body wakes up and a pool of dice are rolled, each of which you can spend performing an action. The higher the number, the better you’ll do. I might spend a 6 on a job where I help a local mechanic clear a ship’s tangled sunsails, but I didn’t roll anything else higher than a 4 so I’ll probably do a mediocre job clearing the section of the overgrown Greenway where I want to set up a mushroom farm. 

Lower numbers aren’t useless, as there’s another side to the station. In the data cloud, where your consciousness floats free of the synthmeat that needs to eat and sleep, you hack systems by spending dice—only here it’s about matching numbers rather than having high ones. I can spend a 1 seeing what this agent of the Yatagan gang is up to, or I could duck out of the data cloud and spend it working a shift at the noodle place, where even if I do a bad job at least I’ll be allowed to eat a few noodles and get back some energy.

So it’s not all Blade Runner. Citizen Sleeper ended up reminding me of Planetes, the series about blue-collar workers who collect garbage in space. Like Planetes, Citizen Sleeper is focused on ordinary people. Exploring each section of the station introduces new characters, who are depicted in expressive anime portraits superimposed on the station, beside which blocks of text tell their stories with choice-and-consequence moments of interaction.

Characters include a botanist studying the strange fungus that grows wild on the station, a bar-owner who wants to renovate, a shipyard worker trying to get off-station to find a better life for his daughter, and a mercenary whose ‘shipmind’ has been stolen. You never know who is going to be worth befriending. Some might abandon you, waste your time, or betray you. Who do you trust? 

Their stories unfold over time. The UI tells you how many cycles before the next chapter begins, so while waiting you go back to work at the bar or the farm stacks, explore the Rotunda or the Hub, and try not to fall apart. Thanks to the corporation who planned your obsolescence, you’ve got a condition stat in constant decay. As it ticks down you get less dice to spend. Like a mobile phone or a lightbulb, you’re not made to last. The stabilizer you need to refill your condition is expensive, and hard to source.

More pressure is provided by the hunters. The corporation or their freelancers will track you down eventually, and every hack you perform gives the bestial AI who patrols the station’s cyberspace another whiff of your scent. Eventually, a reckoning will come.

As Citizen Sleeper goes on you get better at exploiting its systems, and find solutions to these problems. I made money playing a game called tavla at the Tambour Tearoom—like so many RPGs, gambling is the best way to get rich—and got my mushroom farm set up nicely. I even moved out of the shipping container I slept in. 

It started to feel like I was sequence-breaking Citizen Sleeper when I’d find storylines I was clearly intended to have discovered sooner, which would assume I didn’t have certain items or hadn’t been to certain places. Even before that happened, I got a quest to build something before I had any need for it, stole shipments that never appeared in my inventory, and had an Upgrades Available message persist after I spent all my upgrade points.

A couple of typos and a fair few punctuation errors mar the text, though the writing itself is excellent. All that focus on the mundane, the scavenging and surviving, makes the occasional glimpse of something profound feel potent—perhaps a poetic description of the flowing cyberspace data cloud and the impossible entities who live in it, or the endless physical space the station spins in, and the tiny individuals who find hope there.

Citizen Sleeper has multiple endings, some of which let you continue playing to find others. By the time I was done I hadn’t seen any attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion or C-beams glittering in the dark, but I had freed an AI from a vending machine, foiled a couple of corporate schemes to get toeholds on the station, and renovated a bar. I didn’t want to leave, and I hit the credits three times finding multiple endings in one playthrough. 

That’s the best recommendation I can give Citizen Sleeper: it let me build a life I wanted to keep living. When I go, who’ll harvest the mushrooms? Who’ll feed that stray cat?

The Verdict


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Citizen Sleeper

An evocative life-sim RPG you won’t want to wake up from.

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