NOTE: This game was played and reviewed by Adam Cartel
In Citizen Sleeper, you play as the titular Sleeper, a digital consciousness residing inside an artificial humanoid body that’s slowly dying. Having escaped from an evil organization that created your kind and with very little resources on your person, you find yourself stranded on a massive space station with several factions and citizens trying to either survive everyday… or escape forever.
You are in Erlin’s Eye, an abandoned space station that is now the home of several factions and alliances seeking freedom from corporate evil. This anarchic space town is populated with blue-collar workers, small-time businessmen, and mercenaries alike, each with their own personal or idealistic goal. This is the kind of world that your Sleeper needs to navigate in order to survive.
If all this sounds familiar, that’s because you’ve probably played a very similar well-known game that seems like a larger-scale version of this one: Disco Elysium. They both feature an amnesiac protagonist with a deteriorating body, both set in a town with political problems, and both have roots in tabletop RPG mechanics. It’s inevitable for the two to be compared as their similarities extend beyond the base premise.
Citizen Sleeper plays like a dice-based tabletop RPG. Every game day (called a “cycle”), the game pre-rolls a number of six-sided dice for you, which you could then spend on Skill checks in order to interact with the world in pursuit of your goals (or “Drives” as the game calls them). You have five Skills: Engineer, Interface, Endure, Intuit, and Engage. At the start of the game, you’re given the option to choose between three archetypes: the Machinist, the Operator, and the Extractor. Each of these archetypes has one Skill that’s already upgraded, and another one that’s downgraded. Whichever archetype you choose depends on how you would prefer to approach the world during the early parts of the game.
You are then thrust into the game’s unskippable tutorial, which would make you realize that your Sleeper’s artificial body is built to die through planned obsolescence. Not only will you have to get a job, but you’d also need to find a way to stay alive by properly managing your Condition and Energy. Fewer dice are rolled for you every cycle for each time your Condition drops a stage. Your Condition, by the way, drains faster whenever you have low Energy. A typical cycle in the world of Citizen Sleeper goes like this: get your dice, pursue one of your Drives, gather resources, discover unexplored areas, spend all of your dice on required Skill checks, make sure your Condition and Energy are high before you sleep, and end your cycle.
The graphics are above-average for a game using the Unity engine, and it’s smartly presented. It goes without saying that the character designs look great, and pair well with the cel-shaded look of the Eye’s 3D model. Despite being set in the blackness of space, the game’s aesthetic is easy on the eyes thanks to the smattering of cool blues, yellows, and pinks on its color palette.
The lack of a controllable player avatar might be a complaint for some people, but it actually makes sense for Citizen Sleeper. Navigating a vast abandoned space station as a controllable character would be too much for the Unity engine to handle, let alone for any game developer. For comparison, Disco Elysium has a controllable character but a much smaller map in relation to it. In lieu of walking, Citizen Sleeper lets players scroll through the wheel-shaped game world and click the area that they want to explore.
As for music, lo-fi sci-fi compositions make up the entirety of the soundtrack. It makes for a very relaxing gameplay experience… perhaps too relaxing, at times, especially after multiple playthroughs. In fact, there is no memorable song: it’s all background music that your brain would eventually forget. That may be a creative decision, but this was also one of the minor concerns with Disco Elysium’s soundtrack, which coincidentally sounds similar to Citizen Sleeper’s.
Citizen Sleeper boasts several lines of narrative, naturally-flowing dialogue, and well-written characters that all, once again, are reminiscent of the style present in Disco Elysium. Just like the latter, it also starts with a disembodied voice doing a deep monologue about consciousness while in the void and ends with the character waking up in a sorry state. Unlike Disco Elysium, however, there is no option to turn on dubbed dialogue.
Despite the lack of voice acting, you can still easily connect with the diverse cast of characters living in the Eye. Each one has unique personalities that are effectively portrayed through words and has backstories that make sense within the whole narrative of Citizen Sleeper. It doesn’t take long for anyone to feel invested in any one character, be it a simple street vendor or an ethereal digital entity. It’s not impossible to find yourself tearing up for a fictional character made up of pixels on a monitor screen because of this game.
Citizen Sleeper has multiple endings depending on the choices that you’ve made throughout the game, and the game gives you enough leeway to change your mind even at the penultimate point before your final decision. However, replaying the game is somewhat discouraged by the lack of save slots and manual saves. The game only provides you with three autosave slots. With all that said, the game does get repetitive after multiple playthroughs, and eventually does feel less like an RPG and more like a cow clicker. Once you figure out the optimal way of doing things, you’ll find yourself walking down the exact same path on any other playthrough, unless you willingly deviate from it.
Overall, Citizen Sleeper has solid gameplay for a narrative-based RPG, but it could still be better. Despite being a short game with little replay value, going through Citizen Sleeper’s well-written story is worth at least a second playthrough. Jury’s out on whether creator Gareth Damian Martin really was inspired by Disco Elysium when he came up with Citizen Sleeper or not, but it’s definitely not a bad thing for a developer to be inspired by a universally-acclaimed video game like it. Taking the good aspects of an existing game and further improving upon it is a key to innovation within the gaming industry, and Citizen Sleeper is a step in the right direction for its genre.