Citizen Sleeper is a narrative game that follows your character’s story on an interstellar space station. It pays homage to table-top RPGs with its use of dice mechanics to build the foundation of its gameplay. In the game, you play as a sleeper, an individual who sold themself to a corporation and now lives on as an artificial being; your memories and personality transplanted into this new body.
Before getting too far into this review, it’s important to say that Citizen Sleeper plays more like an interactive novel than a traditional video game. The best comparison I can think of are those Telltale Games titles, but without the 3D character control or voiced dialogue. Instead, it plays from an overhead perspective that mimics that of a board game.
As said before, the gameplay follows this theme. At the beginning of each cycle, or turn, a set of dice are rolled. These dice are then used to perform actions. You are able to select different places on the map and interact with different characters, choosing when to use which roll. As expected, the higher the number you use, the greater the chance for success in whatever task you are trying to accomplish. There is also a secondary action system that is unlocked shortly in the game where specific numbers need to be used to hack locks or agents for data.
At the end of each turn you rest, at which point your body degrades. This is explained to be a result of planned obsolescence. It slowly destroys your body as recompense for trying to escape from the corporation that owns you. The more you degrade, the less dice you have to roll. The main goal in the beginning of the game is to try and find some way to repair yourself before complete body failure.
There is a slight amount of tension I felt at first when trying to determine what to do. But it didn’t take long to overcome that and put myself in a position where it was virtually impossible to lose unless I actively tried to. My dice also seemed to constantly roll high, so maybe I was just lucky, but it didn’t feel like the game wanted me to fail at any point. This is why I say Citizen Sleeper feels more like an interactive novel than a full-on game.
Another reason it feels more like a novel and less like a game is the unvoiced dialogue. Unvoiced games typically have more dialogue so there is a lot and this allows for Citizen Sleeper to have a very flushed out story. However, it also means there is a large amount of reading. Many of the characters also use very expansive vocabularies which means it takes more focus to read through the dialogue than perhaps is necessary.
At the same time though, the characters are written well and I believe Citizen Sleeper does a good job at telling the story they want to tell. It’s not very subtle in its anti-capitalism message, which will be more of a matter of personal taste, but as far as execution goes it’s only fair to say the development team have done a good job.
It would also be a shame not to mention the great character art and design. Each character feels flushed out and they are enjoyable to meet. My favorite was probably the shopkeep that gave me all the mushroom soup, even though he is arguably the least relevant in the overarching story.
There are a few negatives though that should be touched on. The most persistent issue I had while playing was the UI not working as it was supposed to. Interacting with the level up menu is a chore and whenever I opened it, my controls would sometimes glitch out; I’d have to close and reopen the menu to actually select something
There were also a couple of times when I was trying to complete actions too fast, causing the game to soft lock. I had to quit and load up my last save, but thankfully Citizen Sleeper is generous with the auto saves.
The last main criticism I have is that the story can all be accomplished in one run. This seems like a missed opportunity to introduce replayability into the game. Every subplot can be followed through to completion in the same playthrough. Choice just doesn’t seem to matter.
For example, at the beginning of the game you can choose between three characters. Each offers buffs or debuffs for certain actions which are explained as part of their background. However, as the game progresses you can level up your character and eliminate those debuffs. This makes it feel like a bit of a pointless choice since the only effect it seems to have on the game can be overcome fairly easily.
These two things together just eliminate any sense of replayability. I would’ve preferred having set plots that had meaningful endings that created a unique outcome for the world. These could’ve been used to change the game into one to two hour runs, allowing a difficulty scale to be introduced and introducing more replayability. Instead it felt like I was just completing a ton of side quests, without a truly satisfying ending.
Overall, Citizen Sleeper is a rather niche game. The gameplay itself is minimal, but there is a massive amount of storytelling to be taken in. Even though there are things to criticize, it kept me engaged from start to “almost” finish, falling off a bit towards the end. Stil, you’ll get hours of engaging content from it and, to me, that makes for a successful game.
It’s not a game for everyone though, especially those who always skip dialogue. It’s not very gameplay heavy either. That being said, if you come into it with an open mind and a desire to just experience a new story, then Citizen Sleeper will provide you with several hours of engaging content. Just temper your expectations appropriately.
Citizen Sleeper is available to download from the Xbox Store