Citizen Sleeper is a game about being trapped in an aging system whose endlessly
spinning wheels might come crashing down at any moment, in a body that actively hates you
and requires specific medication so that the mind and the flesh can get along, and having to
hustle constantly to survive, which is also coincidentally how I would describe like 80% of the
people I know. Like Disco Elysium, this CRPG takes a much more modern tabletop gaming
approach than the D&D-based games that dominate the genre. Your character type at the
beginning seems to take clear inspiration from Powered By The Apocalypse and its derivatives’
“playbook” concepts, Blades In The Dark’s clock system has been lifted wholesale, and
pre-rolling your dice and spending them however you’d like is driving me insane because I’m convinced I’ve seen that mechanic before and can’t remember where. It’s really cool to see it all in the video game space!
This latter mechanic is not one common to either TTRPG or CRPG, and it’s part of what makes Citizen Sleeper’s mechanics stand out: as your body is constantly decaying without medicine, it slowly loses a certain number of dice per day. At maximum health you have five, at minimum one, I think. Compounding this, your character still needs to eat: low energy doubles damage taken and the rate of internal organ rejection and high energy apparently helps you roll better dice. This, in conjunction with the “clock” system where successes are tallied and part of greater efforts, makes the game an interesting mix of resource management and visual novel.
You pick which characters you want to work alongside or which causes you support and have to put real, sustained backbone into that, but you can’t neglect yourself for too long or you’ll risk getting caught loop of being too weak to work for the money you need to afford medicine and food. It’s a compelling setup, in a compelling setting, with a compelling character hook and great character art by Guillaume Singelin.
The game’s kind of a little disappointing in the back half, though. As time goes on and you continue working across the station, you’re given a lot of tools and resources and ways to get more tools and resources. By the midgame, there’s basically no actual time constraints and you have enough mobility to essentially ignore resource management. By endgame, you’ve done enough stories that there’s no real dice sinks, you have powerful perks that let you entirely forget about upkeep, and you’re so flush with money, scrap, and mushrooms that I learned there’s a maximum wallet size. Hacking is initially a way to get some money and dump some crappy dice you can’t do anything with, but it essentially becomes a purely narrative tool after an hour or two - and, by then, there’s no consequences or tension to it.
This loss of tension is felt in its endings, as well. The game respects your time, and in a move I appreciate it makes an autosave before you’d be locked into an ending that you can resume from afterwards. It makes seeing as many endings as you desire essentially an inevitability. But this also means that there’s no real sense of closure, either. Any ending I pick doesn’t feel like something that my Sleeper did - it’s something they could’ve done. By the point when the credits started rolling and started getting skipped, I’d realized my perspective had shifted.
My Sleeper had become immortal, perpetually-rich, never really working outside of accumulating meaningless resources. They had four places to sleep, which affected nothing. Their contacts had left them, seeking new stars or having met bitter ends. No longer was my character really trying to be human, no longer were they trying to make a life for themselves, and I’d long since abandoned any meaningful decisionmaking in the face of raw inevitability. No longer did I really see any trace of myself in my actions or character - I’d basically become Dr. Manhattan If He Helped His Friends Make Rent Each Month.
I think the only thing I have a stronger distaste for than a game that starts strong and ends on a bitter note is a game that starts strong, has a great core, and then peters out into nothingness. One day I’ll pick this game back up, finish the route that I locked myself out of and see the other one I prematurely ended, and I’ll probably enjoy it then! For now, though, I’m more excited by what this game says about the future of role-playing video games: along with Disco Elysium, it proves that themes-driven game systems with universal conflict resolution that avoid violence are not only doable, they’re interesting. It’s a great spin on tabletop systems and, in bringing it to a solo game experience, turns it into something that couldn’t be done with friends. Loneliness is something that tabletop game’s can’t really impart, and it’s little sparks of realization and translation like that where this game really shines.