Citizen Sleeper review: a stylish machine with a gooey human heart

Say hiya to Feng. Feng is a zealous computer systems man with much less of an axe to grind and extra of a guillotine to arrange. He’s not my favorite character in Citizen Sleeper however he’s the one who finest represents it. In a single scene he explains his deep anti-capitalist reasoning to you. Programs shouldn’t govern individuals’s behaviour, he says, the persons are what issues.

Throwing off the shackles of a faceless course of governing your life is a recurring theme on this mix of sci-fi RPG and interactive fiction, and it makes for a powerful rags-to-ramen story of 1 robotic on the run. Even when the sport’s personal techniques of cube and clocks conflict with its tales of human curiosity, it’s the individuals who come out on prime.

Let’s go over the fundamentals. There are three beginning courses. You could be a motor-kicking Machinist, a hardened mining Extractor, or an Operator who likes to hack the planet. Effectively, not planet. An area station. You arrive as a robotic refugee on Erlin’s Eye, a rotating house station that has seen years of harm and disrepair. Large chunks of its ring habitat are lacking. As an asylum seeker you’re right here to make a brand new lifetime of types, removed from the company masters you’ve got escaped from. After all, the corporate has different plans. Think about if the laser-cutting protagonist of Hardspace: Shipbreaker did a runner to a different photo voltaic system whereas nonetheless in great debt, and ended up making buddies with a bunch of visible novel characters.

Citizen Sleeper is not actually a visible novel, however it borrows from that template as a lot because it does the RPG. Or perhaps it might be referred to as “turn-based storytelling”. Meaning meters. You’ve got acquired a well being bar exhibiting your deteriorating situation (the corp who constructed you probably did it with deliberate obsolescence in thoughts). You’ve got acquired some cube to roll that decide the end result of sure occasions (should you’re in unhealthy form you get fewer cube). And you have an power meter to maintain up, lest you starve. On this universe, even robots want noodles.

You spend every day (or “cycle”) bouncing round a reasonably 3D map of the station, doing jobs, assembly of us, and buying and selling “chits” for the robo-insulin you could keep alive. The cube restrict how a lot you are able to do in a day, whereas little clocks rely down throughout, exhibiting you different prospects. What number of cycles till a scrap ship will dock, or the countdown to the day on which that dirtbag bounty hunter expects one other backhander for not turning you in.

New locations to go to are unlocked by spending time (and cube) in hub zones. Folks-watching within the Rotunda would possibly unlock a brand new bar the place you should purchase low-cost rations. Working a number of shifts hauling crates within the shipyard will open up the dock’s meeting line the place a greater job awaits, alongside some new buddies. The map expands, cycle by cycle, flip by flip, including an increasing number of decisions, extra locations to spend your time.

The map of the hub of the space station in Citizen Sleeper

There’s additionally a cyberworld into which you’ll be able to dip, the place cube operate in a barely completely different method. Right here, you match cube to numerous nodes to unlock keys or encrypted knowledge. It is a clear and easy method of letting the participant burn up the low-numbered cube they may be afraid to spend on a dangerous motion in the actual world. This monochrome networld can be the place you encounter the Hunter, a creepy police cyberbeing with tentacles for heads and a doglike physique. The Hunter periodically reveals as much as interrupt your hacking and mark you for deletion. He is a superb boy. A superb, terrifying boy.

Which brings me to the look and magnificence of the sport, which is as cool as a field of cool instruments. The character artwork is detailed and vibrant, typically bathed within the hues of some off-screen atmospheric mild. The UI is a reasonably sci-fi affair, all hard-edged fonts, minimalist colour-coding and circuit board angles. Followers of Alien Isolation’s crunchy UI and geometric symbols will admire the trouble. It seems nice, besides in moments the place the background mannequin of the house station shines brightly behind some yellow or white textual content, making it onerous to learn sure labels or descriptions. However you’ll be able to simply spin your view round, so it by no means feels actually obscured.

The character artwork is detailed and vibrant, typically bathed within the hues of some off-screen atmospheric mild.

I’ve spoken largely about the best way it features, slightly than the individuals you may meet, as a result of I do not wish to spoil your first jaunt via the ring’s alleys. The house station is overwhelmingly host to mild of us, sympathetic faces. Aside from a number of antagonistic scumbags, the people of the Eye are largely sort, even when their complexities typically recommend darker secrets and techniques. The longer term right here is just not a utopian very best however lots nonetheless battle for one. Individuals are not merciless, however circumstances typically are. It is a part-tragic and part-hopeful place.

It jogs my memory of Lancer, a pen and paper RPG the place battle simmers even when Earth has found out the best way to feed everybody. In Citizen Sleeper, the house station exists away from the megacorps who run amok within the galaxy. However inequality is a weed. Factions stew. Hardship is rife. This isn’t a traditional dystopian land of cyberpunk corpo-values, nor a Star Trek fashion universe with a menu of surprising international cultures. As a substitute, you get a type of house wreck on the sting. A post-disaster Startopia the place staff wrestle each day, and hypercapitalist enterprises threaten to self-revive on the very station they as soon as deserted and not using a care. The Eye is a scrappy place, and never simply due to the scrapyards.

Which is also my well mannered method of claiming there are bugs. There are quite a lot of typos too (at the very least in my press construct) and characters will typically clarify belongings you’ve already skilled as if they’re information to you. Quests are multi-tiered and typically go on longer than feels vital. For instance, Feng, that vengeful man from IT, has an extended quest of corpo-purging that I used to be following solely for ulterior motives (he stated he’d take away a monitoring bug from my cyberbod). Each time he defined an additional step in his plan, I needed to write down a 3rd dialogue possibility over the display screen that learn: “I’ve carried out sufficient! Debug me already.”

The character selection screen for the Machinist class in Citizen Sleeper

There are additionally moments of what I wish to name “punching the reporter”, a standard pitfall in interactive fiction, the place tersely described dialogue decisions result in surprising outcomes. Throughout the outbreak of a riot, for instance, I used to be speaking to a workmate, attempting to get his consideration. One in all my on-screen decisions was to “go away alone”, which I learn as “do not converse to him anymore” (i.e. go away it alone, drop the topic, cease pestering). After all, “go away alone” truly meant to bodily go away the placement, to depart this individual by himself. Consequently, I deserted my pal to his destiny within the ensuing unrest. Whoops. Whether or not this was an unlucky subtlety of the English language or my very own unhealthy comprehension expertise, it nonetheless spoiled a tense second in one of many extra heartfelt quests. (Did I point out I proofread video games now? Rent me! I am broke).

The sport loses some coronary heart within the odd occasions when no character occasions are firing and a number of other cycles in a row cross with out a lot color. On this dry time you work together solely with the techniques of push and pull underlying every thing, levers of number-bumping and clock-tweaking. This can be a weak spot of systems-driven storytelling usually, the sensation {that a} story might be “gamed”. There may be typically a degree in works like this, when narrative is welded quick to numbers, the place the story peels away and you find yourself urgent buttons speedily, ignoring the flavour textual content in menus as a result of it’s the system now telling the story, not the narrator.

Citizen Sleeper is just not the worst offender for this, however it would not escape the entice fully. There have been intervals during which I zipped via cycles, feeling much less impelled by the story of a self-driving personbot than by the grander machine beneath all of it – the stock swapping, the useful resource administration, the clocks and meters that my borked human thoughts needs to see stuffed and blinking.

Fortunately, it is easy to fill in cog-heavy blanks within the story when a recreation is that this flavourful and atmospheric. (Fast shout out to the music. The character artist has drawn a studious lo-fi beats robotic and you’ll most likely summon an correct thought of the sport’s music from this picture alone). A few of my favorite interactive fiction drops you right into a world with out over-explaining it (see With These We Love Alive; see Horse Grasp, after which by no means unsee). Do not get me flawed, Citizen Sleeper is not as esoteric as a superpink Porpentine potboiler, however it is not as straight-talking as Neo Cab or The Yawhg both. Its closest comparability in tone may be the minimal transhumanist tour of the photo voltaic system in Solar Canine.

When you recognise and luxuriate in any of the selection buffets I’ve simply listed, you may most likely like Citizen Sleeper. It has the sensation of enjoying via a Lancer sidestory with none of the convoluted hex-tile mech guidelines that make that tabletop RPG daunting for anybody who yearns for rules-lite function enjoying. Not unhealthy for a recreation that was at the very least partially conceived to dull the pain of having sea urchin spines removed from the lead developer’s foot.

The player talks to Lem and Mina, a shipyard working and his daughter, in Citizen Sleeper

I do not know the way it holds up on a second playthrough, however I am keen to search out out. There was a complete farming group referred to as the Greenway which I by no means even entered, a wasteland of scrap I by no means had the stats to discover, and a bunch of wiry characters whose storylines I didn’t delve into past a primary assembly. I consciously left these areas apart, like reservedly consuming solely half your bag of sweets within the cinema, so you’ll be able to have cola bottles for breakfast tomorrow.

In direction of the tip of my playthrough (most likely eight hours) it grew to become clear I used to be about to embark on an extended overstars journey. The flavour of the world was sufficient to make me spend my final cycles working to save lots of up a bag filled with chit-monies and a stash of robodrugs. I did this regardless that I knew the ending sequence would roll as quickly as I left for realms unknown. Mechanically, I may have slept for my final 5 turns. Or investigated a number of characters I might left ready. As a substitute, I pushed buttons and pulled levers to get objects I knew I might by no means use, that I might neither drag nor drop, purely out of a want to not break character, to have my previous few cycles match the story I used to be constructing.

The very fact I used to be invested sufficient to do that says every thing about how connected I grew to become to the denizens of this crumbling station, how invested I grew to become in my function. It’s not an ideal recreation however it has sufficient participant freedom and likeable characters to earn my dedication to the bit. Which is the precise energy of a superb tabletop RPG. In the end, it is not the equipment of Citizen Sleeper I am going to keep in mind, not the ticking clocks and the rerolls, however the hackers and the mercs, the drunks and the shipyard staff. As a result of like Feng as soon as stated: techniques aren’t necessary, persons are.

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