It feels like eons ago that I got my first taste of TTRPGs. I can’t recall the game’s name, but I remember popping in a floppy disc into an all-tan tower and venturing into some fantasy land where a rather talkative troll impeded my journey to becoming a great hero.
It was a simple adventure where the wrong text input meant meeting an untimely demise. I played it often, never actually getting past the bothersome troll.
But that game started my long and oft comically volatile relationship with text-based and tabletop RPGs. I’ve played and mostly enjoyed TTRPGs like Call of Cthulhu, Vampire: The Masquerade, and, of course, Dungeons & Dragons, and I feel my experiences with them all helped me better appreciate Jump Over the Age’s Citizen Sleeper.
Launched on PC, Switch, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S, Citizen Sleeper sends players to a distant, abandoned society on the edge of the universe. The titular Sleeper is a constantly deteriorating artificial shell into which an individual implants their conscience. The Sleeper is meant to serve a limited time before completely breaking down and fading into obscurity.
Things are a little different this time, and when a Sleeper reaching the end of its cycle arrives on the desolate Erlin’s Eye, a quest to slow the death clock and obtain individuality in a different world begins.
I did absolutely no research going into Citizen Sleeper as I wanted to ensure my decisions weren’t skewed by what others did. Little did I know the game was all about choice, and there would be little chance I’d perfectly mimic another’s playthrough. Considering the genre, I expected a deep and engaging story, but Citizen Sleeper takes many twists and turns that constantly keep you guessing.
Decisions I swore would end a smaller narrative only created all-new opportunities and introduced me to even more of Erlin’s Eye’s quirky inhabitants. From corrupt corporations and deadly space gangs to the very citizens that fall under their watchful eyes, there’s surprisingly no shortage of life on the abandoned station.
Each new person I met and conversed with had a story of their own, and the novelesque writing made it easy to kick back and read every detailed interaction.
Citizen Sleeper may be a text-based RPG, but the screen is filled with beautiful artwork that helps bring the station to life. Each character is unique in personality and design, and every layer of Erlin’s Eye reeks of corporate abandonment.
Though the early game is admittedly painfully slow, putting in the time and getting to know the mechanics pay off. The Sleeper may start as a down-on-their-luck protagonist, but time spent amidst the denizens of Erlin’s Eye gives him a purpose once thought lost. Unraveling that and existing in this space reveals a well-crafted narrative driven by player choice and gameplay inspired by tabletop gaming.
Join Indie Games Culture and me in the deepest reaches of space, in a future that may very well be our own, as we unpack the full experience that is Citizen Sleeper. This Citizen Sleeper review is of the Xbox Series S|X version, though there should be little difference between them.
A Roll of the Dice
Since the gameplay is quite unique, it seems worth exploring first. Unlike some games, which are multifaceted and may appeal in some areas but repel in others, you can easily read through this section of the review and determine whether Citizen Sleeper will be for you.
Right off the bat, there is no action to be had that doesn’t unravel in the text. There may be the occasional firearm being discharged but save for a flash of red around the screen and the player’s own reaction, the game offers no means of making these events more exciting. In fact, the gameplay is little more than a clever take on a tabletop RPG’s dice system.
Citizen Sleeper is divided into days, which progress whenever the player opts to go to bed. This is usually done when they run out of Action Dice, which are used to perform most actions. Want to help a scrapper clear their vessel? You’ll need to use an Action Die. Feel like babysitting for your kind-hearted co-worker? Another Action Die will be needed. It’s not as simple as just choosing one of up to five dice to spend, however.
There are six unique dice and four degrees of efficacy. Each action performed can result in a negative, neutral, or positive effect, ultimately determining if the action was successful or yields moderate to exceptional rewards. The number of dice per day is limited, meaning the Sleeper needs to plan his actions carefully so that no die is wasted.
Typically, the Sleeper can access six dice, but how many are available is dictated by the Sleeper’s health and condition. Stay fed and keep your character’s body from deteriorating, and you can start each day with six dice. Let things fall apart, however, and you may only have one to work with.
Jump Over the Age did a fantastic job creating thought-provoking gameplay that relies a bit on the basic luck of rolling the dice. It took me a few days to finally understand how the dice work, and it may be a system that not everyone can get a handle on, but those that do will understand how crucial it is not to spend dice without plenty of thought.
Surviving on Erlin’s Eye
While the dice are the driving force of the gameplay, there’s still a bit more to learn during your time on Erlin’s Eye. First off, before you even awaken on the station, choose who your character is. You’ll choose from three character classes, each one equipped with its own abilities and stats. Who you choose matters for the long game as one may have a better chance at improving dice efficiency while another may have an easier time navigating the guarded network.
Citizen Sleeper features a small skill tree that does have a decent effect on the gameplay, but to unlock any part of it, you’ll need to complete Drivers. While there is an overarching story about helping the Sleeper escape its creator, Essen-Arp, Drives serve as quests that fill the void and possibly make completing the primary story easier.
You can follow a Drive or ignore it entirely, but it’s important to ask what you may miss out on. The more Drives you complete, the more skills you can unlock.
Sometimes more important than completing Drives is making money; on Erlin’s Eye, the local currency isn’t easy to come by. The people of Erlin’s Eye use cryo, which can be obtained by performing odd jobs, hacking into the station’s cyberspace, or selling scrap you find in your travels. Cryo is earned in small amounts but can be used to purchase components and food that may complete a Drive and keep the Sleeper healthy.
Digitizing the Tabletop Experience
Games like Citizen Sleeper face a unique challenge: they need to take the tabletop experience and turn it into something visual that video game enthusiasts can gobble up. Even being a text-based adventure, Citizen Sleeper does a fantastic job of immersing players in the world through stationary but detailed imagery.
Each character has a portrait that pops up during dialogue segments. The designs give each character their own personality, whether it’s the passionate chef or the alcoholic bounty hunter squandering their opportunity for redemption.
With just these vibrant and detailed portraits and the masterfully written dialogue, players can visualize who these individuals would be in a 3D, fully rendered space.
Jump Over the Age could have gone a simple route with its design for Erlin’s Eye, but instead developed a multi-layered 3D map. The more time I spent bouncing between locations on the long station, the more detail I spotted. With multiple areas of interest to traverse, you wind up piecing together a pretty detailed vision of Erlin’s Eye.
Each section of the ship has its own personality, which comes through whether you’re scanning the surface or zoomed in on a specific space during character interactions. Jump Over the Age didn’t have to go too detailed here, as the focus is always on the text and decisions needing to be made, but there’s more than enough to help players visualize the expansive station.
Barring a few small animations, like status bars and flickering lights, there’s a little movement happening in Citizen Sleeper. Still, every element of the game comes together to create a living, breathing world that’s interesting to explore and pleasant to look at.
Using dynamic visuals risks creating a dull and uninspired environment, but Erlin’s Eye is brightly lit, full of neon color, and very indicative of the cyberpunk aesthetic the developer was aiming for.
Gaming with Words
Right off the bat, Citizen Sleeper isn’t your average video game. You won’t be navigating big open worlds or participating in epic firefights. In fact, if either of those is necessary for your enjoyment, it’s safe to say that you likely won’t connect with this digitized novel.
I can only imagine how long the actual script for Citizen Sleeper is, considering the incredibly detailed storytelling. This isn’t your average voice-less RPG where short text boxes pop up over a pixelated character’s head. Picture an entire page of a novel filling the right third of the screen, and all you have to do is just read and enjoy.
There are no voice-overs, no stand-in sound effects to indicate someone’s talking, and no impossibly-slow scrolling text. You move at your speed, taking in every word of dialogue or world descriptor. It can be intimidating if you’re not used to visual novels or text-based gaming, but it’s important to soak it all in. Speeding through the well-written text will mean missing out on some of the finer details of Erlin’s Eye and its inhabitants.
With no real exploration to help flesh out Citizen Sleeper’s world, it’s up to the words on the screen to work their magic. Jump Over the Age was clearly invested in ensuring each block of text does its part. Can it be a little much sometimes and maybe offer details that aren’t crucial to the story?
Yes, it does occasionally read like a Stephen King novel. But like King and some other wordy authors like him, the text engages more often than not.
The Soothing Sounds of Dystopia
A few things are expected of a cyberpunk aesthetic, and a hefty electronica soundtrack is high among them. Composer Amos Roddy delivers 23 ambient tracks that provide something to listen to while painstakingly deciding whether to assist a citizen in need or work a shift at the bar for some cryo.
The soundtrack is very soft and mellow, eliciting calm from those listening in. Overall, each track lends a beautiful sound that fills the silence without being too distracting. Since starting Citizen Sleeper, it actually became a part of the rotation in my “writer’s playlist.” I know it’s there in the background, playing its gentle melody, but I’m not so engrossed that it’s distracting.
While that may sound negative, it’s precisely what Citizen Sleeper needs. An overly active soundtrack would detract from the narrative unfolding in large blocks of text. The focus would shift from the thoughtful descriptions to the tone and energy of the track. As it stands, Roddy’s compositions are accompaniments that exist beneath the mechanical hum of Erlin’s Eye to fill the white space or add some personality to some character interactions.
The Pen is Maybe a Little Too Mighty
Citizen Sleeper is driven by its narrative. Unfortunately, there are moments when the dialogue, descriptors, and interactions to push that narrative forward slow things down a little too much. Overwriting is an occasional issue as the game can tend to feel more like a full-blown novel than an homage to a TTRPG.
Some characters are far more interesting than others, and I occasionally found myself skipping dialogue if I wasn’t entirely interested in their plight. Thankfully, these were infrequent and not tied to the Sleeper’s more focused journey. And for every dull character, there were several that I found myself truly engaged in.
One pair, in particular – a father and his adopted daughter – were quite endearing and wound up being among my favorite side stories on Erlin’s Eye. Still, it’s worth noting that some of the dialogue felt inorganic as if Jump Over the Age wasn’t even fully invested in writing for some characters.
Making Impossible Decisions
Though a lot of Citizen Sleeper comes together well, I often felt that the decisions I made had no actual effect on the story. Over three playthroughs, I tried to get a drunkard bounty hunter to shoot me, just to see how bleak the game could get.
No matter how much I antagonized him, the path always veered at just the last second, as if Jump Over the Age wanted to test the villainy inside us all but was afraid to actually carry it out.
For gaming that relies heavily on player choice, it’s easy to feel less important to the overall experience when decisions don’t have even moderately obvious outcomes. I’d say this happened more frequently than I hoped, but I can’t say it ruined my time with the game at all. It just felt like Jump Over the Age had a specific direction it wanted the game to go into without being incredibly obvious about it.
Not a Game for the Masses
There’s a lot to unpack here, and really, it reads far more intimidating than it actually is. But let’s be honest. I could give this game a perfect, glowing review, and it still wouldn’t be for everyone. It’s slow-moving, requires a ton of reading, and there are no incredible set pieces to keep players that favor action engaged.
While all games won’t appeal to some fraction of the gaming audience, Citizen Sleeper is at a disadvantage and has an even smaller fraction that would game it to the end.
It’s unfortunate, considering how deeply immersive my time on Erlin’s Eye was. Some will give it a shot and love it. Others will get a few minutes and find themselves bored to tears. Chances are, you already know which of those categories you fall into.
- Rich, immersive narrative
- Beautifully rendered cyberpunk dystopia
- Master class writing worthy of a published novel
- Surprisingly deep gameplay that mimics tabletop RPGs
- A stellar cast of characters gives life to the world
- Text can occasionally be overwritten and wordy
- Some player decisions don’t seem to matter
- Not all Drives are worth sinking time into
- The early game is on the slower side
- Some mechanics take a bit to understand
Digitized text-based RPGs infused with tabletop gameplay aren’t entirely easy to come by, but if you’re looking for more games like Citizen Sleeper, I recommend giving the following a try:
- Disco Elysium
- In Other Waters
- VA-11 HALL-A
Question: Is Citizen Sleeper Replayable?
Answer: There are nine different endings to achieve in Citizen Sleeper. Whether it’s worth earning all nine is really up to you, and if you don’t mind working through those slower moments again. I was happy with the three I achieved, though I may return in the future to see a few more.
Question: What was Citizen Sleeper Released On?
Answer: Citizen Sleeper is available on PC, Mac, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S. I played my copy on the Xbox Series S off of Game Pass. There has been no word as to whether there will be a PlayStation version of the game.
Question: Is Citizen Sleeper a Visual Novel?
Answer: Kind of. Unlike most visual novels, the decisions you make in Citizen Sleeper tend to matter. There is also some semblance of gameplay that most visual novels don’t include. However, there is a lot of reading. So, this game teeters in the middle.
Citizen Sleeper: The Verdict
A game like Citizen Sleeper is an uphill battle from the moment its opening credits roll. It has to pull the audience in almost immediately, or they’ll disconnect and never return. It’s safe to say that Jump Over the Age did a fantastic job grabbing my attention with its concept of a dystopian space station, discarded humanoid masses, and the search for self-identity.
Though the gameplay is all dice-based, there is enough to keep players pushing forward, from game-changing decisions to upgradeable skills that can change the outcome of every roll of the dice. It feels good to know that you directly impact the direction of the story, but that’s not always the case in Citizen Sleeper.
It’s way too easy for a game like this to fall flat. However, Jump Over the Age did a fantastic job of giving players a reason to pay attention and want to see this text-based adventure to the end.