So Far, Citizen Sleeper 2: Starward Vector Expands its Scope While Remaining Intimate

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So Far, Citizen Sleeper 2: Starward Vector Expands its Scope While Remaining Intimate

When Citizen Sleeper came out nearly two years ago, it felt perfectly in tune with the times. Sure, its setting of a decaying space station known as The Eye was physically and temporally removed from our own, as the game takes place in a distant future where humanity has “conquered” the stars and corporations are locked in a constant power struggle for control of the cosmos. But despite its far-flung sci-fi backdrop, its world was painfully relatable, and its characters sifted through the wreckage of a capitalist hellhole, searching for vestiges of shelter and solidarity in a world where those things were increasingly hard to find.

Despite its bleak milieu, it blasted past decades of tired cyberpunk tropes by digging into the humanity buried underneath neon signage and corporate dystopia. Through prose that precisely conveyed the everyday struggle of barely scraping by and, perhaps most pointedly, how this story held onto hope despite these circumstances, it made for a sharp and emotional journey that left a mark.

And thankfully, we’re slated to see more of this dismal and sometimes beautiful galaxy because a sequel is on the way: Citizen Sleeper 2: Starward Vector. Although it takes place in a different corner of the world and follows a new cast of characters, from the hour or so I played, the core ambiance and tone of its predecessor remains in its deeply human characters and trying decisions. And perhaps most encouragingly, the heaping of additional TTRPG-inspired mechanics seem like they could create complexity that will pull us further into this world of difficult choices.

As for the premise, once again, you play as a Sleeper, an android with a digitized copy of a human mind trapped in indentured servitude. But instead of being on the run from the exploitative Essen-Arp corporation while using the drug Stabilizer to keep your mechanical body alive, this time, you’re a different character who has undergone an experimental procedure to remove this dependence. One thing is very much the same, though; you’re still on the run from someone who was exploiting you, this time a gangster named Laine. On the way out, you and your buddy Serafin managed to nab a ship, which carries you to a variety of settlements across the system as you attempt to outrun your past.

This ship, The Rig, is one of the biggest changes to this sequel, both narratively and mechanically. Instead of being marooned on a space station, you’re free to move across the stars, at least as far as your dwindling resources can carry you. The greater sense of scope became apparent when I saw a galactic map full of potential destinations, each seemingly containing unique characters and stories. While I imagine that none of these locales will be quite as large as The Eye, these numerous ports of call created the sense of being on a spacefaring adventure. “In Citizen Sleeper 1, you couldn’t really escape the stories you didn’t want to do because they were all around you on the station,” Gareth Damian Martin, the game’s designer, programmer, and writer, said to us. “But I think with Starward Vector, you get much more of a sense of choosing your own path through the universe.”

And, of course, what’s a ship without a crew? As you go from place to place, you can pick up members for the short or long term. Mechanically, these folks offer aid when you’re on contracts, which are multi-stage missions that seem to be one of the game’s biggest focus points. These contracts embody the general increased complexity of this sequel, and there are several gameplay additions at work here. There’s a stress system where bad outcomes affect your mental well-being and dice, it’s harder to be a jack-of-all-trades now because your class determines certain stats you can’t change, there are new “Push” abilities that allow you to perform abilities during missions at the cost of added stress, you have to consider the stat bonuses of different crew members when partaking in missions, and more.

These mechanics came together to make decision-making much more compelling, and even on this first major contract mission, I could already feel the heat. As two crew members and I probed a fragile cruiser, I felt the ripple of each choice in this ship’s decaying hull and my characters’ skyrocketing stress. However, this situation wasn’t completely doomed, as the addition of allies with their own stats and dice rolls helped me mitigate my character’s deficiencies.

If I had one problem with the first game, it was that by the back third or so, it was possible to basically “solve” the experience, as you accrued a stockpile of resources that made it easy to survive. By contrast, it seems like these high-pressure contract missions may be able to counteract this trend while creating scenarios that are tactically rewarding. And more than just being mechanically satisfying, it seems like this higher level of difficulty throughout will fit the tone and the themes of the experience better as well.

Because although we may have moved away from the original’s setting and characters, its combination of desperation and underlying pathos are very much present in what I saw of the sequel. There is a tangible anxiety to the proceedings, as the Sleeper is forced to simultaneously navigate being hunted and deal with the continual breakdown of their body. Perhaps this sharpness is somewhat unsurprising given that the previous game’s trio of creators is back, with Martin working alongside comic author Guillaume Singelin and composer Amos Roddy, but it’s still quite reassuring to see this come to fruition.

The most striking moment of my demo came when I was forced to make a mid-mission choice between helping someone in pursuit of an altruistic and far-sighted but admittedly nebulous goal versus making a call that would help our crew’s immediate desperate situation. In that moment, the game’s mechanics and narrative were in perfect harmony, conveying how oppressive economic realities encourage people to make morally compromising decisions. It speaks to the nuanced area of sci-fi that its predecessor operated in, avoiding the typical simplistic “Good” vs. “Evil” morality choices that games so often slip into by exploring how the systems we live under erode our ability to do right by one another.

Another interesting element pursued here is that while the original was particularly interested in depictions of collective action and community building aboard its corporation-besieged space station, the new game’s space adventure setup means it will have to use different means to achieve a similar sense of community. “There’s kind of two different ways that [a sense of community] appears in the game. The first is the ship and your community of people there and how they interact,” Martin explained to us. “I always try to keep it so the characters have a lot of agency and feel present so that the player feels that sense of responsibility and community towards these characters. They’re not just tools that they can use. And then I think the second part of that is the game kind of starts on the run. But at a certain point, you realize you can’t just keep running forever. And you’re going to have to turn around and deal with some of these situations. And I think that’s the point where I can kind of get the player to start to invest in the environment around them.” Although it’s too early to tell if that approach will pay off in the long run, I could already feel that my crew each had their own goals and opinions, and these locales had a sense of weight and history to them.

And much like the original Citizen Sleeper, one of the reasons these situations hit so deep is because they engage with many of the underlying ideas of cyberpunk without getting completely swept up in the tropes of BladeRunner copycats. The first game deeply engaged with its characters and their circumstances, setting up scenarios that pulled us into the grounded details of their lives, and that seems to be true in the situation the new Sleeper and Serafin find themselves in.

“With Citizen Sleeper 1, I was thinking, what would happen if you just adapted Gibson, but like, you just really stuck to what Gibson was kind of doing, and you didn’t think about Gibson’s work as “cyberpunk,” which it then became, but you just thought about it as a set of science fiction books. And so, I kind of tried to do that little thought experiment,” Martin said to us. “What matters to me is the kind of, I don’t know if the word is realism, but that’s kind of part of it. It’s the relationship to our reality, I guess is what I mean by realism, that cyberpunk can have and that I felt Gibson’s work really had. And that he was really reflecting a particular moment in time. And so, when we’re talking about gig economy and stuff, that’s what I’m interested in. I’m interested in trying to reflect the contemporary moment in my science fiction universe.”

Citizen Sleeper 2: Starward Vector has some big shoes to fill, but everything I’ve seen about this sequel is quite encouraging. It seems to be introducing layers of decision-making that will give it much more mechanical depth as a TTRPG-inspired experience, and its contract missions appear like they can create high-pressure situations that push these systems to their limit. So far, its storytelling is just as evocative as its predecessor and its spacefaring premise seems a good way to explore fresh ideas and scenarios. Only time will tell if this sequel lives up to what came before, but my time so far leaves me exceedingly eager to return to this oppressive, uncompromising, and poignant world at the fringes of space.

Elijah Gonzalez is an assistant Games and TV Editor for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing and watching the latest on the small screen, he also loves film, creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to, and dreaming of the day he finally gets through all the Like a Dragon games. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.

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