A little bit of Earthbound. A little bit of Suikoden. Wrap it all together and you have “my game.”
It’s a common, sometimes overused tactic on Kickstarter when developers start to reference your favorite games in hopes of selling you on the premise of theirs. I’ve stumbled into more than my fair share of campaigns with a laundry list of games I love and promises that this game is going to be just like them!
Citizens of Earth is the kind of game you want to see succeed. An underdog from the get-go, this game failed to achieve its goals on Kickstarter, but Atlus, a company known for throwing its support behind quirky RPGs, rescued it. At least a publisher was able to salvage one of these gems we might have never gotten a chance to enjoy otherwise.
Then you start to play Citizens of Earth, and it feels just like was advertised. It’s goofy with a charming sense of humor. It has a lot of unique characters to recruit. It has an art style which perfectly captures the spirit of Earthbound and the light-hearted nature of its mockery of politics.
It delivers on everything it promises, and I’m still not having fun.
No Prize For Second Place
We’ll just start off at exactly what it is. Eden Industries’ game, Citizens of Earth, is an attempt at recreating the 16-bit glory days of the JRPG. It’s an honorable task, one in which countless indie developers have taken the mantle of in their own way. In other words, to stand out, one really needs to do something special.
Citizens of Earth promised to be different by providing an Earthbound inspired suburban American world where every character could be recruited into your party and goofy politics are the norm.
Our hero is an overly stereotypical useless politician who wakes up Chrono Trigger style the day after he is elected Vice President of the World. He’s worried about his image in the paper, is clueless to the people who hate him, and joyfully praises the futility of bureaucracy. Oh yeah, he also rules the world while living with his mom, cementing why he is a useless second-in-command rather than an actual leader.
When he stumbles across what looks like an alien invasion, he takes it upon himself to set the situation straight. Actually, he doesn’t take it upon himself to do so, but rather he entrusts his mission to the hapless citizens of his city, standing aside in combat while they do all the dirty work and he takes all the credit. In return, he runs their daily errands for them.
Some leader, huh?
Your Average Joes and Janes
Rather than getting the glory of having a name, these recruitable characters are just social roles of everyday people. Before you know it, your party will consist of a sushi chef, a high school mascot, a car salesman, a pilot, a coffee girl, a policewoman, a life-guard, a soda jerk, an alien, a painter, a wheelchair-riding fangirl, a news-competent photographer, and even the main character’s own mother!
Yes, this slime even throws his mother into a fight! Really, Eden? Are politicians really that incompetent?
Each of these characters brings into the fold their own battle abilities as well as their own “talent” that can aid the party outside of battle. For example, the car salesman lets you summon up a car to drive faster across the map, the pilot acts as a much needed fast travel mechanic, the bodybuilder will pick up rocks in your path, and the lifeguard allows you to walk underwater.
The homeless man even lets you dig through the trashcans for items!
The irony is that despite the wealth of personality the art and voice acting bring to these characters, as well as their unique abilities, none of them are particularly memorable. After being recruited, each is blessed with mere stock dialogue that somewhat resembles a limited interaction with the game’s wafer-thin story.
Ultimately, it’s a tale about our main character, and there is very little emotional connection with him through the gameplay because he is not even controllable in battle. These other characters we actually do control are given very little chance to shine or get involved with the story. After you recruit them, they just kind of hang out on the map. Maybe you’ll talk to them, maybe not, but never do they seem to act as a team.
These titular “citizens” in Citizens of Earth feel more like objectives rather than actual characters; ones only completionists should really seek out.
Fetch Quests, Walking, and Grinding, Oh My!
The gameplay also satisfies its requirement by simply existing. Citizens of Earth does indeed have a battle system and it does have quests. Fetch quests. Lots and lots of fetch quests, mind you.
Many of the characters in the game will have you seek out bees, coffee, cats, paintings and sushi. One of them has even allowed his “spirit” to escape, and you’ll have to randomly battle it until you get it back. Sometimes you’ll kill an enemy, get an item, and a message will pop up at the bottom indicating you’ve taken a step in completing a fetch quest you didn’t even know you were on!
So many fetch quests and recruiting quests that you will ultimately feel distracted from the task at hand… and not in a pleasant Skyrim “let’s get lost in this interesting world” kind of way, but an “ugh, another one?” kind of way.
Recruiting these characters will send you to the far corners of the map, especially since you’ll only be able to recruit them in specific areas despite them popping up everywhere, a real annoyance. Be prepared to do a lot of running from area to area in attempts to recruit them into your party. The gracious introduction of the car salesman’s car and the pilot’s fast-travel can’t be understated enough. However, they do not necessarily mean that the needless padding of fetch quests becomes easier to deal with, just less meddlesome.
Thankfully, not all of these characters are recruited through a tedious chore, and it’s a breath of fresh air when you don’t have to grind away at monsters for a new party member. Again, the pilot, the car salesman, and the soda jerk shine here with both of them requiring a mini-game to recruit rather than a pointless grind session on the map. Not exactly good mini-games mind you, but at least it’s something different beyond fighting.
Definitely better than a character who requires you to grind every recruit to above level 20. Don’t save her for last, kids.
As for the battle system, I’ve already touched on my main thoughts about it. It is simple enough to plan a strategy with each character bringing into the battle different elements and attacks. Citizens of Earth’s developers certainly know what makes a good battle system “good,” and that means lots of buffs, debuffs, status effects and hard-pounding attacks.
The problem is with implementation. These are all necessary to make a battle system exciting, but they aren’t necessary to win at Citizens of Earth. I found a winning combination within the first half an hour of the game, and ten hours later, I haven’t ventured away from it! Lower a group’s defense with Mother’s “Hug” attacks and smack away with group targeting attacks from Brother and School Mascot. Occasionally boost experience points with the Mascot’s “Taunt” ability.
Never Fails, Never Loses
Citizens of Earth does allow you to ramp up the difficulty for better rewards, but the side-effect of new challenges is offset by dragging the speed of battle to a snail’s pace. In a game where battles lurk around every corner, speed is the secret to success, not artificially overpowered enemies that take forever to kill with a deep strategy.
Compound this added time on top of all that walking and all those quests, and you have a game that genuinely feels like the slow, dragging grind sessions of older RPGs. Not exactly in a pleasant way, either. Don’t turn up the difficulty.
Whenever I did branch into using other characters, it was solely to max out their talents to access secret areas. When they peaked, I never needed them in battle again, and I went right on back to my formula. Enemies are basic and can be killed in a few hits, boss fights play out just like stronger enemies rather than requiring clever tactics, and eventually, like the fetch quests, combat proves to be more of an annoyance than a thrilling gaming experience.
If I can find one original element that makes this battle system worthwhile, it’s allowing characters to level up within a fight rather than after it. Even after being knocked out, characters gain experience points and can revive themselves if the others hang on long enough to get a level. That adds a little tension and planning to battles, but it can also make them really easy.
Easy to the point where I never needed items. I never once entered a store in Citizens of Earth, and I don’t think I found a use for money or armor either.
Congress is More Competent
It is what it is, really. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes an indie game doesn’t come off as polished as a professionally designed final product. Citizens of Earth has a majority of its parts in working order, but it lacks an emotional centerpiece to tie it all together.
Maps are spread out and require a lot of walking. Characters aren’t memorable. The confusing, disjointed story is driven by a single unlikable character. The whole experience has a sense of amateurism to it.
Bugs in the tutorial battle opened a menu I couldn’t close no matter what button I pushed, forcing me to restart the game. Small annoyances like not being able to re-enter the car after exiting or being able to look at the map while driving build up over time. Dungeons have long walks of nothing followed by areas where you can’t take two steps without a fight because the hallways are too narrow to dodge.
I even backtracked once from the story’s loosely determined path and found myself unable to progress for an hour or so because some octopus jumped in my way on a bridge. I had no hints as to how to continue, and just found myself walking aimlessly, recruiting characters, until I finally stumbled on the solution. By that time, I had forgotten my main objective. By the way, drive into this octopus for another fun graphic glitch I found.
The art is attractive and captures the personality of its inspirations, but it doesn’t mesh well with the background, giving it a sense of fakeness that you don’t find in the naturally smooth games that Citizens of Earth modeled itself after. Even Earthbound had animated cars!
Ultimately, all it really has to fall back on is its cute mockery of American politics, and I can just watch The Daily Show 30 minutes a day if I wanted that. Politicians are worried only about image. Bureaucracy is bad. People are sheep. We get it. Eden Industry’s jokes aren’t new, and its topical references fall way short of the timeless themes of Earthbound and Mother 3.
It’s a light RPG snack for those who don’t mind shallowness or digging through artificially inflated depth. If you are looking for a solid RPG that will give you the same level of enjoyment as the games it modeled itself after, you’ll have to keep looking. Maybe it plays better on a Vita or 3DS, but it’s not a game I recommend you play sitting in front of a TV or PC screen.
Disclaimer: We were provided a copy of Citizens of Earth for the PlayStation 4 and played 10 hours before writing this review.