Let's get this out of the way so we can move on: Citizens Of Earth is a love letter to EarthBound. It's an RPG that finds the humour, horror, wonder and weirdness lurking behind everyday life, a skewed perspective on American culture with wry left-field jabs and groan-worthy puns aplenty. As the Vice President of Earth, you'll recruit an army of followers to fight against an otherworldly invasion within the picket fences of your home town, coffee shops, the big city and realms beyond, encountering some bizarre and hilarious foes in traditional first-person turn based battles.
So Citizens Of Earth owes a lot to Mother 2, then, but there's more to it than that. It feels like a painstaking fan project developed by someone who loves the source material and JRPGs...but doesn't have much experience in actually making them.
Because that's exactly what it is. Eden Industries have never made a JRPG before, but in fairness there's a first time for everything. No-one attempted to create an execution puzzler based on light waves until Eden had a crack at it, and Waveform turned out great. As such they approached the marathon task of creating an enormous RPG by throwing everything they had at it, along with some new ideas of their own.
The result is infinitely more than just an EarthBound homage, yet simultaneously the sort of game I hate to review above all others. A game that's packed with clear passion and enthusiasm that I desperately want to love, but makes a number of basic mistakes I just can't ignore.
Our adventure starts out as the Vice President returns to his home town and parent's house in fine JRPG style. Indeed, it's a relatively traditional JRPG in terms of structure as you gradually strike out from homestead to suburbs to farms and city, interacting with a variety of pithy NPCs, engaging in a huge number of quests and choosing whether to engage a variety of roving monsters.
The hook comes from the fact that, instead of fantastical worlds or Sci-Fi situations, Citizens Of Earth is grounded in the mundane. You'll fight insane construction workers, dangerous mutated baristas and other heightened reality foes in everyday locations, poking and prodding at normal life in a surreal and askew way. Not in a Lynchian way, mind you, rather it tries to evoke the naive and childlike spirit of EarthBound to mixed effect. Dialogue may lack Shigesato Itoi's outsider's perspective and often tries a bit too hard for the laugh, but enemy designs and encounters will keep a smirk on the corner of your mouth more often than not especially when it takes aim at politics.
That's enough about EarthBound, though, because Citizens Of Earth is based around a fresh set of mechanics that completely shake up progression and exploration. 40 of the NPCs you meet can be recruited to the cause -- you are the Vice President, after all! -- meaning that they'll join a growing army of followers over the course of the campaign.
Once you complete their quests, they'll lend you unique field abilities depending on their job description, which are hilariously based on the same stock NPCs that you'd usually meet once and forget about minutes later in a garden variety JRPG. Need to repair a door? The handyman can help. The gardner will cut through shrubbage blocking your path, your deliveryman brother will deliver items to you and the School Mascot can even change the difficulty of the game on the fly! Your boundaries are constantly expanding as your army increases, lending the game a fascinating management mechanic that never gets old.
There's more. Your NPC legion all boast completely unique attacks, skills and abilities to bring into combat, leading to an insanely varied stock of potential parties and builds to draw from. Your choice of three combatants can lead to crazy permutations of potential damage outputs and status effects to experiment with, plus each character also permanently buffs their fellows in a particular stat when they level up.
Citizens Of Earth's maddeningly deep and robust recruitment system should have made for some fantastic battles, but unfortunately this is one area in which Eden's inexperience really shines though.
The basics are solid genre fare, first-person turn-based battles against static enemy portraits that Etrian Odyssey and Dungeon Master veterans will find instantly familiar, but the twist is that you can't use your most powerful skills from the start of each engagement. Instead you'll have to charge up your abilities by constantly using weaker attacks, which in theory should lend combat a strategic and thoughtful edge.
In practice, though, battles just take too long, with you ineffectually flailing against foes while wishing that you could just blast them away with abilities you're not allowed to use. It slows things down, not in a thoughtful or tactical way, but rather draining your stamina as the hours roll on.
Or drag on, perhaps. Citizens Of Earth is a long game, but much of it feels like padding, a wealth of fetch quests, 'talk to specific character X' quests and repetitive diversions shoved into an annoyingly cluttered interface with no ability to sort or track objectives properly. In some respects this is surprisingly authentic, since the Vice President of an entire planet would presumably have a lot of busywork to take care of, but there's no denying that the game really does bog down in vast amounts of stodge that the humour and enemy designs can only mitigate so much of. The fact that your benched characters don't earn XP exacerbates this tedium further, forcing you into grinding or paying out large sums of money just to stay on the curve.
Other JRPGs have this padding too, but they also have a strong storyline that pulls you through and keeps you engaged, which is where Citizens Of Earth really falls down. The core storyline is ephemeral and can feel surprisingly inconsequential, often buried under the busywork and difficult to pick back up after some hours spent sidequesting. After a while I found it difficult to care about or even remember what I was supposed to be doing, funny as the trappings frequently are.
And then we come to the art style. In fairness Citizens Of Earth does a lot right, providing detailed backdrops, clean sprites and memorable thematic variation between different zones, but to me it's just a little reminiscent of a flash browser game at times.
Call me a slave to nostalgia, but in this case I think that the overused 16-Bit aesthetic would have actually improved the game, evoking memories of the classic RPGs on which it's based. It's nice to see a game that doesn't fall in with the big pixel crowd just because it can, but every once in a while it suits a game's mechanics and tone better than anything else, and is overused for a reason.
But then again, perhaps it would have looked too much like EarthBound for Nintendo's lawyers.
After all that, I can still recommend Citizens Of Earth. It gets enough right, the humour, the enemy designs, the fascinating recruitment mechanics and sense of the surreal, to appeal to JRPG and EarthBound fans alike. I just can't help wondering how a genre veteran like Robert Boyd might have handled the nitty-gritty.
- Deep recruitment system puts 40 characters at your command
- Pithy and surreal dialogue, tongue-in-cheek enemy design
- Exceptionally versatile combat...
- ...that's poorly-paced, sluggish and padded
- Thin main story and mountains of repetitive busywork
- Some annoying interface gripes, humour sometimes works a bit too hard
The Short Version: Citizens Of Earth is more than just an Earthbound homage. Zany humour finds wonder and wackiness in the mundane, while the recruitment system lets you build a versatile army that changes the way you explore and battle in a JRPG.
It's a shame that Eden's inexperience with this tricky genre leads to major pacing problems with the campaign and combat, but there's still a deep and delightfully surreal experience here for patient players who can handle the busywork that comes with being the Vice President.
6 – CAPABLE: The key thing to remember here is always try before you buy. There'll likely be some rather glaring flaws or perhaps a distinct lack of imagination, but games that earn a 6 will generally be very capable indeed and probably still provide a good deal of fun to genre fans.
Platforms: 3DS, PC, PS4, PS Vita, Wii U (reviewed)
Developer: Eden Industries