For fans of old-school RPGs who are looking for a tasty slice of nostalgia, at first glance Citizens of Earth looks salivatingly good. Inspired by classic SNES game EarthBound, which it copies and parodies at every turn, it boasts a turn-based battle system, a top-down view, and more characters than you can shake several sticks at. More casual gamers will probably be pleased by its fun story, strong writing, and raucous sense of humour – and extremely frustrated by the annoying RPG tropes that were left behind twenty years ago for good reason. It’s almost a very good game, but somehow manages to trip over its own feet before reaching the finishing line.
The role-playing genre is most commonly associated with fantasy, but Citizens of Earth, following EarthBound’s example, eschews this in favour of a modern, albeit surreal, setting. Stepping into the shoes of the newly elected Vice President of the World, you’ll soon find yourself embroiled in adventure when the local coffee shop, Moonbucks, is first taken over by robots and then flies away. If that sounds strange to you, you’d best brace yourself before playing this game. The story is filled with such mad things as this, and it is peculiarly to its credit.
Without a doubt, Citizens of Earth possesses one of the best senses of humour gaming has ever produced. The entire game is one giant political satire, with the inept but charming Vice President bumbling his way through life, waxing lyrical on the wonders of capitalism and how good-looking he is. He’s a stereotype but in the best possible way, having been purposely designed that way for comic effect. Joining him is a vast group of recruitable characters who are similarly amusing; they are the very citizens who give the game its name.
There are forty characters who can join your party, each one with different abilities and traits. The Vice President’s mother, for example, can give hugs to others to restore their health, while the Cop makes use of riot gear to protect herself and deal damage. Each character has an ability which can be used outside of battle, too, and they range from the superficial to the practically indispensable. The Musician can change your background music – a purely aesthetic option – but, more usefully, the Lifeguard allows you to travel underwater to access new areas. They are largely recruited by completing a small quest or mini-game, and while not all of them are necessary to complete the game, you could spend plenty of hours collecting them.
In fact, Citizens of Earth is chock full of things to do and quests to complete, thereby extending its story by a good amount of time. Perhaps, even, it is too full of extra material, if such a thing is possible. At times it comes across as frenetic and confused, as new quests vie for your attention while objectives are completed for old ones you won’t even remember picking up. Overall, the game is somewhat cluttered – both visually and in terms of gameplay – but if you fall in love with it, this is hardly a point which you’ll count against it.
Adding to all this confusion is the fact that, from your cast of dozens of characters, you can only use three at a time. Building a battle party becomes a bemusing affair, as you’ll have no idea who is useful and who isn’t. Furthermore, newly recruited characters will usually be on a level well beyond your regular party, thereby rendering them almost unusable until trained up. There is a “school” feature which allows you to level-up unused characters, but it costs money and does take a fair amount of time – though it can be sped up if you recruit the services of the Scientist.
Things are better once you actually get into the battles. Citizens of Earth plays on a turn-based system like many traditional RPGs, but adds its own twists to keep things fresh. Attacks can be elemental, physical, or vocal, with different enemies being weak or resistant to each. Each character has two or three energy points, with some moves – generally strong attacks and healing – using up energy and others – usually weaker ones – restoring it. This adds a simple but elegant layer of strategy to the game, and since the battles move on apace, you’ll struggle to be bored by them.
Yet for all of this, there’s no doubt that you’ll enjoy the first few hours of Citizens of Earth more than the rest of it. The most frustrating thing about it must be the map and quest objectives, which are frequently so vague that you’ll be left wandering around with no clue what you’re doing. For all the hours that the extra content adds to the game’s length, sheer bemusement will add a good many more. One mission requires you to find evidence by speaking to people around the capital, but you’ll have no idea who they are or where to find them. The quest marker will point you to the general area, but nothing more specific. At one point it took an hour to find the coffee shop to progress the story; by pure chance, it was in the one corner of the city we failed to explore.
These sort of vague objectives were a common element in the RPGs of bygone days that Citizens of Earth tries to emulate, but they were left behind for a reason: in short, they add nothing to the game. All they do is waste the player’s time. It’s regrettable that they should have found their way back into a modern game, and particularly one which has so much promise. They drag down your progress and, should you grow frustrated enough, may well turn you off the game for good.
There are plenty of other little annoyances too, and they are often things which could have been solved with just a little more forethought. For example, the Car Salesman is a useful citizen to recruit as he allows you to drive around rather than walk everywhere – but the car itself is clumsily implemented. To make the Vice President walk faster you press the O button, but for the car it’s the X, and the O – which you will accidentally press numerous times – will make you get out.
No problem, you might think; I’ll just get back in. Except if you try to access the car from the overworld, the Vice President merely quips about how bad it would look if he stole a car. Instead, you’ll need to reopen the menu, access the talents screen, and select the Car Salesman all over again. Furthermore, you can’t enlarge the map or open the menu while driving. If you want to do either, which you frequently will, you’ll need to get out of the car and then go through the lengthy process of getting back into it. This is but one example of the little niggles that plague the game and keep it from fulfilling its true potential.
On top of all this are a number of technical problems. While a patch was rolled out on PC to fix some of these, the PS4 version crashed several times; twice after the same boss battle, and on a few other occasions after regular battles. You receive experience points and item rewards, and the music will continue to play, but the game refuses to progress. A similar problem happened a few times on start-up, where the music would play but the game wouldn’t actually start.
Perhaps what most disappoints after a while, however, actually concerns the characters. While they are all written and acted amusingly, and the jokes come thick and fast, there is no further substance to any of them. They are designed as stereotypes and it as stereotypes that they remain, experiencing no growth or emotional development. As hilarious as it is, the satire eventually grows wearisome with no genuine feeling to anchor it. Citizens of Earth is an immense success at being funny, but it comes across too much as a game without a heart.
The result is a largely enjoyable but far too shallow experience. With plenty of laughs a minute, a fun battle system, and oodles of old-school charm, Citizens of Earth will delight you for a while – and then simply tire you out. There are too many frustrating hours spent wandering around, too many little bits and pieces that haven’t been sorted out properly. With no further depth to it than pure satire, it can be difficult to force yourself through these awkward sections and seek what lies on the other side of them. A little refinement could have gone a long way for Citizens of Earth, but without that extra touch, it’s not so much EarthBound as it is grounded.