"...like a politician, the game promises a lot more than it delivers."
It is no secret that Earthbound is a cult classic among JRPG fans. Its absurdist contemporary setting, dry wit, and overall unconventionality hold a special place in gamers' hearts. No other title from that series (called Mother in Japan) has seen US release, and fans clamor for more. Many games like Contact for DS have tried to capture the magic of Earthbound but haven't quite reached that brass ring. Enter Citizens of Earth, a failed Kickstarter game that was picked up by Atlus. Talk about a success story. This game takes the wackiness of Earthbound, but filters it through the lens of more in-your-face American humor. It comes close to capturing the magic of Earthbound early on, but the magic eventually wears off over its lengthy course.
You take on the role of the Vice President of Earth, a hapless and bumbling politician who at least tries to show the people that he means well, despite his political agenda. His story begins the day after his election, when he's enjoying a brief visit to his childhood home, where his mother and younger brother still reside. The veep's respite is short lived after being woken up the next morning to find his hometown streets filled with protesters. The unflappable veep, thinking that the noise is his adoring public, has no qualms about entering the rabble and using his false authority and limited self-importance to figure out what's going on. Of course, the protesters are only the tip of the iceberg of a wacky tale involving puppet presidents, coffee shops flying off like rocket ships, and other such crazy occurrences. The concept is novel and there are plenty of delightfully putrid puns, but the narrative itself is surprisingly thin and the one-note jokes wear off rather quickly.
The veep's interaction with the people is where story and gameplay complement each other. The veep does not fight his own battles, but he can recruit ordinary citizens to fight for him, similar to Pokémon. These ordinary citizens fight not with pitchforks or torches, but with their own ordinary people powers, such as the barista's weapon of choice, scalding hot coffee splashed onto baddies, or the veep's mom's weapons being verbal epithets because a mom's scolding truly is mightier than the sword. Each recruitable citizen also has a "real world" power he or she can use outside of battle, such as the car salesman's ability to summon a car for faster travel or the school mascot's ability to raise or lower the game's difficulty on the fly. There are 40 unique citizens to recruit into the veep's entourage, and each one has his or her own requirements for recruitment, reminiscent of games like Suikoden. The citizens don't get much development beyond their surface-level personality archetypes, but they are amusing, highly varied, and everyone will find favorites.
Battles are traditional turn-based affairs that take inspiration from Earthbound, with psychedelic backgrounds and wacky enemies like new age retro hippies. My personal favorite enemies were the snails on motorcycle wheels. Battles look great, but are not the most rapidly-paced affairs. Enemies can be seen beforehand on the field, but the encounter rate is still quite high and enemies will give chase if passed by. With the press of a button, the veep can send his entourage to charge weaker enemies on the field for instant kills. This is helpful because you engage in extensive backtracking, so engaging in full battles with weak enemies is a waste of time. Unfortunately, sloppy collision detection hampers an otherwise useful gameplay mechanic.
The game offers some nice conveniences, such as being able to swap out active party members on the fly. This is quite efficient, because some citizens' powers are better suited to certain areas, battles or situations. Citizens don't naturally gain levels while inactive, but for a price, a few at a time can receive tutoring from the schoolteacher to raise their levels while waiting in the wings. In addition, new recruits with low levels may fall in battle pretty quickly, but they gain EXP even if they bit the dust. This alleviates some grinding, but does not completely eliminate it.
There is also no real "Game Over." When the veep's party is defeated in battle, he just wakes up and the party is back in the area where they fell unconscious, so players don't feel like they've lost progress. Speaking of progress, there is also an autosave feature, in case players forget to save as they go along. It should be noted, though, that a loaded save brings the party to the entrance of their current location rather than their exact coordinates. This was annoying to me at first, but proved a surprisingly good workaround for some of the glitches I encountered where I passed through locked doors to get to a new area of a dungeon, but could not get out afterward.
Along with fighting and exploration, the game has situational puzzles (some of which require surprising leaps of logic) and mini-games, several of which have steep requirements to win. I actually skipped recruiting a few citizens because their mini-games were finicky to play and had those aforementioned steep requirements. Speaking of finicky, menu navigation is sometimes clunky on the 3DS touch screen due to small text, icons that are small or feature monochromatic color schemes, some garish color choices, and an overall layout that requires a learning curve to remember what each sub-menu does and get all the necessary facts.
Aesthetically speaking, the game is a mixed bag. The character sprites and portraits exude great style in the vein of classic American cartoons and have smooth animations. On the flip side, the environments look fine but not as stylish as the inhabitants and utilize a lot of similar colors and textures. In terms of sound, the voice clips peppered throughout the game are fun to listen to and appropriately acted, but the music is completely uninspired and forgettable.
Although Citizens of Earth is a nice-looking and solidly playing game, it felt repetitive to me at around the 8 hour mark. I also found plot direction quite vague in places and often wound up aimlessly wandering in frustration trying to figure out where to go and what to do. The sheer number of enemy encounters in hostile areas combined with slow battles discouraged me from wanting to explore and play for any extended period of time. Unfortunately, the game takes upwards of 40 hours (or more) to complete, and the cracker-thin narrative does little to keep players motivated as the gameplay grows more tedious.
It should also be noted that the game is available on multiple platforms with mixed results. I know PC and Vita players complained often about bugs, glitches, and crashes. The 3DS version is perhaps the most stable, but is not entirely bug free. In my experience, the game crashed far less often than my peers' versions on other platforms. The majority of glitches I encountered were mostly nuisance glitches that I figured out workarounds for, but should not have had to.
I give Citizens of Earth credit for trying to combine elements of beloved RPGs like Earthbound and Suikoden, but it drags on way too long for its own good. The gameplay becomes a chore surprisingly early on and the flimsy narrative's novelty wears thin. Were Citizens of Earth a 12-15 hour game, it would be fine, but its current duration is far longer than that. My closing statement regarding Citizens of Earth is that like a politician, the game promises a lot more than it delivers.