"...after the first couple of hours, the veneer begins to wear away..."
When Eden Industries developed Citizens of Earth, Atlus helped bring it to real-life Earthlings, to some mixed reception. This time, EI and Sega have welcomed us into an expanding universe with Citizens of Space! With such a big backer behind the title, you would hope to see improvements over EI's previous foray.
In terms of presentation, the improvement is immediately apparent, as the game contains all the trappings of a solid Saturday morning cartoon. You have a plucky cast of heroes led by the Ambassador of Earth, who sets a clear goal: find the missing planet Earth! This cocksure (though charming and moral) civil servant has to get his hands dirty by dirtying the hands of his recruited constituents. The recruits are a literal colourful collection with distinct designs that fit their archetypal jobs and the intergalactic setting, ranging from the meek and weasel-like Assistant to the alien and handsome Popstar. The cast of voice actors, whose work pulled me right into Citizens of Space's witty script, deliver perfect performances that amplify each of these on-the-nose heroes. The script itself, in its pun and political jab-filled glory, leads you on a simple tale of interplanetary intrigue that does what sci-fi does best: questions the state of our modern world by laying out some worst-case scenarios. It's loaded with comic bits and sketches that, without the proper direction and execution by the performers, would have fallen flat. Everything happens in a sizeable galaxy populated with vibrant planets to explore. These alien worlds are largely focused on staple biomes, like forests, snowfields or volcanic depths, but the specific elements conjured up for each make these biomes feel unique, largely due to that bouncy, rounded cartoon feel. Fill these planets with some nifty alien enemies and NPCs, and you have a great recipe. But it only amounts to an all right game.
Citizens of Space isn't bad. It actually starts out really strong, promising an experience that improves upon the failings of its predecessor via all the above. However, after the first couple of hours, the veneer begins to wear away, unfortunately revealing many of the same issues.
In the opening moments, you are free to explore the Galactic Federation space station as much as you want before arriving at the next quest point that drives the plot forward: namely, that Earth is missing. But this point gets muddled as it seems that talking to any potential citizen recruit on your way to that quest marker brings up the fact that Earth is missing and you're on a mission to find it. This caught me off guard because neither my character nor I had learned this fact yet, nor had we been given the mission to save our beloved planet, but the game treated it as if we had. This sloppy oversight pulled me out of the game immediately, but I figured I could truck along just the same, get the quest, and all would make sense once more. Unfortunately, this was only the beginning of the issues plaguing this game.
To save Earth, as with EI's previous RPG, you must recruit a gaggle of standout citizens to do the fighting and other tasks for your Ambassador. Recruiting citizens makes up a large portion of the game and often requires completion of quests, though the requirements often boil down to "get the thing." The idea that you need to jump through various hoops to recruit your party members is an interesting change on the RPG system, but the lack of variety in said hoops can make the gimmick feel rather tired, and you'll find yourself wanting someone to just say, "Sure, I'll join you!" and have that be it. When the method is shaken up, offering a minigame of some kind instead, it does wonders to freshen things up, even if the games themselves feel a bit half-baked.
The citizens you recruit fit into three categories. You will spend most of your time with the battle citizens who comprise your party in combat and level up through gaining experience. They can equip weapons, armour, an accessory, and other gear, with additional support item slots unlocking as they reach higher levels. Finally, each battle citizen has a variety of abilities that suit the various roles needed in your typical RPG party, allowing them to support and attack as needed. They also obtain new combat skills at certain levels, and you are supposed to be notified when this happens. But at some point, the system glitched out and I never quite knew what new skill a character had learned. The screen would flash briefly, but I would need to wait for the next battle or go into the status menu to figure out what I got. This was a minor inconvenience, but represented a clear flaw in the system. Next, we have partner citizens, who you can attach to your battle citizens, adjusting their stats and adding new combat abilities that can augment any shortcomings. Finally, summon citizens can be called upon by your Ambassador at the cost of all his Charisma to apply powerful abilities in any given round of combat. These range from stat boosts to party healing to massive amounts of damage to your foes.
All citizens also have Talents, which are active or passive abilities that can be used outside of combat. They allow you to do things like adjust the encounter rate, plant seeds that grow into useful items, or even add methods of traversing the various obstacles in the game. Each battle earns you Talent Points (TP) that slowly build towards raising the power of these abilities and unlocking more functionality. The talents are a neat addition, but I found myself using only a scant few of the useful ones, as keeping track of who has what became quite overwhelming when coupled with the myriad skills and abilities on offer in and out of combat.
Combat makes up the other large portion of gameplay, and again, it starts out digestible and fun. Each character's actions, offensive or defensive, are tied to some kind of minigame, a skill challenge that determines how effective a given action will be. Actions in combat can generate Energy, expend said Energy on more powerful moves, or cause no fluctuation either way. This pulls combat into an ebb and flow rhythm of resource management, requiring players to learn when to best use more powerful moves then switch back to the basics to build up Energy stores. The minigames for each of these moves range from simply mashing a random button as fast as possible to more complicated rhythm games or pattern memorization. Generally, the more powerful the move, the more difficult it is to achieve a "Super" outcome that will cause the greatest effect. If the minigames aren't your thing, there is a Story Mode difficulty setting that can be unlocked during your playthrough, making it so you can never lose a battle.
The minigames make for a fun and interesting way to shake up your standard turn-based RPG combat, much in the same way Paper Mario did on the Nintendo 64. However, the system eventually feels like it will collapse under its own bloat of inputs and abilities. Each battle citizen has four possible combat action menus that lead to submenus with up to four moves based on the character's job. For example, you have the Captain, a fairly basic fighter who can hit things, or hit things with greater effect, all with a button mash. A second menu leads to actions that have you hold the analog stick to the left and release it at the right time to cause more damage. Still another menu has a sort of metronome that you need to stop at the right moment, and then the fourth has its own gimmick. Throw in a Partner citizen and you have three or four more options, all with their own minigames — some of which are the same, and some that are unique and exceedingly more complicated. Maybe you want to summon a citizen? That too has its own minigame that is vastly different from anything else. And not every minigame requires a snappy input; some take several seconds to input combinations of buttons or wait on a timer to run down, all of which begins to bog down the process. Multiply your party of three battle citizens by four for the total roster of available characters, all of whom can have their own partners and largely have unique minigame mechanics, and it becomes dizzying to follow or engage with the battle system. EI has attempted to invigorate the formula by arguably improving on the battle mechanics of past RPGs (like Paper Mario), but they reached so far with their large cast that it ends up drawing out each round of combat, and the entire game, well past its welcome. I love that they tried to innovate, to give us more than menus and a button to execute moves, but what we have here is too much of a good thing.
That aside, the combat system is fairly fluid, allowing you to swap in citizens on the fly to best manipulate enemy weaknesses and statuses. This works well to such a degree that getting a great team that synergizes is quite satisfying. The Ambassador himself doesn't fight but offers help from the sidelines by spending his Charisma to use items, enact policies that affect the battle for both sides, and summon appropriate citizens. His Charisma rebuilds as combat ensues or via items, and his skills can be triggered every other action, offering a lot of utility. Most battles are random encounters, which can be chained, giving subsequent rounds growing waves of enemies and offering a percentile increase in experience. This makes grinding a cinch when coupled with the adjustable encounter rate, granting you control of how and when you want to level your team. Combat itself is largely a breeze, even after I made the battle minigames more difficult (which increases effectiveness). Any challenge I experienced largely originated from issues likely not intended by the developer.
While I mentioned one glitch above, it was sadly not alone as I progressed further through the game. More and more bugs began to arise, to the point that certain things were impossible for me to complete. For example, I acquired a crucial item for a citizen recruitment quest, but the citizen never registered I had it. Another quest required me to chain battles in several specific locations to find a certain enemy, but one location always caused the game to crash. Similarly in battle, I unfortunately discovered a certain action caused the game to crash when the next enemy attack came. Some battles featured an added unintentional challenge where if an ally was KO'd, their replacement character would teleport in but never have a turn, making them little more than a punching bag. Finally, what really did me in was my inability to finish Citizens of Space. During the final boss battle, the game crashed for me at each instance of the boss' form change. I am fairly certain I reached its final form, but the game crashed for a fifth time and I finally decided that was it. It is possible that had I started the game anew, maybe none of the above glitches would have happened; perhaps my file had been corrupted at some point. But ultimately, I shouldn't have to. Releasing a game in such a state is a true shame. Looking through the various trophies on PSN shows me it is possible to beat the game, that people have done it, and this glitch may be isolated to my playthrough. But the fact that so many game-crashing issues further bogged down my already tedious run became the nail in the coffin for this title.
I really wanted to love this game, just like I hoped to love its predecessor. Unfortunately, EI has proven that they are still not bringing enough care to their titles. Boring dungeon design could have been forgiven had the game not needlessly drawn out its near never-ending amount of fetch quests. Saving each piece of the Earth could have been fun had the bloated combat system been a bit more modest. Exploring the galaxy in your own spaceship with your cool space friends could have been swell if game-stopping glitches didn't continually crop up. If this game gets patched up enough to render it seamlessly playable, then I would give it another go. But as it currently stands, the game is a challenge for all the wrong reasons, stemming largely from it's crippling system failures.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.