One of my favorite video games of all time is EarthBound from the Mother series. This SNES cult classic combines standard RPG elements like turn-based battles and experience points, but takes place in a modern setting based on 1980's American culture. Given my love for the series, I was delighted to see Eden Industries take inspiration from it and create a goofy, nostalgia-fueled modern RPG in the same vein. That game is Citizens of Earth, and publisher Atlus supplied us with a Wii U copy for review. Does Citizens of Earth live up to the high standard set by its predecessor? Let's dig in.
Citizens of Earth follows the actions of the Vice President of Earth (apparently that's a thing) as he investigates a series of mysterious events that he encounters while taking a tax-funded vacation in his home town. Rather than fighting for himself, the Vice President chooses to delegate his work...which means you'll need to recruit people to fight for you. There are 40 playable characters that you can add to your team of three (switching people in and out at will from a menu screen), each with their own special abilities. To recruit them, you'll need to perform various tasks and sidequests, some simple and some quite elaborate.
Battling is done in a standard turn-based style, but with a humorous twist. Rather than using swords or arrows or magic, each recruit has their own set of attacks based on their occupation. Your mother can scold and spank enemies, while the conspiracy theorist will accuse them of cover-ups, and the psychiatrist will force them to face repressed childhood memories. Each character has an energy level, with some attacks adding to your energy and some depleting it. Using weaker attacks early on will fill your energy up, allowing you to unleash stronger attacks that use it up.
Additionally, each playable character has a special ability that they can use outside of battle. One of the most notable ones for gameplay purposes is the school mascot, who can raise or lower the difficulty of the game at any time. As the difficultly of the game goes up or down, so does the amount of experience points and money you get from battles. It's a great mechanic that caters to newcomers who need to take things easy and also rewards more experience players for taking on a challenge.
The game's atmosphere is very pleasant, with cartoon-style visuals and lots of humorous dialog. There's lots of political humor, such as the Vice President exclaiming "Capitalism at its finest!" upon stealing money from someone's dresser drawer, and there's lots of references to retro games like EarthBound and Mario. Citizens of Earth has a surprisingly extensive amount of voice acting in it, but I enjoyed most of it, and you're given the option to skip through dialog sequences if it's not your thing. I particularly enjoyed hearing the conspiracy theorist shout out "You're working for THEM!" during battles.
The central story revolves around investigating suspicious activities. When the game first starts, you can wander around the northern half of your home town (all the roads out of town are blocked off by police - one of several references to EarthBound), but it's full of protesters who are not pleased that you won your recent election. The Vice President's unpopularity (and his inability to fathom it) is a recurring theme.
The plot doesn't really kick off until you discover that people in the town seem to be hypnotized by a new "special blend" at the local Moonbucks coffee shop. Investigating the Moonbucks leads you to more mysteries and requires that you find more recruits (with special abilities or key information that you need to progress) to help you on your quest. Unfortunately, I found the central plot to be underwhelming. Unlike EarthBound or other RPGs that Citizens of Earth draws inspiration from, nothing about the plot made me feel compelled to move forward. The gameplay was fun enough to keep me playing, but the story didn't engross me, and the many, many sidequests seemed to take precedent over a strong, central narrative.
Citizens of Earth has a pretty big overworld with lots of different environments and buildings to explore, which is a bit of a win-lose situation. It's great that there's lots to see and do, but there are loading screens everywhere. A big part of what makes a lot of RPGs so successful is a fairly seamless world, but Citizens of Earth makes you sit and wait far too frequently. Any time you go up or down a floor in a building, the game takes about 10 seconds to load it up, even it's just a single room.
The same is true of outside areas, where towns, forests, junkyards, and other areas are divided up until multiple sections, each one with a loading screen. Because there's so many places to go and so much backtracking required to recruit everyone (and many of the characters are not optional, as you need their special abilities to progress), you end up spending nearly as much time waiting out loading screens as you do playing the game. You can progress more quickly when you recruit people like the used car salesman or the pilot, but loading screens are still a major issue. For example, using the pilot to fly to your hometown lands you on helipad on top of a five-story building...which means you have to wait through six loading screens before you're actually where you want to be. It's a frustrating and persisting problem that really hampers the gameplay and makes exploration feel like a chore rather than a joy.
One last thing of note is that during my playthrough I semi-frequently encountered some pretty serious bugs. My game completely crashed twice at seemingly random moments, forcing me to reset my Wii U console. I also found myself physically stuck in the game about half a dozen times. By that I mean I'd get too close to a citizen or object in the game, and my characters couldn't move anymore. I could still open up my pause menu and navigate through all of the options, but I simply couldn't move around, once again forcing me to reset my Wii U. Thankfully, the game has an auto-save feature, so I never lost too much progress, but the technical hiccups were more frequent and more troublesome than you would expect from a finished product.
The Verdict: Untapped Potential
Citizens of Earth has a lot of humor, charm, and good ideas, but it doesn't quite have what it takes to be a fulfilling RPG experience. There's lots of fun to be had if you don't mind your gameplay being interrupted by frequent loading screens, but it lacks polish. Citizens of Earth has a lot of potential, but it falls short of being a great game.