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Citizens of Earth review

In Itoi’s enormous shadow

“Charm” is such a nebulous concept.

It’s an indisputable element of everything we read, watch, and play, yet it would be a fool’s errand to even dare to define it in any meaningful way. It’s why we fall in love with certain characters but couldn’t give a damn about the fate of others. It’s why some games we originally played 20 years ago still resonate strongly in our collective memories while others we completed mere months ago enter and exit our brains with astonishing speed.

And yet, to me, a distinct lack of charm is one of Citizens of Earth’s major failings. It looks cute, it appears charming, and it seems like it should be one irreverent romp after the next—but everything feels far too mundane. Something’s gone terribly wrong when a game about the Vice President of Earth who lives at home with his mother comes off as so utterly pedestrian.

It’s particularly hard for me to reconcile Citizens of Earth’s lack of charm given its universally beloved inspiration. It might not have sold well at the time of its original 1995 release due to its astronomical price and subpar marketing, but the Super NES classic RPG EarthBound inspired countless creators from all sorts of mediums—including South Park co-creator Trey Parker—and the folks at Vancouver-based indie Eden Industries were among those now-grown-up designers who fell in love with Shigesato Itoi’s landmark RPG two decades ago.

Eden initially conceived of bringing Citizens of Earth to players with a Kickstarter campaign, but that fell approximately $60,000 Canadian short of its $100,000 goal. Atlus swooped in, realizing that the game would have a tremendous amount of appeal to its loyal audience of hardcore JRPG fans. And, to a certain extent, Atlus made the right choice. Eden is comprised of industry veterans from several well-known studios, including Next Level Games and Drinkbox Studios, and it’s clear they understand the nuts and bolts of crafting an effective RPG. There’s a diverse array of colorful areas to explore, and though some artificial barriers impede your progress at times, you generally have an impressive amount of freedom to traverse the game’s take on modern-day suburbia and city life at your own pace.

True to its other major named inspiration, Konami’s currently dormant flagship RPG Suikoden, the game includes 40 potential party members to recruit, and they offer a substantial set of options in battle, as well as useful abilities when exploring the game’s world. Combat is generally competent, too, delivering a mix of the straightforward first-person battles found in EarthBound and Dragon Quest.

But when it comes to those elements that separate the average RPG from an excellent one, Citizens of Earth falls distressingly short. For all that the game succeeds by borrowing from the past, it does so only at the most superficial levels. In a game like this, where traversing a large world and recruiting a cast of more than three dozen allies to your cause plays such a crucial role, the interaction with these party members should be paramount. Citizens of Earth, however, reduces your companions to their job descriptions. In fact, even when given the option, I didn’t bother to give these people actual names beyond their job titles like “Barista,” “Cop,” or “Homeless Guy”—they simply hadn’t earned them. There’s just no reason to care about any of them outside of any abilities they might offer.

Now, that’s not to say that one-dimensional characters can’t work in a game like this. After all, Suikoden is a series that saw a girl with a lewd, self-aware wolf puppet attached to her arm join the player’s cause for no discernible reason other than the fact that she wanted to. Even with Suikoden’s one-note characters, though, there’s almost always an intriguing backstory to uncover, a reason the headstrong merchant is subtly rebelling against those in power or a fashion diva is yearning to discover the clothing choices of those from far-flung locales. Every companion feels meaningful in some way, but here, they feel like a collection of stats and powers.

Another misfire comes from what should be one of the game’s strengths: no random battles. Instead, the enemies relentlessly swarm you on the world map and in dungeons, meaning that you can’t help but face new foes with every step at times. Furthermore, the pacing is sabotaged in other ways by annoying loading screens that appear when entering a new area or even a different floor in a building.

Citizens of Earth also features some of the most laughably ineffective escape-from-battle mechanics I’ve seen in an RPG. Why should I have to go through several rounds of combat before I have a greater than 50 percent chance to flee an encounter? That defeats the entire purpose of running from combat! When I wanted to run, it wasn’t that I feared the enemy—Citizens of Earth’s baddies go from threatening to pushovers rather quickly, in most cases—but because I wanted to explore. The lack of random battles becomes moot when you can’t help but encounter scores of enemies and then have essentially no choice but to fight once you do engage in combat.

The biggest problem, however, has to do with what passes as Citizens of Earth’s narrative. Within seconds of starting the game, one of the first “jokes” revolves around dirty underwear. If you’re South Park and have scores of aces up your sleeve to make up for lowest-common denominator trash like that, it’s one thing—I could look past The Stick of Truth’s in-your-face flatulence thanks to all the brilliant writing that surrounded it—but Citizens of Earth doesn’t earn those mulligans. Not every joke or quip falls entirely flat, but enough do that I really felt no desire from the story or characters to press on—only the game’s collectibles and impressively colorful backdrops served as inspiration. That’s better than nothing, certainly, but in a truly excellent RPG, it should be both the mechanics and the narrative that keep you playing.

Now, I’ve written comedy before (or attempted to, badly), so I understand how difficult it can be to craft a meaningful narrative peppered with irreverent, snarky witticisms. And I also know that, sometimes, it’s better to cut your losses and ditch a joke than go forward with a bad one. Too many of Citizens of Earth’s premises and situations, however, come off as forced comedy bits that aren’t nearly as clever as the developers think they are. The game’s dialogue feels like a marginally serviceable first draft that sat there, waiting for another round of polish that never came.

I realize that’s also grossly unfair to Eden Industries, who have made it clear that they’re not trying to create a spiritual successor to Shigesato Itio’s masterpiece—they’re simply inspired by it. But at the same time, they’re the ones who’ve dropped the EarthBound name (along with Suikoden and Pokémon) when it came to pitching their game, and while players entering the experience likely won’t expect something that surpasses those classics, they’ll at least hope for something that attempts to approach them in some way.

I don’t relish reviews like this. It isn’t fun to criticize a game that clearly has a tremendous amount of passion behind its creation, and I always want to encourage the spirit of games like Citizens of Earth, even when the execution isn’t always there. But I also recall what EarthBound localizer Marcus Lindblom said to me when I spoke to him at PAX Prime a couple of years ago about why Shigesato Itoi’s world still resonates with us all these years later: “EarthBound is so different from so many games—especially back then—because it’s a writer who sat down to make a game,” he explained, “rather than a game designer who sat down and tried to write.”

All of the technical elements are present and accounted for in Citizens of Earth. The concepts are solid, and plenty of talent and passion was clearly at Eden’s disposal. Perhaps what Citizens of Earth really needed in the end, though, was a true storyteller to bring it all together.

★★☆☆☆

The passion behind Citizens of Earth is undeniable. The execution, unfortunately, lags behind other indie titles that take inspiration from essential gaming classics. There's so much potential in this intriguing fusion of EarthBound and Suikoden, and the basics of a competent RPG are all here. The storytelling, world-building, and other elements necessary to craft a truly standout role-playing experience, however, are MIA in Citizens of Earth.

Developer
Eden Industries
Publisher
Atlus
ESRB
E10+ – Everyone 10+
Release Date
01.20.2015
Citizens of Earth is available on PS4, Wii U, 3DS, PS Vita, and PC. Primary version played was for PS4. Code/hardware was provided by Atlus for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.

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