It's not every day that a developer fails to fund its game through Kickstarter, but still gets picked up by a publisher of legendary stature like Atlus. However, this is the exact route taken by Eden Industries with its SNES-inspired Citizens of Earth, which borrows heavily from Ape and HAL Laboratory's cult classic, EarthBound. With such a heavy emphasis on old-school gameplay, though, does this PlayStation 4 and Vita outing have enough new-age nuances to strike nostalgic gold?
The game starts off with a victory, as the new Vice President of the world returns to his hometown following a hard fought battle for his brand new position. As with most retro role-playing games, you'll have the option to change the character's name to whatever you want, which is a nice touch. It's now down to you, as the new man sort of in charge, to right all of the wrongs in the world, and like any other good politician, you'll need to recruit people to fight the good fight and figure out what the heck is going on.
Therein lies the battle structure, as instead of catching 'em all, you'll be recruiting 'em all in order to build the perfect team. Walking around the game world, you'll be able to add different characters, like a pilot or a mascot, to your group by doing specific quests for them. Each one has unique abilities, so creating any type of team is possible. The catch here is that the Vice President doesn't fight, leaving the dirty work to the three-man squad of recruits that you bring along with you.
As you progress through battles, experience points will be gathered increasing your characters' levels like most RPGs. The running commentary here is that politicians delegate all types of work to their subordinates, while they are just buffoons with a nice smile. It's funny at first, for sure, but this unfortunately makes the main character extremely unlikeable throughout the course of your adventure.
To its credit, the diversity allotted through this choice of team building is phenomenal. The side missions are also diverse, ensuring that recruiting people is less of a chore. One mission has you grooving to some jams Dance Dance Revolution-style, while another will have you searching for cats in the environment. Some of them are also a bit more challenging.
But it's choosing which three characters you want on your team that is the biggest head scratcher – and arguably the system's greatest shortcoming. Working hard to add a new recruit to your lineup is rewarding, but it also means getting rid of someone else that you've probably invested lots of time into. A solution presented in the game is allowing the characters to level up away from your party, a bit like the Day Care feature in Pokémon. However, it's still difficult swapping stars out after investing so much time into them.
Combat is also interesting since it employs a sort of counter system commonly used in card games like Magic the Gathering. Each attack either uses up a counter or adds one, and balancing this out is what leads to success in most battles. There are also elemental strengths and weaknesses added for good measure.
It's undoubtedly fun when your wit is tested and you're forced to think through every attack so that you're in a position of power against an equally tactical enemy. Unfortunately, there aren't too many times when this situation plays out; most of the game is too easy, and grinding only makes it easier. To be fair, you can increase the difficulty, but there simply aren't enough enemies that employ the tactical elements baked into the combat system.
Nevertheless, the EarthBound influences are frequent throughout; even the backgrounds of battle scenes employ psychedelic, wavy colour schemes. It's definitely not the first game to borrow from classics, but there is such a thing as copying too much, and this definitely teeters on that line in certain aspects. The sad thing is that it has so many good ideas of its own that it doesn't really need to mirror its inspirations quite so closely.
Still, the art style and soundtrack are undoubtedly fantastic. The world is very bright and colours pop making your ventures interesting to look at. The character design is also charming with tiny models, while the music, unsurprisingly, has a very classic SNES sound to it. Both of these add to the charm, and will feel really comforting to those who lived through the early-to-mid 90s era of gaming.
Despite all of this, though, there are some presentation problems – particularly with the map. There's no way to zoom in and take a look around, for example, which wouldn't be an issue if there weren't a bunch of different icons on it – but unfortunately there usually are. We found that this made it difficult to see where to go next.
Furthermore, because the game centres on recruitment at its core, it never really fleshes any of the cast out. Many of the protagonists are just caricatures of who they are supposed to be, such as the baker, who is a fat guy that can't stop eating, or the conspiracy guy, who is just some crazy nerd that talks nonsense. Without a strong lead character, there's no reason to care about what's going on.
Citizens of Earth tries to be too funny for its own good, and often feels like one long joke about politicians. Fortunately, the gameplay, in all of its nostalgic glory, is fun and charming. There are moments where it treads a little too closely to its inspirations, but this at least results in great art, a fun soundtrack, and some compelling combat. And while it fails to hit the standard set by the classics that it's attempting to imitate, it should still get your vote if you're a fan of old-school RPGs like EarthBound.