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Jan 20 2015

Review of Citizens of Earth

header2 Stars

Citizens of Earth is a game that is very directly inspired by and trying to emulate the SNES classic Earthbound, but unfortunately it just doesn’t seem to understand what made Nintendo’s bizarre RPG opus so good. It gets everything right on the surface, featuring a ‘Hometown USA’ style setting, simple turn-based combat, battlegrounds composed of psychedelic nonsense, and lots of jokes and satire (though that aspect is sadly rather poorly executed). But unfortunately it forgets that underneath those ultimately superficial aspects, Earthbound had a subtly dark story and a genuinely interesting cast of characters that drove the player forward. There was an edge to it that laid just beneath its family friendly pastiche, which is made that game and ultimately the whole Mother series so memorable. That edge and a proper driving narrative impetus are things that Citizens of Earth sorely lacks and without those good story hooks to grab onto, its other flaws-of which there are many-become glaringly apparent.

That being the case, the majority of this review is going to be me complaining, so we might as well get any praise I have for this game out of the way now. The one area where Citizens of Earth manages to bring forward some interesting and unique ideas of its own is in the gameplay. Rather than have the standard “Attack, Special, Item, Defend” menu that one expects in a game like this, CoE instead gives each character a large suite of abilities related to their occupation, splitting the difference between regular attacks, defending, and special abilities. Also interesting is the fact that there’s no traditional MP resource in the game, instead each move either adds to or takes from a small pool of energy each character can build up. This provides the gameplay with a nice layer of strategy and gives things a pleasant flow as you fill up and then drain your energy pools. Also neat is the fact that every character provides some sort of out-of-combat benefit called a “Talent”; sometimes it’s simple stuff like allowing you to look at a bestiary and sometimes it’s game-changing mechanics such as the ability to fast-travel or breath underwater. Because there are about 40 different characters in this game, that ends up providing a surprising degree of flexibility and makes recruiting new members to your party feel worthwhile.

That enemy is called an "Anchory Bird". I have no jokes to make about that, which is fine because that pun isn't funny either.

That enemy is called an “Anchory Bird”. I have no pithy remark to make about it, which is fine because that pun isn’t funny either.

Unfortunately these unique and interesting concepts are just that, concepts, and they don’t get used to their full potential. While each character does have a wide set of abilities to play with, most of those skills aren’t that interesting, with the game putting a hefty focus on timed buffs and debuffs, often adding those effects on at the cost of damage output. This meant that while it was entirely possible to set-up some impressively complex and showy combos, the faster and more sensible option in pretty much every scenario was to just use whatever each character’s equivalent basic attack command was and mash the X button until the battle was over. You might say that seems like a lame way to play any game, and I would normally agree, but considering this game’s ridiculous encounter rate and screwy natural difficulty curve, such play methods are a necessity. [*As a side note, you do unlock the ability to change the difficulty on the fly rather early in the game, though I choose to ignore it, as balancing the game should be the developer’s job and not the player’s.] Similarly, while the flexibility provided by your party’s out of combat abilities is refreshing, those benefits are sometimes a pain in the ass to use and often come with strange limitations. Really the biggest flaw in terms of gameplay in Citizens of Earth is an overwhelming sense of disorganization, convolution, and inconsistency. Questions like “Why is the map only usable in random areas?” and “Why must I have certain characters in my active party to use their abilities when I don’t have to for others?” haunt the experience and end up making things feel unwieldy and unintuitive throughout.

Where things really take a downturn for me though is with the story and the writing in general, little effort is made to actually endear the player to the world or the characters, with the focus instead being on satire and social commentary so tired and toothless it makes Barney the Dinosaur look like Dennis Miller. The central conceit here is that you are the Vice-President of Earth and you’re something of an asshole, things don’t really go much deeper than that. Your goal in the game is to sort out various vaguely connected problems around town which all seem to link back to the Moonbucks company, which is clearly dealing in more than just coffee. Throughout this process the game takes on such timely and controversial topics as the extensive proliferation of corporately owned coffee shops, kids getting hyper from eating too much sugar, and the inefficiency of government bureaucracy. Add onto that extremely dated subject matter an obscene amount of terrible puns and wordplay so simple that a kindergarten student would find it condescending, and you have CoE’s sense of ‘humor’ in a nutshell. Unfortunately the fact that Citizens of Earth is so painfully not funny only serves to thrust its threadbare plot and incredibly shallow characters to the forefront; the Vice-President’s only real trait is narcissism, the citizens you recruit have all the depth of Playmobil figurines, and the story is an awkwardly cobbled together mess of bad jokes and RPG tropes.

Wow, jokes about kids getting hyper from eating sugar? That's humor so stale you could beat someone to death with it.

Wow, really? Jokes about kids getting hyper from eating sugar? That’s humor so stale you could beat someone to death with it.

Moving onto the presentation, things are fittingly underwhelming visually and incredibly grating aurally. The art style here falls somewhere between Earthbound and a political cartoon, though it lacks the weird psychedelic feel of the former and the scathing social commentary of the latter. The characters are all cartoons but they’re not caricatures, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. For as goofy as they look, their designs are ultimately quite bland and utterly inoffensive, a problem when the purpose of such designs to provide some degree of satire. As for the level design, it’s all just cookie cutter houses and office buildings, endless dull forests and hedge mazes, and unintelligible labyrinths that are a damnable slog to navigate. The sound design is where things get really painful though, and I mean that in a physical sense. The soundtrack in this game is composed almost entirely of off-putting synthesizer loops that repeat every 30 seconds. Not helping matters is the voice acting, which has every character putting on an insanely annoying goofy voice and repeating the same three quips ad nauseam throughout combat. My solution to this issue was to put the game down to about 10% volume and listen to a podcast to fill the space; you might call that unprofessional on my part but frankly without that counter-measure I probably would’ve ended up ramming my PS4 controller through my television.

Lastly we come to the matter of technical problems, which end up being a bigger issue than you might expect. Starting with the minor glitches, the sprites have a bad habit of overlapping each other and cutting off at weird angles, often squaring the tops off of larger sprites. This happens in battle too and with certain foes you’ll see their various component sprites jumbling against each other in some odd ways. A much larger issue though is CoE’s tendency to constantly and in some places consistently crash. While I fooled around with the game on both the PC and VITA, I mainly played through it on the PS4, with the assumption that it would probably end up being the most stable version; even so, it crashed to the PS4 home screen on about ten different occasions throughout my time with it. In fact as of this writing I haven’t managed to beat the game yet because it consistently crashed at a specific point during the final boss fight. As is always the case with such issues, I’m sure that it will be patched out eventually (and for all I know the issue could already be worked out as of today’s launch) but it still ended up contributing to my negative feelings towards this game and therefore bears mentioning.

If there is a lesson to be learned from Citizens of Earth, it is that good inspirations do not ensure a quality product. CoE misses the mark on every level as far as I’m concerned and the few good ideas it has in terms of gameplay end up becoming lost in a quagmire of completely awful humor and overall bad design. While I’ll admit that some of my opinions regarding the writing and art style of this game are subjective, if you do generally agree with my opinion on that sort of stuff then in all likelihood you’ll find this game to be as utterly painful and unenjoyable as I did. For this reason I cannot recommend Citizens of Earth and give the game a final score of 2 out of 5 stars. 

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