(Developed by Eden Industries. Published by Atlus USA for PC, Playstation 4, Playstation Vita, WiiU, Nintendo 3DS)

There are certain games which provide an experience that simply cannot be replicated. The components and mechanics can be copied, but the impact they leave on players is unable to resonate like the original did. No game has been able to recapture the somber yet awe-inspiring majesty of Shadow of the Colossus, the insane brilliance of Killer 7, or the simple artistry of Flower. As technology improves and new creators are given the chance to express their imagination, the industry is bound to see more one of a kind games join the ranks of these masterpieces.

Even before video games moved into the third dimension, there were a handful of unique titles that have yet to be successfully duplicated. Consider Earthbound, the second installment in the Mother trilogy and the only entry in the series to be (officially) localized outside of Japan. On its surface it’s a standard JRPG with a modern setting, quirky humor, and repetitive combat. Careful analysis, however, reveal complex themes of sacrifice, faith, loss of innocence, maturity, and the darker aspects of human nature. Earthbound’s effective balance of humor and more serious issues coupled with its originality have made it one of the most acclaimed cult classic games of the last 20 years. Naturally other developers have drawn on its unique style and presentation as inspiration, but none of the games that follow in its footsteps have been able to leave the same impact. Citizens of Earth, the debut title from Eden Industries, attempts to capture Earthbound’s essence to deliver its own tale but, not for lack of trying, ultimately falls short as both a spiritual follow-up and an original title.

Following the latest election, the new Vice President of Earth has decided to celebrate his victory by returning to his home town. It’s a chance to relax after the grueling campaign, reconnect with his roots, and get his mother to wash three months’ worth of laundry. As fate would have it, though, he won’t be getting any rest. Monsters are causing chaos in the nearby woods, and the local Moonbucks literally flies away after suspicions are raised that the coffee they’re serving is affecting peoples’ minds. When the VP heads to the Capitol so he can inform the President about these strange occurrences, he finds himself accused of kidnapping the leader of the free world. As one insane occurrence follows another, the Vice President realizes that he can’t sit idly by while the planet descends into chaos. He’s going to have to step up and do something no politician has ever done before – actively help his constituents.

Citizens of Earth prominently displays itself as a tribute to the game it draws inspiration from. It’s set in the present with a seemingly mundane world suddenly endangered by strange forces. Healing/status items are everyday consumables like donuts, medicine and sushi. A vast array of weird enemies including coffee-making androids, demented hippies, limbo ninjas and giant hermit crabs with traffic cone shells stand between the players and their goals. There are moments, however, when it goes far beyond homage and come across as blatantly copying the source material. There’s a scene where players have to fight off a succession of cops in a police station. Battles take place before neon-colored background. The final battle of the game is won by having the Vice President draw on the positive energy from everyone he encountered to defeat his enemy, with the text box after each attack declaring that the monster “cannot comprehend” hope. And while I could be mistaken, I could swear some of the background music in the Grasslands was a partial remix of Home Sweet Home and Pollyanna. It doesn’t necessarily hurt the game, but it makes the developers appear lazy, suggesting they went the easy route by making obvious references rather than putting their own interpretation on these elements.

 

Referential jokes extends beyond shout outs to Earthbound. The opening scene parodies Chrono Trigger with the Vice President being woken by his elderly mother, the Exterminator always introduces herself by stating “Exterminate!” like a Dalek, and the Plumber bears several physical similarities to Mario. Thankfully the allusions never become too excessive like in the works of Seth MacFarlane or Seltzer and Friedberg. There’s an abundance of original humor, though its quality varies.

I won’t lie when I say much of the comedy is pretty simplistic, but I still thought some of the jokes were funny. My favorites were a book about using pastries as good luck charms titled “Éclair-voyance,” the Vice President asking if penultimate was mightier than the swordultimate, and the descriptor “Invisible light bulb goes on” appearing in a text box to indicate a character had an idea. That being said, more of the jokes were misses than hits. There were a few bland parodies (the major coffee chain is called “Moonbucks”, a famous film star has the name Tom Bruise), tired slams about the dishonesty of politicians, occasional moments where characters break the fourth wall, and some elements, like a giant squid being part of a road safety crew, which had no real purpose other than simply being random. Like Dragon Quest VIII, the game loves to give its monsters pun-based names, many of which I found groan worthy (alien cows called Moo. F. O.s, deer with phone handsets cradled in their antlers called Telefawns, and anchor-shaped pelicans dubbed Anchory Birds). I could have done without the lame wordplay, but others might find them more amusing.

 

Citizens of Earth puts significant effort into promoting the humor of its story, though it ultimately hurts the narrative. This isn’t necessarily because of the quality of the humor, but because there’s nothing to balance it out. As mentioned earlier, one of Earthbound’s greatest strengths was its blending of absurd comedy with more mature topics. Even more recent games heavily promoted as comedic like Portal or the Saints Row series have their share of serious, contemplative moments to provide depth. Citizens of Earth has no drama to provide contrast; it just rushes from one joke to another for the sake of the story. This can work in some cases like the Zucker Brothers’ early movies, but it’s only successful if the majority of the jokes are hits. This game doesn’t have such an advantage, and ends up feeling hollow.

 

What’s upsetting is how the game’s intent of delivering fast-paced comedy leaves massive missed opportunities for plot development. During the second chapter when the Vice President is accused of kidnapping the president and pursued by security, he’s instantly cleared of the crime after defeating the chapter’s boss without having to do anything that would prove his innocence. The matter of the President’s abduction is ultimately resolved with an anticlimactic contrivance that doesn’t really have any humor. The antagonist’s true identity and motivation are never foreshadowed, making his revelation appear as an afterthought rather than a genuine shock. In the final chapters there’s mention of alien technology which is powered by emotion, an idea that had potential but was never further expanded upon. Even the conclusion is lackluster – the final boss is defeated, there are a few trite lines of dialogue, then fade to credits. Considering how the game had been progressing, I’m not really surprised it petered out like it did.

The Vice President is a rather bland protagonist. He’s a stereotypical politician: egotistical, dishonest when it suits his needs, naïve about the issues regular people face, and willing to change his opinion based on what polls better. Admittedly there are some amusing moments that come from his interactions with the various citizens, such as when he ends up insulting them without even intending to, or declaring an encounter with enemies a success because he and his team were only imprisoned instead of being forced to fight. None of this changes the fact that he’s a static character, as foolish at the end of the game as he was from the start.

 

There are moments when it looks like he could have some growth that ultimately resulted in nothing. One notable example was when I recruited the Psychiatrist – the Vice President entered a dream state where he’s given subconscious advice about his flaws and how he can amend his behavior. Despite this, and many other instances where he’s called out for demeaning or dismissing others, he never makes any effort to improve himself. Yet at the end of the game he suddenly displays incredible compassion for the people he represents. If this was to try and suggest he had evolved into a truly heroic figure, it failed. This was a last-minute change of heart instead of a culmination of character development.

Nothing can rally be said about the supporting characters. Every citizen is fairly one-note with basic traits that reflect their profession. The Beekeeper makes an excessive number of bee puns, the Gambler is a rich Southerner, the Programmer is an antisocial nerd, the Cat Lady is obsessed with kittens, and so on. When not active party members they can be encountered in random spots around the overworld where it’s possible to speak with them and hear a few snippets of dialogue reflecting their quirks, like how the Bodybuilder thinks about possible future careers as a politician, actor, cyborg, or cop disguised as a kindergarten teacher. Once they’re in the party, however, their lines are generic stock dialogue that lacks any indication of individual personalities. This, along with the fact that they have no starting names other than their occupation, suggests that the citizens were designed as little more than interchangeable templates instead of unique characters.

 

One feature from Earthbound I wish Eden hadn’t replicated was the combat system. While Earthbound’s story and aesthetics remain timeless, its battle mechanics have not aged well. It was simplistic and repetitive with a tendency to drag on in boss fights or against multiple enemies. Citizens of Earth sadly falls into this same trap. Just about every battle devolves into a cycle ofpicking an attack, executing it, and occasionally healing with hardly any variation. Battles become incredibly frustrating when the monsters summon allies to join them in battle, especially when there was only one remaining. In the first chapter I was involved in a fight where the final monster called for reinforcements six times. It helped me gain quite a bit of experience, but it got so tedious I didn’t even care. Also like in Earthbound, enemies on the overworld will run from players if the party is at a high enough level.

I will give Eden credit for adding some variation to combat. The player can have their party charge a short distance to ambush unaware or running enemies. Each citizen has three units of energy which can be used to activate more powerful attacks, with one unit replenishing for every turn a standard attack is used. In addition to normal attacks, there are six elemental categories which every citizen and most enemies have a specific strength and weakness to. Attacking an enemy with the element they’re weak to restores one energy unit, while hitting them with the element they’re in harmony with depletes a unit. Citizens will also lose an energy unit if ambushed on the overworld. Status ailments like sickness or confusion can stack if an attack with that effect is used multiple times, and when inflicted on the player’s party the effects will carry over to successive battles unless treated.

 

The best combat feature has to be the experience system. Rather than awarding experience at the end of a fight, it’s distributed after each individual enemy is defeated, with a bonus applied at the end for vanquishing groups. This makes it possible to level up in the middle of battle, instantly replenishing health. Party members can even gain experience if knocked out, though they won’t revive if they level up. Finally, it’s possible to restart a battle with up to all three party members swapped out if players need a citizen with stronger attacks or a certain elemental maneuver to make the fight easier, the only semblance of strategy in the game.

Battles aren’t the only area where the game suffers from being unnecessarily stretched out as there are several instances of blatant padding. After being accused of kidnapping the President, players must make their way back to the Capitol building, but the streets will now be lined with barricades, creating a simple maze that can require some extensive backtracking to find the right path through. Once back in the Capitol, a boss fight can only be triggered after gathering the right paperwork and turning it over to the boss in the correct order. It’s a simple logic puzzle with a mildly humorous jab at bureaucratic inefficiency, but it still seemed unnecessary. The worst instance happens during the final battle; after each turn in combat, the scene will shift to another part of the world where two or three NPCs will offer their hope to the Vice President before returning to the fight, with a loading screen for each transition. Considering the loading screens could last for at least 30 seconds and sometimes nearly a minute, this process became irritating very quickly.

Similar to Little King’s Story, the majority of the side quests revolve around adding new citizens into the player’s party. While several automatically join as the story progresses, many can only be recruited by completing a task specific to them. These usually entail defeating a specific number of enemies, winning a mini-game, or completing a fetch quest. A few, though, can only be brought into the party if very exact criteria are met, which can become incredibly frustrating depending on the task. Most annoying were the Weather Lady who only joins if you encounter her while it’s raining with no idea where she may be once the conditions are right, and the Sushi Chef who requires five pieces of fresh sushi (an item that is randomly dropped by undersea enemies and will spoil if too much time passes, so success is entirely dependent on luck.) Some citizens can only join after the main storyline has been completed, but I had no interest in continuing to explore the world any further.

 

There are 40 potential party members to recruit, and while this offers some variety, it doesn’t live up to its potential. Like the Shin Megami Tensei and Suikoden games, having such a massive number of allies means that many of them will have redundant abilities or skills that aren’t beneficial to a player’s specific style. As a result, they’ll be ignored and serve no real purpose other than as collectibles. I’d honestly recommend players look up an FAQ that outlines each character’s skill set before starting the game and choosing four or five that cover a wide range of attack types and status effects, and using them solely in battle, swapping out as needed to raise their levels as high as possible. Every other recruit can remain unused except for when their talents are needed in the overworld.

On the subject of citizen talents, they range from highly beneficial to practically worthless. The Car Salesman, Captain, Pilot and Programmer are valuable to have since they allow for quick travel across the overworld, cutting down on time wasted moving between distant areas. The Architect, Bodybuilder and Gardner can be used to bypass blockades, though I didn’t find myself using them that often as the new pathways they opened rarely led to anything interesting. I felt that the most useless citizen talent was the Camp Counselor’s, who only allows players to change the names of their party members. In actuality, no citizen’s talent is truly required to complete the game as there’s always an alternate way to complete a task necessary for progression.

 

Some allies had potentially useful skills which became irrelevant because of poor implementation. The Scientist can alter time, adjusting the game’s clock ahead or backwards several hours depending on her level. Since citizens appear in random areas of the overworld based on the time of day, this could have been a useful way to track down new recruits. Unfortunately, there’s no way to keep track of where or when they appear. A feature similar to the Bomber’s Notebook from Majora’s Mask would have been incredibly useful here. The Bartender, Barista and Baker will supply the party with consumable items, but only if they’re in their business. I would suggest ignoring the Bartender altogether since his sodas will provide status boosts that only last for two turns before inflicting an ailment.

I don’t honestly think that Citizens of Earth was made as a cynical attempt to cater to Earthbound fans by offering a shallow copy of the cult hit. The team at Eden Industries clearly wanted to pay tribute to Shigesato Itoi’s masterpiece, and signs of their effort gleam through at times. But it’s clear that they focused too much on emulating the game’s superficial elements without adding any depth or significant innovation. Players looking for a more faithful spiritual successor to Earthbound are better off with the Costume Quest games, which have heart, humor, and engaging combat. Citizens of Earth may entertain for a while, but I doubt it will have any real lasting appeal.

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