Citizens of Earth is simultaneously an enjoyable old-school JRPG romp that made me smile more times than I can count, and a bloody-minded and aggravating slog that nearly made me throw my controller at the wall about nineteen times. Do I like it? Yes. Do I loathe it? Yes. Am I very confused about my emotions? Yes. God, it’s like being back in school.
Citizens of Earth places you in control of the newly elected Vice President of the World as he’s woken up by his mother the day after his successful campaign, because this is a JRPG and there are some tropes you just don’t mess with. A protest organised by the opposition candidate is outside his house, his hometown is barricaded in by the cops, and – further afield – more strangeness is afoot, with weird creatures and strange occurrences making life hard for the people.
What’s a VP to do? Well, nothing, directly. He’s a politician, and politicians don’t get their hands dirty… but he can talk citizens around to his cause, giving him a party to do all the fighting for him.
So yeah, if you’re going to pigeonhole Citizens of Earth, it’s Earthbound meets Suikoden, with elements of plenty of other JRPGs thrown into the mix. You’ve got the cartoony and caricatured modern-day world from the former, and the masses upon masses of potential party members from the latter.
Much as these elements aren’t exactly original, they’re certainly underused, and they’re Citizens of Earth‘s crowning glories. The world is lovely; the relatively tiny Home Town (yes, that is what it’s actually called) gives way to the Capital, with beaches and farms and tropical islands and spooky desert highways and a whole lot more also around for the exploring. Enemies are from the Level-5 school of design, insofar as 90% of them seem to have been thought of as a pun first and a foe second. No rats or rattlesnakes: just Maracacobras, Not-So-Secret Service agents, and the gaily skipping Telefawns.
Then there are your party members, who are basically their job descriptions or defining traits. Starting with just Brother and Mom, your ragtag band quickly grows to encompass Baker, Farmer, Handyman, Conspiracy Guy, Cat Lady, Yoga Instructor, and a whole lot more, eventually swelling to a 40-strong group. And every single one of them handles differently in combat.
There’s no “Attack” command here; in fact, the only shared command between the characters is their ability to use items. Teacher can bore enemies with history lessons. Programmer can infect them with viruses and attack them in Binary or Hexadecimal (and yes, the resulting damage numbers are in binary and hexadecimal, which made me smirk). And Mom? Well, obviously she can ground enemies, or spank them, or literally nag them to death. All while the VP stands on the sidelines cheering the team on, naturally.
This is made significantly more complicated by the fact that you have 40 characters (although only three in battle at once). They’ve all got synergies – both with their own abilities, and with other characters – and most of them have at least one gimmick of a sort. Keeping track of how they all function is a labour of Herculean proportions, although thankfully, things are generally simple enough that you don’t need to pore over charts. You can get by just by using whatever looks neat, although it’s obviously not the optimum way to play.
Most of them also have abilities outside combat, too. If you want to find items in trashcans, you need Homeless Guy. Repair doors? Handyman. Cut down thorns blocking your path? Executive Gardener. And these abilities level up, too, letting them handle progressively trickier bins/doors/shrubs. Some of these abilities can actually be used to bypass sections of dungeons or the overworld, or even give you alternate ways to finish main quests, so they actually have a pretty big impact beyond just finding bonus treasures.
The enemies themselves are just as cleverly bizarre as your own party, with a few employing tricks I can honestly say I haven’t seen before. Hippies, for instance, can preach about how all people are really just all one… which divides up the remaining energy and HP between your party members.
If you’ve sat through that lengthy diatribe about the combat system, you’re probably either thinking “oh wow, that sounds amazing; I can min-max that all day” or “that sounds unbelievably complicated and I’d just like to use maybe four or five people for the entire game.”
The former camp will get an awful lot out of Citizens of Earth‘s combat system, not least because School Mascot’s out-of-combat ability lets you raise or lower the difficulty level on the fly in a very The World Ends With You manner. The latter camp can certainly to make it through the game without much hassle, but will probably have a significantly less fun time – not least because seeing what all the characters do is part of the fun.
I can’t really stress that enough. If you want to just use a few characters, you absolutely can – it’s just that you’re going to get very, very bored, very, very quickly. It’s arguably a problem that this is possible, if only because I suspect a lot of players will go for the path of least resistance, but School Mascot’s ability can mitigate this somewhat and – in the end – the choice is up to you. It’s more fun to do it one way, but it’s a lot simpler and quicker to do it another way.
If you’ve sat through that lengthy diatribe about the combat system, you may also be thinking “But Tim, what about the rest of the game?” Well, er…
Look, I’ll level with you: the combat is the game. This isn’t an RPG with lengthy cutscenes, long debates about morality, or even much in the way of NPC chatter. The story really isn’t anything to write home about for over half of the game, and despite a closing scene that really tugs on the nostalgia, it never really goes anywhere. There’s some solid dialogue and some rather clever recruitment quests (none of which, thankfully, emulate Suikoden 2‘s “speedrun half of the game” bullshit for Clive) but if you’re not here for the combat, you’re probably not going to get that much out of it.
The fact that so much of the game world is open to you so early on also means it suffers from a bit of a lack of progression – you’ll stop being impressed by shiny new areas early on – and the combat suffers a bit of the same fate insofar as the difficulty is largely left up to the player. Not big problems, but…
… well, it also doesn’t help that Citizens of Earth commits some of the cardinal sins of JRPGs. I’ll admit that I’m the sort of person who mostly goes back to older JRPGs with an emulator and a frameskip option so that I can fast-forward my way through grindy combat, and this is the sort of game I wish let me do that. Battles take awhile, not least because of the way combat completely stops while experience bars tick up, and if an item drops from battle then there’s a mandatory five second pause while “This enemy dropped this item!” sits on screen. And you can’t skip or speed up combat animations or text, so you spend quite a lot of time waiting. Sure, you can insta-kill weak enemies if you initiate combat from behind, but this can be tricky since even stupidly weak enemies don’t run unless you’ve killed the area boss. And don’t get me started on the fact that the title screen defaults to New Game rather than Continue, and pressing it by accident automatically overwrites your autosave. Be sure to manually save. A lot.
These mixed-up mechanics pale in comparison to some of the other horrors Citizens of Earth perpetrates, though. It’s frankly shocking that, in a game where so much design work has clearly gone into the varied characters and the combat system, so many of the quests and dungeons are categorically awful.
Let me give you an example. At one point, you visit an Executive Retreat. Your goal is to get to the beach area at the back of it, which you inexplicably cannot reach by dismounting from your sea vehicle (which is brilliant, for what it’s worth). The area is full of enemies – it’s one of the most hostile areas in the entire game, in truth – and while foes are all visible on the overworld, you’ll have a really hard time avoiding them all here.
You try to head through to the back, but your path is blocked by shrubs, so you need to recruit the Executive Gardener. Fortunately, she’s in this area! Unfortunately, she’s in an utterly gargantuan hedge maze off to the side. So you slog your way back through the area, fighting a slew of enemies, and make your way to the hedge maze… which you’ll probably be lost in for some time, but at least the only enemies there are stationary and very easy to avoid. You recruit her, head back, chop down the shrubs, and…
…you’re blocked off by a guard, identical to the ones that’ve been attacking you throughout this area, only he doesn’t fight you. He tells you that he’s supposed to be on break but his relief shift never turned up. No, you can’t fight him; you have to go and find someone to relieve him.
So you slog your way back through the entire area again towards the objective marker telling you where to go (if you can work out which one it is, because chances are you’ll have about a billion unfinished sidequests). You find the person meant to relieve him. You battle your way back. You talk to the guard. He lets you pass. You proceed through, and run into another guard, with the same fucking dialogue, blocking your path for the same fucking reason. And so you have to go back again and find another person to relieve him and Jesus Christ I’m getting angry just typing this.
I’d like to say that this sort of time-wasting bullshit and horrible design is the exception rather than the rule, but as it’s quickly followed up by a section of the main quest that’s hideously poorly signposted – and then a fucking teleporter maze – that theory goes out the window. That teleporter maze was about the point when I started flinging poo at the monitor, in case you’re wondering. About the only massively irritating thing this game doesn’t do is throw in a Sokoban puzzle.
So perhaps you begin to see why I’m so utterly conflicted about Citizens of Earth. A lot of work has gone into it – and a lot of love, too. The combat system is cleverly designed, the game itself is an homage to past titles that deserve a lot more love than they get, and there’s a huge amount of variety and humour packed away in this adorable little package. You can easily spend hours ignoring the main quest and just wandering the available areas (plenty of which are totally optional), completing side-quests or recruiting people. And after you finish it you’ll likely still have plenty of people to recruit in the post-game, plus a New Game Plus option.
But then it crashes to the desktop, or you try to ride your sea vehicle but it won’t spawn and the game locks up, or the combat text scrolls out of the window, or you come to an area or side-quest that has very clearly been designed to just waste your time. Citizens of Earth is a great game that’s simultaneously a terrible one, and I love it and hate it with equal passion. I haven’t been this angry at a game in quite some time, but when it’s not making me babble with incoherent rage, it’s making me smile with nostalgia and amusement.
Citizens of Earth is doubtless going to be someone’s game of the year, and I can absolutely understand that. It’s also going to be completely and utterly loathed by a significant number of JRPG players, and I can absolutely understand that, too. Considering its low price I’d still recommend it, but I’d suggest you purchase only after having a long, hard think about what you want from a JRPG.
Update: You can also now read out hints and tips guide.