Stop me if you've heard this one: The vice president, his mom, his brother, and a conspiracy theorist walk into a forest. They get into a random encounter with a deer with a telephone attached to its antlers. The entire group gets hit with roaming charges.
Welcome to most of your time in Citizens of Earth, where state-of-the-art bad puns, visual gags, and Colbert Report-lite political jabs are the glue holding together a fun, accessible, ‘90s-throwback RPG. This is a delightful game about the newly elected and clueless vice president of Earth finding himself and his random collection of constituents fighting the evil, caffeinated influence of the Moonbucks Corporation all over the streets and underground lairs of Crystal City.
Citizens of Earth wears its influences proudly. The obvious joke to make is that the game's title stops just short of calling itself Citizens of Earthbound, which would be appropriate, but also not necessarily an insult, considering that the game shows an enormous amount of respect for its inspiration; and really, Earthbound's a game that doesn't get ripped off enough. The reality, however, is that there are equal parts Suikoden and Pokemon running through the game's DNA as well, spiked with a dose of sharp but good-natured Western snark. The game runs a master class on puns alone (personal favorite being a scene where you face down an enemy called the Puppet President, who’s controlled by a literal Seat of Power), but it's not above the well-executed pop-culture reference (e.g., the ersatz Orkin lady who says “Exterminate!” in a Dalek voice) or taking a few gentle bites at politics in general. Citizens of Earth's commentary isn't exactly as scathing as your average Stewart/Colbert/Oliver diatribe, but it definitely takes its shots carefully and amusingly through its 20-odd hours. This is a game in which the VP, despite being the main character, never fights his own battles: with each fight, he literally hides behind omnipresent bushes, providing commentary and fretting over his perfect hair and teeth while the eponymous citizens do his dirty work. The dialogue is also solid, though the game gets strangely stingy with the voice acting after the first couple of hours, and seeing so many great one-liners float by as text-- as opposed to the great voice acting we get when each citizen is introduced--is a disappointment.
The game has far more reverence towards gameplay, however, and as mentioned, its influences are clear. From Suikoden, you get the sense of community, the concept of talking random characters from every corner of town;, and after performing a specific task--which could be anything from defeating a specific number of baddies, to completing some surprisingly frustrating Mario Party-esque minigames--you can invite these random characters to fight the good fight with you. There are about 40 of them to collect along the VP's journey, running the gamut from your own dear, sweet mother, who fights enemies with spankings and stat-lowering guilt trips, to computer programmers whose attacks hit (confusingly) in binary numbers. While some are much more useful than others, virtually any random job you might find in a small town is represented here, along with some sprinkles of pure wacky, like Conspiracy Guy and the local Ninja, and the sheer variety, the fun characterization, and lack of repetition among the wacky menagerie is fantastic, and addictive if only to mine all the new jokes out of the game.
Welcome to most of your time in Citizens of Earth, where state-of-the-art bad puns, visual gags, and Colbert Report-lite political jabs are the glue holding together a fun, accessible, ‘90s-throwback RPG.
The Pokemon comparisons come because, after recruitment, each character has to be trained up in order to take full use of their talents, some of which are useful both in and out of combat--like the Pilot, who can fly your party anywhere in the game world in seconds, or the Baker, who can make you delicious items without having to visit a store. As with Pokemon, all training requires is that characters be present during combat and they'll reap the XP benefits. It leads to the typical Pokemon situation of having to feed XP to underleveled characters to get them where they need to be. And afterward, you occasionally have situations like the Yoga Instructor or School Mascot, who provide such insane stat boosts per level that it almost feels like a cheat--but this is simply the double-edged sword that comes with being able to play the game in so many different ways.
From Earthbound, we get virtually everything else. CoE's graphics are much higher res and better drawn than Earthbound's 8-bit stylings, but the simplicity of CoE's Crystal City, how each area connects to the other, and the small-town feel of the place are familiar and functional. From merely walking down Main Street, to getting lost on Mount Pom Pom, it's simply a fun place just to wander in. And this is a feeling that doesn't go away the further you go, and the weirder the game gets. If there's a downside here, it's that the game's soundtrack is too nondescript for a game with so much character in every other respect.
Earthbound's combat system is almost copy-pasted here, right down to the trippy Hypnotoad backgrounds when fights start. You get a set of attacks--some basic, some costing energy orbs that replenish after a successful attack, and a few basic elemental strengths/weaknesses thrown in for good measure--and wail on enemies till they drop. The game has a nasty habit of making fights go on longer than they have to, because enemies will have transformations or defense moves that take multiple turns to compensate for, like the low-level walking java bean that transforms into a rabid, high-defense plant at the worst possible times. Citizens of Earth is a lot more forgiving, however, in that if your current character configuration isn't doing the trick fast enough, you can restart combat and swap out characters you don't need for that fight. Even if you die, you restart from the same spot on the map.
The game's biggest issue is that while the enemies are at least visible, they are legion, they start fights if they touch any of your characters onscreen, and they respawn the second you leave a room, even for a second. There's a neat trick where you can charge your characters at an enemy on the map who's got their back turned and kill them without even needing to fight, but the game gets finicky as to where some characters' backs are. It's frustrating at times, for sure, but there are so many ways to compensate that it's a wash.
Ultimately, the game is such an infinite fountain of charming and funny, that even when you've started rolling your eyes at how often you've had to wait for one of the traffic cone/hermit crab enemies to come out of defense, you end up getting into a conversation with an NPC and forgetting it ever happened. It's a fine slice of the ‘90s that developer Eden Industries has delivered here, and it's just too good being the Veep to let a few minor issues bring it down.