ATTENTION ALL RESIDENTS OF THIS FINE, BLUE PLANET WE CALL EARTH!
Permit me a moment and I'll show you that role playing games don't all have to be about swinging swords and finding mystical artifacts. They don't have to use that tired old fantasy setting we've grown so used to, or even star a typical protagonist! Here, your enemies are just regular schmucks strolling around city streets, or the mix of bizarre wildlife that roam surreal, colourful environments. Oh yes, I know that competition is stiff, and perhaps this sounds borderline radical, but if you vote for me, then I promise to bring you a zany adventure story set in the modern day! Vote for me, and I-....What? Earthbound...? N-Nuh...Never heard of it...
We won't be unfair. Eden Industries' SNES-style RPG Citizens of Earth is more than just a simple Earthbound knockoff. While its inspirations are abundantly clear, there's plenty to enjoy here entirely on the game's own merit, and it makes for one of the most interesting examples of the genre to be found on Wii U. Atlus took on publishing duties after Citizens suffered a failed Kickstarter campaign, but none of the humour or charm has been lost in the process.
Taking on the role of the newly-elected Vice President of Earth, you wake up to find that your rival has swarmed the streets with angry protesters. Our red-headed hero is in blissful ignorance of the fact though, and gets his day started by heading off on a coffee run with his Mom and brother in tow. The plot isn't out to impress with very many twists and turns, but sets up enough sinister goings-on along the way to justify some investigation. Aside from kissing babies and making impossible promises, the veep's job requires him to solve any number of problems across the world, and it's a fun ride while it lasts.
The real stars of the show, however, are the characters that you'll meet throughout the journey. They're an important aspect of the game too, as they'll be doing almost all of the work in place of their egotistical leader. From bakers to baristas, photographers to pilots, you'll be able to recruit a hugely diverse cast, all written and voiced to great effect. They might not steer far enough away from cliché at times, but for the most part they're a fun addition that helps Citizens stand out.
Up to three characters form your active political party, and deciding which ones to use requires some difficult decision-making. The selection is much larger than most other RPGs, with dozens of unique citizens waiting to do the dirty work for you, so a number of factors have to be considered. Both in and out of battle, each character has a talent that suits their day job - for example, your Mom fulfils the traditional healer role with hugs and enthusiasm in battle, while also offering sage advice. The conspiracy guy, on the other hand, can inflict status effects by using a cattle prod and revealing "the truth", or gather information on your enemies to better take advantage of weaknesses. Some are more useful than others - the car salesman being a particular necessity if you want to get around quickly - so it's worth frequently balancing out your team's collective skills.
On top of that, your characters level up by gathering experience, but certain citizens provide significant stat boosts simply by keeping them in your party. The game really encourages you to make use of all the choices available, but swapping out a particular recruit that you've spent a lot of time on is often easier said than done. Some of their talents can also be levelled up, so it's a good thing that a teacher you meet early on can train anyone you choose while you're off exploring. It helps mitigate the need to grind often, which is always a plus.
Starting off the game is a little overwhelming, as almost everyone you meet has the potential to be recruited to your cause. It feels as though side quests and bonus missions pop up constantly, and a helpful tablet keeps track of them all with a built-in agenda. The recruitment missions themselves are frequently inventive and off the wall, ranging from passing a quiz to bailing someone out of jail, or finding lost cats for a particularly passionate feline advocate. (Read: Crazy cat lady.) It's not quite Pokémon, but diversity is in abundance here.
Combat also employs a rather interesting mechanic by adding a counter system normally reserved for card battling games into the traditional turn based format. Basically, using lesser attacks will add counters to your character, which are then spent on much stronger attacks once you've earned enough. It replaces any kind of magic or ability meter, instead encouraging players to use a wide spread of attacks and carefully consider how best to spend the counters earned during the battle. These more powerful attacks commonly have an elemental bonus applied to them as well, so are best used to take advantage of enemy weaknesses.
The art style is a big talking point, and might actually be a "love it or hate it" scenario for some people. Eden Industries has gone for a bright 2D look, harking back to RPGs of the SNES era - albeit with a HD coat of paint. This works very well in some places, with memorable, chunky character design helping to bring life to the world around you; at other times, the basic animation is a little disappointing, and it takes away from the overall aesthetic. The voice acting and music is top-notch though, and there are moments where the art style really comes together, presenting areas as if they're miniature dioramas.
Like any political campaign, once the glitz and sheen wears off, some of the worrying cracks begin to shine through. Of immediate concern are the constant loading screens - they're shockingly long at times, which is compounded by their frequency. Even opening a door can leave you staring at the screen for 10 seconds before you're able to continue, and while it might not seem like much at first, this truly does add up. Open spaces are fine, but moving from one building to the next, perhaps heading upstairs and then back across the street, can be a chore.
The on-screen map is also absolutely tiny, to the point where it's nearly unusable. As the GamePad is unfortunately reserved for menu usage, the map is relegated to the corner of the screen, causing tiny quest markers to appear as little more than blips. Luckily, getting around isn't that much more difficult without it, though in some maze-like areas it's sorely missed. More worrying still, we had the game absolutely fall to pieces during gameplay at one point, forcing a total reset and the loss of some progress. Finally; once or twice, certain areas of the battle screen display flickered out of sight, adding to a list of disappointing bugs which detract from the experience.
Citizens of Earth runs for about 15 hours if you tackle a decent amount of side-quests and level up your team, which is pretty short by RPG standards. However, it's 15 hours that are absolutely stuffed with content, and the kind of wacky humour that the genre hasn't seen in years. A strong cast, some excellent visuals and a fun soundtrack help tie the experience together, while a rewarding combat system with multiple difficulty levels can match the adventure to suit your skill.
That being said, there are real problems with load times and some pretty severe bugs, which is enough to keep Citizens from truly running away with the campaign. One for the cult history books - an imperfect classic that fits into a very welcome little niche on the eShop.