The “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” fetch quest of traditional RPGs is so ubiquitous in gaming culture that it’s nearly impossible to separate one from the other. This pushmi-pullyu trope has been examined, questioned, imitated, and mocked nearly as long as gamers have been recording experience points and casting magic missile. Many a warrior has sighed, wondering why the hell he was spending so much time running hither and yon for travelling merchants and dirt farmers when he could be cracking some serious dragon skulls. It’s an understandable conundrum.
“Hey, old man–I’m the one swinging a broadsword over here. So what say you lead me to the Secret Everglade of Woeful Zombie Lobster Doom without a dozen fox pelts?”
It is the burden of global politics that sends you forth into crazytown in Citizens of Earth, a throwback JRPG that feels like Earthbound spent a drunken night of bend-and-squeal with the Pokemon franchise. In it, you play the lovably obnoxious Vice President of the World as he uncovers an increasingly-insane plot filled with conspiracy, sunburned Secret Service members, and sentient coffee beans.
The retro gamer feel of Citizens offers a heaving whiff of the “Gotta Collect ‘Em All!” spirit of the nineties, as you recruit your many peers and voters, enduring various trials and errors in order to convince them to join you. Want to gain access to a local used car salesman’s sweet ride? Then you’ve got to race him! Need a hand lifting some boulders out of your path? Better impress the local strongman with some flexing of your own!
Make the right moves, and you’ll have your own rag-tag band of misfits to battle alongside of you in no time! Well, perhaps “battle alongside” is the wrong word: in true Pokemon fashion, your underling allies do the fighting for you.
“Don’t forget to protect me!” Our courageous protagonist bellows as a battle with a demon-infused hippie begins.
It’s that sense of humor that makes the whole thing such a charming experience. With its jack-in-the-box antagonists and irreverent sensibilities, the best moments of Citizens of Earth feel like playing an interactive Saturday morning cartoon.
Its a deceptively simple-looking game, with a freshly-opened SNES sensibility that makes the aged gamer among us wistful and dewy-eyed. However, if Citizens of Earth‘s greatest asset is the 16-Bit heart that gives it life, then its flaws can be found not far behind.
This game is a grind.
On your quest to do everything, you will go everywhere. This a big positive. At first. But as you complete one fetch quest, fourteen others will rear their heads, and at times you’ll swear that this is some sort of roguelike quest generator, with no end in sight. The Vice President and his retinue spend so much time wandering aimlessly and pestering others that they might as well be dabbed with patchouli oil and covered in GG Allin tattoos.
This portrayal of the classic JRPG would be a bigger cause for concern if it weren’t so damned accurate. My frustration was reprimanded by an inner reminder that these time grinds were an absolute staple of some video games that are seen as untouchable classics (Earthbound, A Link To The Past, basically every early Final Fantasy). But does that mean we need it in games today? My instincts say absolutely not. The sheer number of goals you’re initially tasked with often makes the presence of quest markers and flags completely useless–you might as well walk in whatever direction you’d like until you find something. This toothache could at least be alleviated with some sort of world map, but looking for one is pointless.
And as you wander these various levels, you feel constantly under attack. As you make your way from one board to another, the baddies just keep respawning. This isn’t such a bad thing when you start out: as your companions gain levels, they also gain access to clever and fun special abilities that go beyond your usual “tank/dps/healer” style party system. But it’s pretty easy to find a good combo early on and just stick to what works. And when the bad guys keep swarming at that point, you’re just mashing buttons and waiting for that last mutant seagull to just stay down, goddammit.
On the other hand, it’s pointless to try and criticize the various followers that you can recruit–they’re all unique and a hell of lot of fun to meet and collect. Teachers, conspiracy theorists, cat enthusiasts: throw in a Reddit user with a baseball bat and you could recruit the whole internet. But just like many other parts of the game, sometimes the recruitment requirements feel needlessly obtuse. Combine this with the fact that you seem to find the same teammates in all sorts of different places, but can only recruit them in their “home base” location, and you’ll have lots of eye-rolling moments to go with the yuk yuks of laughter.
Citizens of Earth was released to both console and PC, but the most telling port seems to be its release for the PS Vita and the Nintendo 3DS. Maybe its the hours I spent as a kid playing Shining Force: The Sword of Hajya on my Game Gear and Link’s Awakening on my brother’s Game Boy, but this sort of needlessly dense RPG just screams for a handheld device in this day and age. It doesn’t help that the graphics on a large screen feel foggy and definitively lo-fi–a problem that could be solved by compressing the whole thing down to handheld size.
Without getting too wishy-washy, this just doesn’t feel like the sort of game that you’d boot up the PS4 to play. It feels like the sort of game you’d play on a long road trip, or for an hour before bed. Any bigger, and it just doesn’t seem worth the commitment. On anything bigger than a five inch screen, Citizens of Earth feels like the Quebecois fishermen you met at the bar: flirt, but don’t take it home with you.
But if you’re looking for a fun, old-school RPG to play in bits and pieces on your 3DS for a little while, I’d really recommend Citizens of Earth. It’s cute, it’s funny, and it makes me think of a simpler, far more barbarically difficult time in game history.