It would be difficult to describe Eden Industries' Citizens of Earth without comparing it to Earthbound. Indeed, the game is quick to reference Nintendo's beloved RPG in its dialogue and visual style. Citizens of Earth seems pleased to wear its Earthbound experience on its sleeve. The zany humor, chimeric enemies, and tweaked Americana aesthetic can readily be traced back to Onett. This isn't to say Citizens of Earth doesn't have its own identity, only that it draws its inspiration from the best. The pre-alpha demo is a lot of old-school fun, chased with modern innovation that refuses to wallow in nostalgia.
"Future recruits include a cop, teacher, barista, weatherman, and what looks like a guy dressed like a box of freedom fries."
The story begins with the Vice President of Earth getting out of bed. He has just won the election, and retired to his hometown for a vacation. He's a cheerful buffoon with a talent for delegation, a loving family, and perfect hair. Despite these qualities, not everybody loves him. There are protesters in his front yard, and barricades all over his town. uPhone in hand, the Vice President sets out to clean up the messes of the rambunctious protestors and the mysterious coffee shop. Along the way he encounters the Opposition Leader and makes a side trip to check on a sickly bee. The world is bright and colorful, and the spritework gives the game an immediate sense of style.
Citizens of Earth's most immediate mechanical draw is its cast of playable characters. Although the Vice President is the protagonist, he's more of an ideas man than a warrior. In battle, his citizens fight for him. I recruited the Vice President's brother, a delivery man; his mother, a wise woman; the local conspiracy nut; and a baker. Future recruits include a cop, teacher, barista, weatherman, and what looks like a guy dressed like a box of freedom fries. The team menu screen contains blank spaces for twenty-seven citizens, who will move to the Vice President's hometown as they're recruited. The active party size is three: when characters level up, they gain bonus stats based on the other members of the party.
Running into enemies initiates turn-based combat. However, the Vice President can get the drop on enemies by sneaking up behind them and sending his citizens rushing at the unsuspecting foes from the rear. Enemies can also sneak up on the Vice President. Running into enemies too weak to pose a serious threat defeats them instantly, avoiding the need for grindy battles. During combat, the Vice President stands on the left side of the screen and offers running commentary. When one of his citizens does well, he praises them; when enemies get the upper hand, he calls foul. In this way, he's similar to Okage: Shadow King's Evil King Stan. Boss monsters trash talk in the same way. Mid-battle discussion is nothing new, but here it is effective, evoking generals leading their soldiers into battle while being too weak to physically contribute.
Power is the other interesting battle quirk, which controls the economy of special attacks. Each character starts with two attack categories. The first category is a basic attack that generates one dot of Power. The second attack category is more specialized and costs anywhere from one to three dots of Power. For example, Mom's basic attack category is Nag, which at first contains the Lecture skill. This technique deals a small amount of damage, debuffs the target's defense, and generates one Power. Mom's specialized skill is Encourage, which contains the Hug skill. Hug restores a small amount of HP to Mom and her target and heals status effects at the cost of one Power. As characters gain experience, they can gain more attack categories and skills. The Power economy gives battles a pronounced feeling of ebb and flow: everyone is able to use their most powerful skills during every battle, but it comes at the cost of temporarily limiting options. However, unlike traditional MP systems, characters are able to do something useful (like Nag) even while restoring the Power necessary for a spectacular move.
Equipment continues the theme of options rather than upgrades. Each character has one weapon, armor, and accessory. The default equipment doesn't do anything, while later discoveries provide a mixture of benefits and penalties. For example, the Vice President's brother can exchange his umbrella for a stick, which decreases his attack power while providing HP regeneration. The baker can replace his wooden spoon with oven mitts, which decrease his offense and focus in exchange for dealing thermal damage with every attack.
Although the pre-alpha demo isn't very long, Citizens of Earth shows off several systems that promise hours of non-linear exploration. The Vice President's citizens gain experience points in battle; they also gain experience by learning about the world. Reading posters, discovering photo opportunities, and talking to NPCs does the trick. Moreover, in the full version, the Vice President will gain World Points. These are used to increase each citizen's out-of-combat World Ability, such as the conspiracy guy's alien encyclopedia and the cop's ability to use wanted posters to track down optional bosses.
After a brief look into Citizens of Earth, I'm excited. The controls and grammar could use tightening, but there's plenty of time for improvement. The core game promises a thoughtful blend of classic JRPG action, non-linear exploration, and party management. There's a lot of room for innovation with the citizen's World Abilities and combat skills, and Eden Industries has done nothing to make me doubt them. Be aware!