Shoulda Picked Renegade: Review of Mass Effect: Paragon Lost

Cast of Mass Effect: Paragon Lost
As some of you might have already picked up on, I have a rather unhealthy affection for the Mass Effect series, questionable ending of ME3 aside. So when I heard that there was going to be a Mass Effect anime, I was excited. Two of my favorite things together at once? Sign me up! Oh my gosh, the aliens, the other worlds, the Citadel, the cool spaceflight, the battles, and above all, the amazing characters? This is going to be so totally amaz…

Wait, it’s about James Vega?

*sigh* Cancel red alert…

The Brave, the Bold, the Blue, and the Brick of Meat

For those unfamiliar with the series, James Vega is an Alliance marine who joins the main player character, Commander Shepard, in the third Mass Effect game. He’s very much a stock “marine” kind of character: he’s built like a brick, follows orders, shouts “oorah,” and so on. He’s also voiced by Freddie Prinze Jr. Many fans (this one included) find him a pretty boring and bland character in comparison to the usual motley crew of hilarious and angsty ME squadmates. However, he does come with his own painful backstory, a tale of how one particular mission went awry and forced him to make a very difficult decision. Mass Effect: Paragon Lost goes into detail of what exactly happened during that fateful mission.

The story begins soon after Shepard’s unfortunate… incident at the beginning of ME2. Vega and his new squad of elite marines are sent to the colony on Fehl Prime to fend off an attacking krogan mercenary force. After successfully destroying the enemy forces (save for a single survivor, Brood), they are ordered to remain at the colony for protection. Two years later, Vega’s squad is ordered to accompany Treeya, an asari archaeologist living in the colony, to investigate a strange object of unknown origin that is blocking colony transmissions. Unfortunately, the Collectors from Mass Effect 2 show up and begin their harvesting of the colony. Vega and his team fight to recover the colonists, but as leader, Vega finds himself faced with several difficult decisions, leading to the most painful choice of his life.

Needs more Renegade Interrupt

As I hinted earlier, I was less than enthused when I heard the anime was going to be centered around one of the most boring characters in the franchise, so I’ll give credit where credit is due; Vega is not the weakest element of this anime by far. He’s not what I would call a particularly strong main character, but he has heart, and the writers do a decent job expanding on his psyche from what we know in ME3. For example, his respect for Commander Shepard is enlarged on; Vega is actively trying to BE like Shepard, despite the warnings from those around him that living up to that legend can be dangerous. Probably the most intriguing element is how Vega is used to explore the identity of the Paragon in Mass Effect (i.e. the positive, idealistic way to play Shepard), and how a non-Shepard character is trying to put that into practice with mixed success. While the ME games constantly allow Paragon Shepard to find the best possible solution and save everyone, Vega can’t quite manage to do the same and thus is constantly having to make quick judgement calls or struggle with what the most moral, “good” course of action is. I actually found myself liking him more through those struggles. And, of course, it’s nice to have at least ONE main Mass Effect character around; the only other ME characters who appear is a brief two minute cameo from Liara and even shorter cameos from Hackett and Anderson, which isn’t much to cling to.

And frankly, you’ll be clinging to what you can because there are plenty of other problems with this anime, some big and some small. My biggest problem by far was probably Treeya, the asari character. Initially, I rolled my eyes at how much like Liara she was: an archaeologist obsessed with the Protheans, love interest for the hero, even wearing similar clothing. After half an hour, I revised my opinion about her being anything like Liara… because even pre-ME2, Liara has more agency, interest and strength in her little pinky than Treeya has in her whole body and soul. The first half sets her up as this cool and aloof scientist who has only scorn for the grunts assigned to her, but minutes later and without warning, she turns into what I can only describe as a soggy blue cream puff. Her activities in this movie can roughly be boiled down to:

  • screaming
  • crying
  • whimpering in fear
  • getting grabbed by the arm and led places by Vega, the villain, and basically anyone with an XY chromosome
  • standing there or following Vega for no reason, whereas she’d probably be much better served by simply hiding and staying out of the way rather than pretending to be “involved”

While she does serve a few important plot purposes (investigating the object, and later interfacing with Prothean tech), did she have to be so incredibly helpless? Don’t asari all have useful biotic powers? This would be infuriating for a character of any race or gender, but it also smacks very much of damsel in distress, which has its own host of issues. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that every female character has to kick ass and chew bubblegum, but in the ME games, even the most tiddly of non-combatants has a strong personality, a voice, and an active purpose other than just “whimper softly and do nothing.” Coming from a series which is widely celebrated for having awesome female characters, it seems that much more egregious.

Default female Shepard from Mass Effect 3

Commander Shepard is not impressed with this bull$#!+.

Vega’s squad is another weak spot in the anime. The characters themselves aren’t too bad (with one exception, the gratingly annoying biotic Essex who starts the show by grabbing his female squadmate’s ass without consent), but they’re really given only the sketchiest of characterization, and a few of them seem almost interchangeable at times. I didn’t really care that much for any of them, and so when the body count begins (spoiler!) all I could dredge up was a “meh.” However, the squad as a whole serves as an interesting and useful contrast to Shepard’s own motley crew and how important that “motley” element is to making that squad FRIGGING AWESOME. Shepard’s squad is only a military squad in the very loosest sense; it consists of hugely varying species, personality types, and backgrounds, and the resulting interplay makes for infinitely interesting storytelling. Here, the squad is all human, and they’re all Alliance marines… and that’s about it. Obviously a lot comes down to execution – a well-written all-human marine team might be better than a badly written team of aliens – but here, at least, it ends up feeling comparatively bland and samey considering how many awesome other aliens and non-Alliance humans there are to work with. It’s telling that the anime seems to improve whenever Brood the krogan comes back into the picture.

On top of all that, the pacing drags in places, and they do that very annoying thing in spin-offs where they give barebones exposition about the world: it wastes time for the ME fans who know who the Reapers and Protheans are, but fails to give non-fans any reason to care thanks to being so vague and brief. There are a host of other problems too, some small but niggling. Why did there seem to be such a rush to fire that one cannon? Why did they not take five seconds to check out that object? Why couldn’t they have gotten the original VAs for Liara, Hackett, and Anderson in for five minutes? Why are male characters always manhandling female characters? Why did they use traditional anime for the sci-fi video game but CG anime for the traditional fantasy video game Dragon Age? Why is the animation so blocky and bad in places? Why did they cloud the starkness of Vega’s final choice with getting a love interest involved? And why, once the choice is made, did they then feel the need to have a second flashback so that Freddie Prinze Jr. could overact some more? Why did they only mention two casualties by name that one time when they’d lost other squadmates as well? Why do the krogan look more like dragons than snapping turtles? Why couldn’t they have gotten in a few other races like the turians or quarians? Why did the squad let that procurement civilian come along to go see the object, other than for later plot purposes? How the hell did the Illusive Man sign off on that Cerberus subplot? If the Alliance had so much intel on the Collectors, why were they so constantly blindsided during ME2, and why didn’t they give the SPOILERY THING to the rest of their colonies, or Shepard?

I don’t want it to sound like there’s NOTHING good about this anime. A lot of the fight sequences are well handled, particularly when biotics are involved; they really nailed the Singularity-Warp combo. The Mako makes a triumphant return. The story actually gets pretty good when the Collectors trap the squad within the facility; there’s a nice buildup of tension and claustrophobia, and Vega has to confront some decisions he made that may have put them in a worse situation. There’s a pretty chilling battle with a Praetorian. And the final decision, though not a surprise for ME3 fans, was appropriately painful and emotional, even more than I expected thanks to some pretty gutpunching radio chatter and the scenario (however contrived) that they’d created.

But in the end, I can’t really recommend this anime, not even to Mass Effect fans. Between the merely-passable main character, the annoying love interest, the bland squad, the weird pacing and “go here, then here, then here” plotting, and the lack of anything new or interesting about the ME world, your time could be better spent playing Mass Effect for the fifteenth time.

Hmm, I think I know what I’m doing this weekend…

What did you think of Mass Effect: Paragon Lost? Interested in watching it? And what do you think of James Vega as a character in ME3?

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