On paper, Mass Effect: Paragon Lost looks nothing short of fantastic. Animated by the illustrious Production. I.G. and a movie tie-in for Bioware’s science fiction action RPG series, acclaimed for its powerful storytelling? The pedigree is undeniably outstanding. However, both as a Mass Effect film project and as an anime coproduction, this movie is an underachiever. Rather than the next Animatrix or Batman: Gotham Knight, what we have here is an average shoot-em-up plot as opposed to a fully-realized companion to the exceptional series it is a part of.
The packaging of Paragon Lost bills it as a prequel to Mass Effect 3, the end of the trilogy of games starring the indomitable Commander Shepard. While it features the exploits of party member James Vega it’s really a side story that runs parallel to the events of Mass Effect 2. This is a time when human colonies throughout the galaxy are under threat from an enigmatic group of aliens known as the Collectors, whose modus operandi is incapacitating and abducting entire populations for an unknown purpose. Vega is a member of the space marine unit Delta Squad, which is deployed to the colony of Fehl Prime when it comes under attack from a group of mercenary alien Krogan – a burly warrior race. Thanks in large part to Vega’s courage and tenacity Delta Squad wins the day, after which they are stationed at the colony indefinitely for its protection. Two years later Fehl Prime’s defenses are built up and the colony is like a home to Vega’s squad, but crisis looms when the marines investigate a jamming signal from an unknown alien device. It’s destroyed, but not before it ends up luring a Collector ship to the planet. The aliens swarm the colony and abduct nearly everyone, leaving Vega in the position of leading his squad in a desperate counterattack.
Paragon Lost works as a Mass Effect story in one important way: its firm grip on the theme of hard choices and sacrifices that fans of the games will be intimately familiar with. If there are fundamental questions every player has to answer, it is these: what do you do when obeying your conscience could mean failing your duty, and what’s a soldier to do when the duty to protect and serve conflicts with the duty to accomplish a mission? So it is with Vega here. Presented with an opportunity to possibly deal a fatal blow to the Collector ship with Fehl Prime’s defenses, he holds back lest the colonists be slaughtered as well. From there, the situation gets even worse and casualties mount despite Delta Squad’s best efforts. As the battle rages and Vega and his team manage to infiltrate the Collector ship, our hero ultimately faces a soul-wrenching choice between rescuing the colonists and salvaging invaluable information that might save more lives in the long run.
This means that the movie isn’t lacking flashy sci-fi gun-toting combat, rife with daring gambits and more than a few heroic sacrifices. The animation team certainly did the job of bringing the action of Mass Effect to fully-realized life in animation. The trouble is, the movie is so occupied with this spectacle that it only shows a passing interest in these matters that are clearly supposed to give the story some emotional weight, and next to none for its characters. Vega’s squad mates are hardly worth naming; at best they’re identifiable by a dominant personality trait, at worst they’re just bland. There’s an Asari scientist named Treeya that exists to offer exposition and, eventually, to be a love interest for Vega to protect. Somehow the most memorable of the lot is Brood, a surviving Krogan Vega releases from imprisonment for extra help, who proves himself courageous to the last and respects Vega’s mettle as a warrior. Finally we have Messner, a proverbial snake working for the militantly pro-human group Cerberus. His actions in the film highlight the organization’s distasteful amoral utilitarianism, rendering him a perfect foil to Vega in all the ways that matter. I just wonder whose idea it was to draw him as though he were on a vacation to Hawaii.
The extras included with the feature film include All Doors Open: A Look Inside Electronic Arts, An Inside Look at the Mass Effect Universe, and Directing Effect. In this bonus content there is an overwhelming focus on the game series and EA itself, which is certainly not out of place. However, the lack of attention paid to the production of the film or the creative process for it is an unfortunate missed opportunity.
The vexing thing about Mass Effect: Paragon Lost is that it seems fundamentally ill-conceived. It doesn’t work as an entry point into the franchise, and for adoring fans it’s a glorified footnote in the Mass Effect Saga. One might reasonably ask if we needed a detailed account of a backstory that was explained in mere minutes in Mass Effect 3. The answer to that is that it’s all in the execution, but the product being sold here is a serviceable action movie. Compared against the high standards set by a game series that has made its players care deeply about the fate of a slew of characters and the inescapable consequences of so many unavoidable choices, it’s impossible to not feel regret for what else this movie could have been.