Hey, wassup. Summer has basically ended, leaving us with the oncoming torrent of new releases that won’t let up until the end of the year. Personally, I’m excited for Divinity Original Sin II next week. That game, alongside Etrian Odyssey V and Mario Odyssey are probably my most anticipated games of the year, though honestly I still have a lot of Zelda that needs playing somewhere along the way too. In any case, I thought I’d start off the new school year off right, not by extolling the virtues of something good like Zelda, the XCOM 2 expansion, or Nioh (which I got the platinum trophy for because it’s so GOOD) but instead by exorcising myself of one of this year’s most notable failures.
Mass Effect: Andromeda
If you had asked me around 7 years ago who my favorite game developers were, I think Bioware would’ve probably topped that list. Alongside Nintendo and the long-defunct New World Computing, it’s fair to say that few other individual development studios are as responsible for my tastes in video games as they are. I played Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic when I was 12, which then led me to Baldur’s Gate II and (by proxy) numerous other role-playing games, including the old-school ones that I’m still a weird lunatic about to this day. Before KotOR, Dungeons and Dragons-style mechanics, and the concept of “player choice” were both foreign ideas to me. Certainly, it’s easy to look back on that game now and pick apart its binary morality, shallow mechanics, and occasionally goofy writing, but that doesn’t change the fact that it (alongside the Paper Mario games and the Might and Magic series) was a formative experience for me and RPGs.
But of course, things change. I’m willing to acknowledge that my tastes in video games have changed in the past few years, often contrary to Bioware’s own changing (corporate-mandated) design ethos, and a lot of that simply has to do with the part where I like the kind of crunchy, mechanics-heavy RPG that simply does not exist in the AAA space. If you’re wondering why I said “7 years ago” in the last paragraph, it’s because Mass Effect 2 came out 7 years ago and was probably the last Bioware game I’d consider to be “great.” I will defend Dragon Age II as an interesting failure and I still like Mass Effect 3 overall in spite of how utterly stupid its original ending was, but both of those games represented a slip in quality that the company has never quite managed to recover from. Critics liked Dragon Age Inquisition a lot, but personally it left me (and seemingly a lot of other people) rather cold with its faux-MMO world design and bad combat. It’s one of the few single-player RPGs from them I've quickly dropped, alongside such stellar epics as Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, and the pre-built campaigns for Neverwinter Nights (note to self: I should check out Hordes of the Underdark at some point.)
I think there’s also a part of me that has gotten a little tired of Bioware’s writing style. I could accuse them of simply getting worse at writing and really digging into the pandering, adolescent power-fantasy aspects of their games, but that’s something that’s hard for me to personally quantify. It’s been a hot minute since I played Mass Effect 2 or Dragon Age Origins, and while the nostalgia voice in my head tells me those games were much better written than their successors, I’m not sure how true that is. Let’s just say that I’ve found myself relating more to Obsidian’s slightly more complex, slightly more adult brand of writing over the past few years. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention a general fatigue with the overarching, encompassing “Bioware Formula.” It varies slightly from game to game, but is epitomized by their love of making the player protagonist “the special,” fighting against a decidedly bland world-ending threat alongside a quirky cast of archetypal characters (an increasing number of whom you can bone down with) with the occasional *IMPORTANT CHOICE* along the way. That’s certainly a gross oversimplification, one that ignores nuance and the basic fact that most stories are kinda the same, but I hope that you have an understanding of what I’m saying. Bioware is unique in their devotion to their particular template, one that they’ve arguably been using in one form or another arguably since Baldur’s Gate II (and inarguably since Neverwinter Nights.)
So yeah, now that you know where I stand, let’s talk about Mass Effect Andromeda. Chances are, you’re already aware of the game’s lukewarm critical and word-of-mouth reception, the story of its troubled development, or the part where EA wants to bury it as quickly as possible. I would love to say that these aren’t reflective of my experience, that I could offer something positive or contrary to the current prevailing deluge of negativity surrounding this game, but… I really didn’t like it. It’s bad, and I find the “Direct-to-Video” analogy a lot of people have been throwing around to be incredibly apt. The only reason I finished Andromeda, rather than dropping it like Inquisition, was a combination of morbid curiosity and masochism (the same masochism that made me stick with Bound By Flame until it broke me, in case you were wondering.) It’s a bad, bizarrely inept game that can be bad and inept for a very long time if you so choose, though I had my fill after slightly more than 25 hours. Someone who beelines through the main quest could probably do it in less than 15, but I felt the need to check out a decent chunk of the noteworthy side quests, including all but one of the crew loyalty missions. Unless you have a concerted interest in seeing the franchise commit seppuku, I would recommend you stay far away. There have been so many great games this year; you don’t need to spend your time on this one.
As someone already fatigued with most open world games, Mass Effect offers the worst kind of take on open world design. It’s a bland series of large, mostly empty zones filled with trivial trash mob encounters and a bunch of repetitive, boring side activities that aren’t all that fun the first time you do them, alongside the occasional NPC fetch quest and the even more occasional NPC quest that’s actually involved (which, it turns out mostly involves running between the handful of inhabitable planets in order to talk to one NPC or go to a random spot and fight a handful of mooks.) None of it is all that great, but at the very least the shooting is surprisingly decent. Certainly, the AI is dumber than a pile of bricks and the way skills are laid out actively discourages you from too much experimentation (I mostly stuck with the same 3 for my entire playthrough) but that doesn’t really change the fact that jumping in the air, dashing backward, and shooting an enemy in the head with a sniper rifle while hovering in the air is pretty fun. It would be more fun if it was remotely challenging or tactical on the default difficulty, or had more variety in its encounters, but it’s the best thing in the game by far. Yes, they removed the tactical pause and therefore the last vestige of classical RPG-ness that the series was hanging onto, but I think expecting the RPG mechanics in a modern Bioware game to be remotely interesting is probably asking too much at this point. It’s a decent shooter, and that’s honestly not the worst thing in the world.
Of course, the only reason the adequately entertaining combat asserts itself is because of how it contrasts to the rest of the game… which does not come off all that well. I know I spent the first 3 paragraphs setting up my feelings on Bioware as a developer, but I should really emphasize that Andromeda is even a step below their previous disappointing output. I might’ve bounced off of Dragon Age Inquisition for various reasons, but I’m not going to pretend it didn’t have its charms or merits. They certainly cocked up the open world design and combat, but I still liked most (not all) of the supporting cast and found the writing (mostly) decent. Comparatively, there is an amateurish, hackish quality to Andromeda’s writing that I think can be most closely be compared to something like a SyFy channel original series or a particularly bad episode of Star Trek (probably Enterprise, or something.) Even at its best, Bioware’s writing isn’t exactly the complete works of Shakespeare, but it usually works as pulpy sci-fi or fantasy fare, and for years there wasn’t exactly much better out there. To give a broad summation: most of the dialogue in Andromeda is either super on-the-nose attempts at exposition or exceptionally bad attempts at snark. It’s as if the writers were big fans of something like Firefly, but didn’t understand how to write Wheadon-esque dialogue and tone it down in more serious situations. As a result, everyone is either constantly (and unfunnily) cracking wise all the time or rattling off super obvious character or plot details in a way that tends to violate the rule of “Show, don’t tell.” There was a brief period early on where the writing was stupid enough to take on an ironic quality, and I was enjoying it in the same way I enjoyed the writing of RPG masterpiece Bound By Flame. That didn’t last very long. Unfortunately, for all its faults the quality of the writing and voice acting wasn’t bad enough to sustain those feelings for more than a few hours and after a while I mostly just wanted everyone to shut up.
The quality of dialogue is further aggrieved by the situations you are put in and the characters involved in those situations. Andromeda’s core themes of going to a new place, exploring the unknown, encountering new species, dealing with the challenges of colonization, etc, are all squandered one by one as the story takes on the challenge of carving out a new space for more Mass Effect via the most generic and tired storytelling tropes possible, justified in the sloppiest manner possible. Ancient Aliens and their brand of inexplicable space magic are a bad, lazy plot device, something I thought we learned pretty well in 2012. There are fewer alien races to interact with (The Quarians, Hanar, Volus, etc all seemingly saved for a DLC mission that never came) but the returning aliens have had all of their edges sanded off. I’m not just talking about lore inconsistencies, I’m talking about the Asari, Turians, Salarians, and Krogan all becoming far more bland and straightforward than they were in the original trilogy. That’s okay, because at least they’re still more interesting than the new alien races, the Angara and the Kett, both of whom are as boring as their C-tier, rubbery designs would suggest. The Kett especially make for poor main villains, with their incredibly played out motivations and mustache-twirlingly evil behavior. The main quest doesn’t have a whole lot to redeem itself, actually. There are a couple of side quests that offer a glimmer of much more interesting scenario writing, but those are often few and far between.
I don’t really know how much more of my disappointed rambling you need to read, so I’ll end on this: The supporting cast is usually a pretty safe bet in any given Bioware game, assuming you’re on board with their style of companion writing. There will always be always be a handful who don’t resonate depending on one’s tastes, and there will always be those who everyone kinda hates (your Anders and your Mission Vao types) but in my personal experience I think most Bioware companion writing is more hit than miss. In Andromeda…? After doing almost everyone’s loyalty mission (unfortunately for Liam, I’d have to do too much work to see what his is like) I like Drack, and I think Vetra’s probably alright too. They’re both archetypes you’ve seen before, done better in other Bioware games, but in a game where most of the writing is tee-balling its way to the finish line, those two stand out as actually being able to hit the ball unassisted. The rest of the cast seems to confuse being snarky or acting like a sycophant with having a personality or being likeable. I could probably go on about every single member of the Tempest’s crew, about how much I dislike or am indifferent to most of them, but this thing is already 2,000 words long and I’m sure you can read or watch half a dozen other breakdowns that can explain exactly why Peebee is the worst. I’ll just say that they’re a pale simulacrum of much better casts and move on from there.
I can’t really express to you how much of a bummer Mass Effect Andromeda is. I will be that weirdo who still claims that Baldur’s Gate II is Bioware’s best RPG, but the original Mass Effect trilogy holds a pretty high place in my personal estimation (ME2 especially.) It’s a close fight between Andromeda and Jade Empire for the bottom of my list (let’s be real: Sonic Chronicles is barely a Bioware game), but I think Jade Empire emerges slightly better if only because it came out 12 years earlier and is only like 15 hours long if you decide to do everything. I don’t think people would be nearly as harsh on this game if it was developed by someone else (like, if this game was published by Focus Home Interactive and developed by some B-tier European studio, I think people would be way more forgiving), nor do I especially relish being one more thumbs down condemning this game to the pits of hell. But endlessly negative, potentially hyperbolic reception or not, I will stand by saying that you should not play Mass Effect Andromeda (unless, like me, you really needto know for yourself.)
My dark descent into the anime hole this year naturally was also accompanied by me taking a look at the magical and mostly questionable world that is “Anime Youtubers.” I’ll be blunt in saying that I find most of anime youtube just as insufferable as video game youtube, but there are a couple of big name ones I find decently entertaining or informative. Among the best of the lot is probably Super Eyepatch Wolf, who makes very thoughtful, very well-reasoned videos without coming off like he has his head up his own ass. Bonus points for the accent.
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