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Someday we'll know what to call projects like MASS EFFECT: PARAGON LOST. And to be honest, I'm struggling with it myself right now. I'll explain...
There are a ton of anal-retentive-- and specific-- labels in anime. Terms like “seinen” and “shoujo” spell out precisely which age bracket, gender and type of fan a given show is intended for. There’s even a little more amusement to be had in how certain series are referred to as “OVA’s” when English terms like “direct-to-video” or “mini-series” would probably be just as apt.
However, stepping back from PARAGON LOST, I can’t help but think that the Japanese might actually have been on to something with all the labels. That is, it really would’ve been more accurate to present this as “the MASS EFFECT OVA” over “MASS EFFECT: THE ANIME.”
Or maybe MASS EFFECT: THE SIDESTORY YOU DIDN'T KNOW YOU WANTED.
Does that seem splitting hairs? Well, in my take, the term “OVA” braces expectations for a franchise tie-in which isn’t intended for anybody other than the absolute die hard fan. As Joey Styles once said before a wrestling PPV, "We know you've already bought the T-shirt, the Barely Legal poster, and you're gonna enjoy the show just like everyone else... so there."
MASS EFFECT: PARAGON LOST is the anime equivalent of a bonus level or an expansion pack to tide over fans who’ve already completed the original title, several times overs, and just want more of it, no matter how incremental in size.
So here we have PARAGON LOST, a prequel to last spring’s MASS EFFECT 3 (or perhaps an “interquel” to games #2 and #3 if we want to get precise-- thanks internet!) which focuses on the burly, tattooed and really rather bland space marine, James Vega.
Not to say he wouldn't be compelling if you played as James Vega, but of course, this is a MASS EFFECT tie-in that's about taking you through a narrative, not you guiding it. And unfortunately, it doesn't possess the girth of the tie-in novels to really present anything other than a cookie cutter adventure tale.
Vega gets an on-the-field promotion after his commanding officer is killed during a nasty battle, and his new responsibilities see him protecting a small colony of humans from a variety of aliens. First, there are the reptilian Krogans, and then there’s the larger and more insidious threat of the insectoid “Collectors.” Needless to say, leading space marines in combat proves to be hard on the guy, and he learns some awful lessons in the horrors of war.
I put my preface about OVA’s out first because it really feels kind of silly to go through the usual reviewer’s equivalent of throwing my hands up and saying, “I don’t get this.” And while that can be a fair critique, it nevertheless prompts comments from fans of the game about how this tie-in isn’t a proper sample to judge the franchise by.
That could very well be so for PARAGON LOST. As such, we have another very specific condition of fandom that probably needs its own label; because I’m not completely unfamiliar with MASS EFFECT and I can still see that this really doesn’t stand well on its own. Even if it’s intended to be an entry point into this universe for the uninitiated, it unavoidably feels like one of the games’ less compelling supporting players has been given the spotlight for a “secret origin” nobody was really that intrigued about in the first place.
Again, I’ll own up to not having logged much MASS EFFECT XP, but that won't make me shirk away from pointing out the shortfalls of this anime....
Of course, if you told me this was an anime I could play through, this would be different. Ever wanted to pit the roughnecks from STARSHIP TROOPERS against the tri-pods from WAR OF THE WORLDS? Well, here are the toys to make up your own version of how that’d spin out. Want to throw in some super-powers into that mix, as well? Here are some options for that, too.
And so on and so forth, with all the freedom to make your own story that’s afforded by today’s branching narratives. That seems to be MASS EFFECT's appeal... as a game.
Actually, without spoiling anything, there’s a moment just before the climax where Vega seems to play out one possible ending for this tragedy in his head, only to snap out of it and try for a third option. It suggests, if only for a moment, that the crew was trying to make some self-reflexive comment about the nature of a story that’s always up to a player’s choices. Again, it harps on how this does feel pretty bland when I can’t control it. Production IG even seems to be rather disappointingly phoning in the animation, so there isn't the reliable video game fall-back of just enjoying the pretty graphics.
Sam Weller is a writer and actor who's scribed for shows like FIRST EDITION, GEEK THERAPY, and most recently BATGIRL: SPOILED. He also really likes anime. To know what is going to happen next, follow@cravesam