After what feels like 600 actual years, I’ve finally reached the end of the newest installment in the Mass Effect series, Mass Effect: Andromeda. The previous trilogy left us with Commander Shepard defeating the harbingers of an oncoming galaxy-wide purging of intelligent life and everyone looking forward to a very bright future. But in Andromeda, that life, those problems, and their resolution are all thousands of light-years away and several hundred regular years in the past. Playing as Ryder alongside my fellow space frontierspeople, I found that exploring humanity’s and all the Milky Way races’ newest home was a journey that often left me feeling conflicted, especially because Bioware never seemed to fully grasp the implications of Ryder’s and the Andromeda Initiative’s actions or feel brave enough to go beyond the hackneyed sci-fi plots of yore. To get it out of the way, yes: the graphics are janky at times and some of the voice acting feels like the actors/actresses had no direction for the context of their lines, but these factors alone do not a bad game make. And I wouldn’t say that Andromeda is even bad; honestly. Andromeda’s problems are due to its undeserved high opinion of itself, and by taking on too much, the game doesn’t give its audience enough of anything.
The year is 2819 and after a long 600-year cryosleep, our protagonist, Ryder, is awakened to help their father explore one of the so-called “golden worlds” of the Heleus cluster in Andromeda. These golden worlds were planets studied back in the Milky Way, proposed to offer suitable living conditions to each of the races. Yet when landing upon humanity’s golden world, Habitat-7, Ryder, their father, and the crew discover quickly that not only is Habitat-7 uninhabitable, but that a mysterious alien species, the kett, is also checking out the planets in this cluster for some reason. And no, they aren’t friendly.
After a tragedy planetside, Ryder’s father is killed, leaving Ryder with the job title of Pathfinder—a lone figurehead in charge of trailblazing planets for their given species. So they head to the Nexus: a large space station used as a hub for all the races to live on. Unsurprisingly, the Nexus has its own issues; it lost a good portion of its workers and civilians to a rebellion and barely has the power (manpower and otherwise) to stay functional. With barely any hope left for really making a new home in Andromeda, the pressure is on for Ryder to find habitable planets, make outposts on said planets, find the arks (spacecrafts that house hundreds of people in cryosleep) of the other species, and figure out what the heck the kett are up to in the meantime.
Things are rough going. All the planets in Heleus seem to suck. However, Ryder somehow has control over ancient technology that allows them to terraform planets into something more livable. Additionally, with the tenuous help of Heleus’s native alien species, the angara, Ryder and their crew manage to uncover a heinous kett plot to infect alien species with their own DNA, changing each infected person into a kett. The leader of this group of kett, the Archon, is also after something called Meridian, a piece of ancient technology which has the power to terraform the entire cluster at once. Soon, it’s a race to get to Meridian, with the lives of all lifeforms in Heleus on the line.
If this sounds eerily like the plot of Mass Effect 2, you aren’t wrong. As a whole, where Andromeda really fails is in its main narrative: it’s just boring if you’ve played through the original trilogy. We’ve played through the Collectors in 2 abducting people and turning them into their own sick creations, and we’ve already sat through a “leader” of an enemy group telling us that we’re weak—even though there’s something “special” about humanity in particular—and that we should be honored to be used for their schemes, but that we’re too stupid to understand the true intent behind these schemes. While under most circumstances I wouldn’t entirely write this plot off—Andromeda is trying to get a new audience that maybe hasn’t played the three other games—there’s just no thought put into it. The missions constantly repeat the pattern of “go to this kett base, kill the kett, ?????, profit” so it’s difficult to get a sense of building tension. Worse still is that Ryder never technically fails at anything they set out to do. Sure, they struggle with suddenly being forced into a position they never trained for, but for the most part people trust whatever Ryder says and in return Ryder overcomes any obstacle with relative ease. When walking into the “final dungeon,” there was no sense of stakes whatsoever, because there was never any doubt that Ryder was going to beat the Archon and have the support of the entire cluster behind them. To put it shortly: I didn’t care. Throughout the entire battle I was almost hoping that Ryder’s sibling—freshly awakened from a coma and abducted by the Archon—would end up possessed or partially turned kett, just so I would have a reason to be invested in my victory beyond this game, but no. I don’t have a reason to worry about humanity’s new home, because it was never in any real danger to begin with.
That aside, the best part about Andromeda was its characters, especially Ryder’s crew. Each crew member was fleshed out, and by the end of things, everyone really did feel like family to me. Being allowed to explore each crewmate’s worries, fears, weaknesses, and joys was, well, a joy. While each crewmate had their own story, each of which made me go “awww” at least once, unsurprisingly the one I liked the most was Drack the krogan mercenary’s. Drack is incredibly talented and extremely experienced, but he’s lived through years (I’m talking millennia) of krogan oppression back in the Milky Way only to be faced with it again on the Nexus. His story is about clawing krogan respect from the Nexus; a task that remains difficult despite his granddaughter being one of the major political forces on the Nexus. But it’s also more than that. Drack knows he’s old, and thus he considers himself entirely dispensable. Ryder has the ability to remind Drack that he doesn’t have to throw his life away, and that he still has a place in krogan society and in Ryder’s crew, against what his brain is telling him.
On a surface level, diversity in the Heleus cluster feels impressive, but much of the representation seriously needs a second look. Andromeda’s universe is full of different races and sexualities, so it’s really unfortunate that Bioware chose to use some really terrible tropes with their minority characters, or decided to be straight up negligent in some cases. The people that suffered the most from this, I believe, are unsurprisingly Black women. I already spoke about Sloane Kelly, the overseer of the outlaw city Kadara Port, in a separate post, but as I continued through the game I began having a feeling that outside of the kett, Black women were the most likely to become villainous characters. Now, I’m not talking about randomly generated enemies or asshole NPCs that just hang around in cities. What I’m exploring here are the named human characters that show up in important quests.
Off the top of my head, I can think of three Black women who fit into this category—given that there are six species in this game and only two are native to the cluster and should thus be way more prominent than humans, this is an issue. There is of course Sloane, but then we also have Meriweather (former military who now mines fuel for Kadara Port and does typical evil businessperson things like threatening the life of your squadmate’s sister) and Katherine Nigh (a trauma victim turned terrorist). Each of these characters are well-written—they aren’t bad characters. However, it’s difficult to enjoy the diversity of antagonistic characters when the same diversity isn’t extended to “good” characters: the only Black human woman that may have the same level of importance is someone you meet during the epilogue. With six different alien races to choose from for antagonists, it’s easy to create the illusion of diversity, but it’s even more important, then, to make sure you aren’t unintentionally reinforcing stereotypes. What’s most frustrating about this especially is that according to concept designs, Ryder’s squadmate Cora was originally supposed to be Black, which would have gone a long way (or at least some way) to evening things out a bit.
Another troubling racial aspect to Andromeda is the entire existence of the angara. As the Heleus cluster’s native species, the angara are a people who rely on technology just as much as ancient traditions and stories, and live a more tribal, communal life as opposed to literally every other species. While they certainly aren’t in any way as Black-coded as fictional character like Knuckles the Echidna from Sonic, their cadence sounds heavily inspired by the Caribbean and the two most prominent angara are voiced by people of color–squadmate Jaal is voiced by Nyasha Hatendi, and the social figurehead of the angara, Moshae Sjefa, is voiced by Indira Varma. And though at its core, Andromeda is a story about finding “home”, it’s also a story about colonization. While the incoming Milky Way species aren’t entirely white, it’s uncomfortable to play through the colonization of planets that have already been claimed by a Black-coded species. In many cases, you can colonize without direct approval from the angara as well. Though the game does present conflicts of angarans being distrustful and spiteful of the “aliens” squatting on their turf, and discusses how through talks and actions trust can be earned, it doesn’t really interact with these conflicts. Ryder will gain the angara’s trust because it’s necessary to get to the end of the game; it’s not narratively important if Ryder is particularly polite to them or if they understand that they’re kind of taking over the angaran homelands.
As far as LGBTQ+ representation goes, I haven’t done all the relationship routes (and probably won’t) so I can’t speak from experience, but on a general note it’s nice to see a world where non-straight relationships are as prevalent and natural as breathing air. Even one of the Pathfinders, a turian named Avitus Rix, was in an explicitly gay relationship—though it still reeks a little of “Bury Your Gays” because his partner, the previous turian Pathfinder, died. A huge issue, though, comes from the relationship Ryder can make with their ship’s chief engineer, Gil. Gil is the only gay romance option in the game, yet his entire friendship arc is about becoming a father and how his best friend Jill has asked him to be the surrogate father for her child. In theory, there’s nothing heinous about this; however, Gil is placed in a precarious position and so is m!Ryder. Jill is essentially in charge of getting people in Andromeda to fuck—her job (her literal job) is to make sure that procreation is a go and re-population efforts are on the right track. Though Jill and Gil have a friendship where they can joke around and not be offended by each other, by nature Jill’s occupation puts so much pressure on Gil, especially as a gay man. He’s afraid that by not spreading his genes to the next generation, he is inherently worth less as a person, and this fear is constantly poked and prodded at each time Jill brings up her job and makes jokes about how he’s making her job harder. While Gil’s worth is obviously not dictated by how many babies he makes, the narrative seems to enforce this idea by making it so that while Ryder can express discomfort at Jill’s request, it’s not seen in a particularly positive light. So the only exclusively mlm relationship is heavily influenced by a gay man helping a straight woman living out her dream of being a mother—that’s super shitty.
Seeing the reaction to Andromeda reminded me of my first time playing Mass Effect. Know what I did? I turned it off. Right after landing on Eden Prime—about four minutes into the game after character creation. It wasn’t until years later I decided to give the game another shot. I quit playing the game initially because it wasn’t the type of game I thought it was going to be. When I gave it another shot, I expected it to be a different kind of game that it also wasn’t. I feel this is where a lot of the surface level hate for this game comes from. Mass Effect: Andromeda is not Mass Effect 4. It’s a different game by different people, so expecting the same thing is setting yourself up for failure. This by no mean excuses the game from the many, many issues it has. But despite this, it gives me hope for improvements in the future.
Bioware isn’t exempt from this mindset either. Andromeda tried to be great right out the gate, but that was impossible. A game needs time to grow to be good; a narrative needs time to build to have impact. You can’t ride on the coattails of your predecessor forever. So, I have some advice for Bioware: start small and grow from there, using each criticism as a drop of water to nourish these ideas that are clearly there. More than anything else, stop trying to appeal to the white-cis-male audience: they’re not the majority any longer. The stories that cater to them are boring. They are holding you and your story back. I feel like I’m one step away from becoming a “do one thing every day that scares you” magnet, but seriously—Heleus didn’t become home for Ryder without taking leaps of faith or listening to discriminated-against people. Do the same, learn, and Andromeda 2 will be so, so much better.