It's easy to focus on the game's flaws, but for me Andromeda is the game I've been waiting for.
To do justice to Commander Shepard’s legacy, the follow-up to the Mass Effect trilogy needed to be something special. But where do you go after you’ve already saved the galaxy from a threat of apocalyptic proportions? The ending of Mass Effect 3 made it clear that Shepard’s journey was over, but any new protagonist entering the fray would have some huge combat boots to fill.
Before I even picked up the controller, early reviews of Andromeda had me believing that in Ryder, Bioware had failed to create a character that was up to this task. “It’s glitchy,” they said. “The character animations look like they’re straight out of the original game,” they said. “Ryder’s eyes are rolling back into their head and it’s giving me nightmares,” they – well, you get the point. But instead of absorbing these criticisms at the time, I was puzzled by the fact that nobody seemed to be talking about the narrative, or the characters that I (and many other fans of the series) had waited so long to meet. Where was the discussion of Bioware’s trademark narrative focus?
The game has been out for more than a month now and I still don’t understand why people aren’t having that discussion. Mass Effect: Andromeda has a whole new story to tell and a whole new kickass hero(ine) through which to tell it, and that grabbed me before I even had a chance to notice the graphical problems. Apparently, Pathfinder Ryder’s journey into the Andromeda galaxy is the story I’ve been waiting for.
While the original trilogy was about saving the galaxy we already call home, Andromeda is a game about finding a new home. Ryder and their team (which includes several other members of the Ryder family) are one of many units taking part in the Andromeda Initiative, a bold mission to explore and assess the viability of the Andromeda Galaxy for potential settlement. Milky Way-kind’s best and brightest have made all the predictions and calculations possible as to how this venture will go, so of course everything falls apart basically as soon as it begins. The atmospheres of the identified planets are not as they expected, some of their ships have gone missing, and it takes all of five minutes for the intrepid travelers to get into an altercation with one of the galaxy’s native races. This was where, for me, the first make-or-break moment happened. How would the colonists treat those who were already living on this land? Would I, in one of my first moments as Ryder, be forced to make a decision that would paint this character that I was supposed to empathise with as a cutthroat invader and break my connection to them before it even had a chance to build?
It was shaky for a moment, but the answer was ultimately no. And so, my love affair with Ryder began.
Commander Shepard was a hero. A respected soldier with an established reputation, Shepard understood what it meant to be a leader. Obviously they were thrown into circumstances beyond the scope of their job and forced to shoulder responsibilities so large that giants would struggle to lift them, but when it came down to it, Shepard always seemed to be at least sort of in control. Ryder, on the other hand, is thrust so quickly into an unexpected position of power and forced to make decisions that even the person specifically trained to make them couldn’t have seen coming. Ryder was never supposed to be a leader, but they’re put in charge of a ship called the Tempest and told ‘here – go and discover a whole new world’. That’s kind of a lot to deal with, but many protagonists would take it on the chin and just get the job done. Ryder? Nope, Ryder’s not afraid to say that they have no idea what the hell they’re doing, if you choose to play them that way.
Straying away from the Paragon/Renegade-driven dialogue choices and towards the personality-focused system used in Dragon Age means Bioware has given the player the choice to play the kind of Ryder they really want to play. Playing a ‘good’, law-abiding protagonist no longer means avoiding the sarcastic, cocky responses to characters that you really wish you could slap in the face. The new system allows you to create a character that is awkward and snarky and emotionally raw, and sometimes people love them more for it. Unlike Shepard, they don’t have the first idea about the intricacies of their role, nor were the people around them happy for them to step into it. Neither Ryder nor I knew what the best course of action was because this was new territory for both of us.
Goddamn it, we were in this together.
Sure, there’s a team of diverse and perfectly nuanced characters that go with you on your journey, and of course they play an important role in making Andromeda what it is. Without a strong team, Ryder would be nothing – but they could have been nothing with that team, too. Ryder feels so much more like a character in their own right than someone who is overshadowed by the eclectic personalities of their teammates, which is so often a problem in games like this. They have a fully developed history, a family with complex dynamics, and they feel real. That’s something that’s so often reserved for the supporting characters, so that it can be used as the basis for a loyalty mission. Yes, this game has those too, and they’re done well, with each feeling both relevant to the character it’s focusing on and different to the ones that came before it. Bioware is good at that. Yes, the combat is different and it can feel a little repetitive, but clever conversation over the radio between teammates and mission allies meant that I never got bored of it.
Obviously, the game has flaws. Despite the numerous patches that are being released regularly, the game’s still occasionally glitchy. While many of the quests feel fresh and exciting, it’s also packed with filler quests that could have you running around for hours for minimal reward. Thankfully, these can be mostly ignored with few consequences, but they’re going to cause trouble for completionists. During one cutscene, a clone of one of my teammates inexplicably appeared and started playing out the same scene at a 90 degree angle to the real version of him. This game is still full of weird stuff – but I don't care. It was never unplayable, it’s continuously being fixed with patches anyway, and most importantly, it gave me a connection that is hard to achieve. Not once did I have to make a decision that felt out of character for the Ryder I’d created, which is no small feat when you’re trying to craft a narrative that still needs to follow a basic structure.
I was worried that this would be a game about colonising a galaxy against the will of its inhabitants, and doing so as a protagonist who didn’t have much to offer. God, am I glad I was wrong. Instead of leading an insensitive invasion, I was given the chance to play a compassionate, culturally-sensitive Ryder who respected the feelings and opinions of the native people (for the most part). For that, I’m willing to forgive all of Andromeda’s technical flaws. Is it a perfect game? No. Not by any stretch of the imagination. But narratively, it is damn-near close, and I firmly believe that it is exactly what it needs to be. It felt like a new beginning, one that respected the love for the original series while building on it just enough to make it feel like a fresh adventure. Plus, it gave me Ryder – and I’m going to be thinking about that for a long time.