The Mass Effect universe is epic in its scope, and throughout the three games BioWare produced, it was clear that there were a myriad of side stories that could be told with these characters, organizations and planets. So it was with great excitement that I attended a screening for Mass Effect: Paragon Lost, an original feature-length anime featuring the backstory of one James Vega. Unfortunately, it turns out that the awesomeness of the Mass Effect games is difficult to reproduce in other mediums.
Right from the opening scene, it was clear that Paragon Lost was in way over its head. Vega's voiceover (by Freddie Prinz Jr., reprising his role from Mass Effect 3) was over-the-top and about as subtle as the unfortunate juxtaposition of the 2D anime characters against the 3D CGI backgrounds. The story features a team of Alliance marines setting down on a remote planet to take on some Blood Pack Krogans assaulting a human settlement. All the usual character cliches are in effect, although I have to say that the little nerdy tech guy with the glasses had some rather adorable dialogue with Vega that totally made it seem like he had a massive crush on the big guy. After that initial battle, Vega and his team are ordered to remain there, and they ultimately find themselves swept up in another attack featuring enemies familiar to fans of the games. A few characters from the games pop up in tiny cameo roles, but don't expect anyone major.
Instead of exploring previously untapped corners of the Mass Effect universe, Paragon Lost tries to throw everything but the kitchen sink into the plot. The idea would seem to be to appeal to fans of the series with familiar elements and references, but it ends up feeling like overkill and would be off-putting to anyone not familiar with the games and looking for an entry point. It's also not clear for quite a while where this movie falls in the continuity of the games (turns out it takes place at the beginning of Mass Effect 2).
The animation is barely TV quality anime, and its limitations are even more apparent when placed against CGI backgrounds and space ships. Those look great, but I guess it probably would have been too expensive to produce an entire movie using the CGI models from the games. I honestly don't have a problem with adapting Mass Effect into a movie using an anime style, I just wish the animation had been a little better. The voice acting isn't bad, at least not until a really awkward scene at the end that again goes so far over the top it's unintentionally funny. It's also not particularly well-directed, with some scenes shot so awkwardly that it's hard to tell where people are and what's happening. This is especially frustrating during the epic finale.
While all the game references are a bit much, I did appreciate that it kept the general theme of having to make a choice where neither outcome would actually be that great. And they're not afraid to kill people, either. And I also appreciated that they never used a pronoun in reference to Shepard so no matter how you played your game, the movie would fit. But in general, Paragon Lost just can't measure up to the quality of the games, and ends up being an unfortunate side note in the franchise. If you're a diehard fan of the series, you'll probably be unable to resist at least renting it when the DVD and Blu-ray hit stores on December 28, but don't say I didn't warn you!