See Part 1.
WARNING – Mild character spoilers ahead, but no major plot spoilers.
More than any other species, humans face an uphill battle from a writing perspective in the Mass Effect series. The Mass Effect games are filled with cool aliens with cool cultures from cool worlds, none of which exist outside the Mass Effect universe. But the humans in Mass Effect are fundamentally no different from the humans in reality, and as a result, the writer needs to work extra-hard to make them interesting. To quote Shamus Young:
“At the risk of getting myself branded as an Ashley Williams style space-racist, hanging out with Jacob in Mass Effect 2 is like going to the zoo to see a labrador retriever. Those are cool dogs, but that’s not why you go to the zoo. In the same way, we’re here to meet crazy aliens, and it’s unavoidable that Jacob will look a little bland in contrast.”
Liam isn’t totally successful as an attempt to make a human character interesting, but he’s not bad. Honestly, I avoided deploying Liam when I first started playing the game, precisely because he’s a human, but the one-on-one conversations with him aboard the Nexus convinced me otherwise.
Liam fills in some much needed-emotional substance to the Andromeda Initiative as a whole. Throughout the game, characters constantly talk about coming to the Andromeda galaxy to get a fresh start and how they can’t wait to set up colonies and explore the unknown, and that’s all great. But we can’t ignore that leaving behind all, or nearly all, of your friends and family to go explore the great unknown carries a high cost. Liam thankfully addresses that cost.
Liam was a rather unambitious random soldier dude back in the Milky Way who decided to join the Andromeda Initiative on a whim. Now that he’s here, he’s not quite regretful, but he is seriously reflecting on the choice. So he hordes Milky Way products (like his old couch) and reminisces about his time as a crisis responder. Liam’s arc sees him maturing from a rash young man into someone who accepts the responsibilities of his actions. He simultaneously accepts that he will miss the Milky Way and thus preserves what he can from it (like soccer), while also embracing the wonder of Andromeda through (sloppy) diplomacy with the Angarra.
Liam’s loyalty mission is also a highlight for the entire game. It’s where Mass Effect Andromeda’s writing is at its best and comes close to Guardians of the Galaxy in tone execution. I can’t say that the logic of the mission actually made sense, but it also got some of the biggest laughs out of me in the whole game.
So Liam is solid, but he’s nothing special. He competently plays a role and fills in some much needed substance for the main story, even if his own character isn’t particularly interesting. His Kiwi-bro affect adds some flavor, though some people will understandably find it off-putting. But as far as Mass Effect human companions go, he’s the best in Andromeda and one of the better ones in the whole series. Jaal Ama Daraav
I can’t decide whether the problem with Jaal is that he’s a completely new-to-the-series alien species and therefore I expect him to be extremely interesting, or, if Jaal is just plain boring.
Jaal is an Angara. They are one of two completely new alien species in Mass Effect that we get to personally interact with and explore. As such, it’s natural to expect that Jaal will be a narrative and world-building representative of the Angara to the player. That doesn’t mean that Jaal has to be a proto-typical Angara, only that he should in some way demonstrate to the player who the Angara are, how their culture, economy, and politics operate, etc.
Jaal is set up to be interesting. Everything about him is novel, for the series and the player. So why is he so boring? Why is his personal background and story arc so familiar?
Jaal comes from a typical Angara family with dozens of close relatives and multiple mothers. He is overshadowed by his siblings, and three of them join a terrorist faction which Jaal has to stop. In addition, the Angara Resistance doesn’t value his abilities adequately, so Jaal feels despondent from his people. He also disagrees with the mainstream Angara religion based on reincarnation, but not radically so.
So Jaal deals with family issues, politically traitorous siblings, and not fitting into his society. With some minor modification to his backstory, Jaal easily could have been a human or Turian. These are common issues in the Mass Effect universe. Humans have relatives who join Cerberus. Salarians compete with their siblings. Individual Krogan and Turians disagree with the martial culture of their species.
As it is, Jaal’s character and writing aren’t necessarily bad, they’re just ok. (The high point is his loyalty mission where he confronts his rogue siblings and gets some well-earned respect.) But regardless, Jaal’s character is ordinary in the Mass Effect world. He is set up to be a burst of novelty in one of the most creative major video game series of all time, and ultimately he has the same generic issues as everyone else. He provides little to no insight into the Angara people which can’t be gleamed elsewhere in the game.
There is one area where Jaal does repeatedly make a point about the Angara, but it completely fails. Jaal tells Ryder that the Angara are naturally emotional, and their cultural reinforces this tendency by encouraging individuals to express their emotions so they can be dealt with. Cool! That’s a fascinating cultural distinction for the Angara. It could even lead to some interesting cultural clashes with other species, like the Turian, with its hierarchical and militant cultural that encourages individual suppression for the sake of the collective.
But instead Jaal’s point is terribly executed. He tells Shepard over and over again that Angara “where their emotions out in the open,” yet Jaal himself always seems reserved. Even when he’s in emotionally intense situations, like fighting his terrorist siblings, learning the genetic truth of the Angara, or receiving a promotion from the Angaran Resistance, Jaal is simply an unemotive dude. He certainly shows less emotion that Peebee in her self-absorbed rants, Drack in his lust for combat, Vetra with her sister, or Liam when he screws something up. This may be the fault of the writer or the voice actor, I don’t know, but it just doesn’t work.
To Jaal’s credit, I like the misunderstandings he has with the rest of the crew over translation and cultural issues. There are funny moments to be had with Jaal not grasping idioms, like Archer dealing with the Malysian pirates. The writers even smartly bring this reoccurring joke to some sort of conclusion with Jaal’s attempts at poetry.
But Jaal’s misunderstanding are one bright spot in an otherwise lackluster character. I brought Jaal along constantly when he first signed onto the Tempest, but I gradually left him behind more and more. There just isn’t enough there, especially for a character who easily could have been the most interesting of the bunch.
I kind of feel bad for Cora. The message boards have not been kind to her. Already she is being marked out as the loser of Mass Effect Andromeda. Planet scanning is to ME2 what Sudoku is to Andromeda, and Ashley Williams is to ME1 what Cora is to Andromeda – the character everyone hates.
But I actually think Ashley is better than Cora. So are Jacob and Kaiden, both of whom are boring, but not contemptible. Ashley was divisive in Mass Effect fandom because she was arguably prejudicial, or even racist towards aliens. But at least her views were something to talk about. They integrated into the beautifully built world of Mass Effect, especially its politics and culture clashes.
In contrast, Cora is just kind of stupid. Ashley was either hated, tolerated, or begrudgingly accepted. Cora is pitied and mocked.
But the very worst part about Cora is that I really like her character concept but hate her execution.
Cora is a human with such strong natural biotic powers that she was sent to study and train with Asari commandos. Her gifts already made her feel disconnected with humanity, but after living and fighting alongside Asari for many years, as well as absorbing a heavy dose of their culture and values, Cora came to associate herself more with the Asari than humanity. She joined the Andromeda Initiative at the behest of Ryder’s father and was assumed to be his Number 2. With elite Asari training and experience, Cora had the unique fortitude to become a great leader for humanity, only to unexpectedly be nepotistically usurped by Ryder’s inexperienced son, who she begrudgingly serves.
That’s a great character concept! It not only has tons of built-in character drama, but also evokes a lot of the Mass Effect world’s best storytelling elements, like culture clashes and bureaucratic injustice. Cora certainly had the conceptual material to be a fascinating character.
Instead what we got is what I’ve seen more than a handful of online commentators call an “Asari Weeaboo.”
Cora’s constant reference to her Asari affiliations is insufferable. It comes off as the worst sort of humble bragging. She’s on a ship with a whole squad of baddasses, including a Krogan who’s been fighting in wars for 1,400 years, and yet she can’t stop name dropping her old squad like she’s trying to impress the popular kids at school. Instead of evoking the calm resolve of a powerful Asari like Samara, Cora comes off as an ineffectual try-hard.
The worst is when she explicitly refers to herself as an “Asari Commando.” Which she is not. Because she is not Asari. She is a human. She uses the term to refer to herself multiple times throughout Andromeda, and it always got me an eye roll.
Cora hits peek insufferability in her loyalty mission when she goes to rescue the Asari ark ship (I took Peebee along just to antagonize Cora). With Cora back in her beloved Asari environment, she goes full fan-girl. She has this cloying “I’m one of you” demeanor towards the Asari crew members, and pathetically urges a fledgling Asari to remember the tenants of Asari training manuals. While playing I felt such strong second-hand cringe that I wanted to flush Cora out of an airlock.
Ok, maybe I’m being a little mean. It’s not that bad at first. It’s more of the type of thing that grates over time. At first hearing about Cora’s Asari past is intriguing, then it’s normal, then it’s boring, then it’s annoying, and the 15th time she brings it up it’s just obnoxious.
Note that I like the character concept. I like the idea of a Mass Effect character deciding that another species has better culture and values, and therefore strives to emulate them. The problem with Cora is purely one of execution. Instead of being confident, she comes off as desperate. Instead of being inquisitive, she comes off as arrogant. Instead of trying to promote good ideas in the galaxy, she comes off like a freshman philosophy major lecturing a renowned professor on what Aristotle really meant while chastising the rest of the disinterested class for not being as smart as she is.
Ultimately I think the voice acting is to blame for Cora being Cora. The writing could probably be improved too, but the voice acting is terrible. It’s alternatingly flat or annoying. It possess none of the confident dignity of the Asari, nor the seething resentment of a qualified person being unfairly denied her rightful promotion. It takes a great character concept and makes Cora not just the worst companion in Andromeda, but a worthy competitor for worst companion in the Mass Effect series as a whole.