When Mass Effect: Andromeda releases on March 21, it will be just over five years since Mass Effect 3 came out. During that time, many RPGs have come and gone: some great, and others not so great. Yet the original Mass Effect trilogy remains a titan within the genre, showing that it is both possible and rewarding to follow one protagonist through three games and five years of real time.
Despite its flaws, watching the series develop and seeing a continuity shaped by the player’s choices and the evolving story was an experience unlike any other, and for many remains a highlight of their gaming experience. Even now the original games still hold up—the gameplay in the first title is admittedly stale and clunky compared to smoothness of the controls in 3, but the sense of character and depth of lore that BioWare is so admired for has stood the test of time.
Now, with Andromeda nearly upon us, it is important to see which big RPGs have filled the five-year gap between the end of Shepard’s story and the beginning of Ryder’s, and how their influence will hopefully be seen and reflected in this highly-anticipated return. Though BioWare has made it clear that Andromeda is not Mass Effect 4—for all its familiarity to veterans of the original trilogy, much will be brand new—there is still a legacy to be honored, and the heroics of Commander Shepard are not an easy act to follow.
Perhaps the most important RPG to have been released since Mass Effect 3 is The Witcher III: Wild Hunt. CD Projekt Red truly set the new standard for RPGs with this masterpiece, a testament to the power a game can have both emotionally and imaginatively on its audience.
From its enormous, richly realized world and characters, to its strategic, engaging combat, Wild Hunt has shown what games are capable of at their very best: at once thrilling the player with pulse-pounding gameplay and pulling at the heartstrings with authentic characters and emotional stakes both relatable and engrossing.
What helped Wild Hunt to pull this off so well was its reactivity. While the Mass Effect trilogy did a very good job of keeping player choice at the forefront, there was also a necessary limit to how far the story threads could diverge without pushing resources and development time. The ending of the trilogy in particular proves how, with so many story branches, no one will be truly satisfied with an ending that cannot reflect all their choices.
Wild Hunt accomplishes this task by tackling continuity and consequence on both large and small scales. Little details, from pieces of the environment to NPC banter make the world feel alive and lived in. Rather than straining to force the reality of the game world on the player through exposition, life simply exists around them. Despite boasting only a handful of locations, as large as they are, this immersion grounded Wild Hunt as much or more than traveling to many different planets in Mass Effect.
But CD Projekt Red also knows how to make choices matter, helping the player to be fully aware of how the consequences, or lack thereof, are reflected in the world around them. Depicting choices through a morally complex lens also makes them much more compelling, with the fates of single characters through to entire villages and kingdoms on the player’s shoulders.
Mass Effect’s Paragon and Renegade system tried, and at times succeeded at making the player choose between two options, one “good” and one “bad.” Typically, there are many issues that are not so black and white, and players could be put in the position of not liking either option, but be at a loss for a third.
Wild Hunt includes that third option, sometimes even a fourth or more, mostly only available by the player putting in more work but ultimately being more rewarding. By never couching any decision as simply blue or red, Wild Hunt is able to take the foundation of Mass Effect’s moral choices and push it to a stronger, more thought-provoking level.
Side quests, a staple of any RPG, can be as simple as fetch quests, or as complex as Mass Effect 2’s loyalty missions. The more important they feel, however, the more the player feels like they are completing a meaningful task by engaging with these apparent “distractions” from the main plot, and ultimately the more rewarding the time spend doing them is. Here again Wild Hunt excels, where its most basic side quests offer the player something meaningful, even if it is just a conversation with an NPC that fleshes out a corner of the world. “Fetch quests” as they are, exist beyond simply bringing an item back to the quest giver, and fit into the organic world the developers have created.
BioWare has even directly cited Wild Hunt as inspiration for Andromeda’s side quests, and here’s hoping that exploring the new planets of the Andromeda galaxy can be as meaningful as those side tasks Geralt performed in Wild Hunt. In many ways, the original Mass Effect trilogy contained the same ingredients Wild Hunt used to make itself so great, and Andromeda looks to be taking that recipe for success and adapting it to the story they want to tell with Ryder and the Andromeda Initiative in the new game.
It would be remiss not to mention Dragon Age: Inquisition, one of BioWare’s very own titles, and how the feedback they received on it undoubtedly influenced the production of Mass Effect: Andromeda. Similarly to the Mass Effect trilogy, the Dragon Age series follows a canon shaped by the player: each game features a new protagonist, but characters reappear and decisions carry weight beyond the game they are made in. With this, BioWare has found a unique success, and while some players may wish some decisions made more impact than a few lines changed, there is a sense of familiarity in knowing something happened because the player wanted it to.
Andromeda does not appear to have any direct connection to the original trilogy, at least decision-wise, but callbacks a plenty will surely be included in order to please fans who have been with the series since the beginning. On this count, the continuity of Dragon Age: Inquisition is something BioWare will hopefully capture in Andromeda: enough there to let players know it is the same universe, but also enough new content to let it come into its own.
In comparison to Wild Hunt, and even generally speaking, the side quests and impact in Inquisition mostly fell flat. While there were some quests of note, particularly the companion quests and those tied to the main plot in some way, much of what the player was tasked with amounted to little more than tedious exploration without much reward.
Though there were many open areas for players to explore, gorgeous and diverse as they were, they managed to feel empty for the most part, with only a few actually reacting to player choices or feeling like a worthwhile distraction from the main quest. BioWare has stated that the planets in Andromeda will be both physically larger than the areas in Inquisition and also more meaningful, a la Wild Hunt, showing that they have listened to the feedback on what didn’t work in Inquisition and are looking to make up for it.
Like The Witcher, Inquisition also had its share of choices and engaging plot points, but the pacing and ultimate resolution fell flat in a way that made the lack of content in other areas even more apparent. The Dragon Age series has always been strongest with character, and that strength was much needed to keep the title together despite its other flaws. Both the good and the bad lessons learned from Inquisition will help Andromeda, as well as shape the fourth Dragon Age, whenever it inevitably arrives.
Five years is a long time for a game to be in development, but Final Fantasy XV endured double that, and still managed to end up a strong, successful title. This success is mostly due to the passion that the team had for the game. Despite much turmoil, changing course from Versus XIII to FFXV in 2012 and working on an entirely new console generation, the perseverance of Hajime Tabata’s team resulted in a product that clearly shows the love and effort poured into it.
The strong friendship between Prince Noctis and his Crownsguard, the “Chocobros” as they have been lovingly dubbed by the fans, is the core that makes the story and game so strong, and resembles what BioWare does at its best with interactions between well-rounded characters. While developers have also come and gone on Andromeda over the years, and with the burden of legacy weighing on the title, BioWare still seems quite capable of pulling off the same feat as FFXV in delivering a product worthy of its name and development time.
Final Fantasy’s unique combat and style of grinding through exploration need not be emulated by BioWare, but the fact that the predominantly Eastern-RPG feels a lot more Western certainly shows how a years-long development cycle can be influenced by the titles coming out in the interim. The Mass Effect trilogy itself came out within the development time frame of FFXV—its success perhaps inspired the latter’s strength of character—and FFXV will hopefully have an impact on Andromeda in turn.
Square-Enix showed that it is okay for a sequel to be different from its predecessor, even severely so, and yet still be both true to its franchise name, and be a strong product and ultimately a well-crafted experience in its own right. Other titles of this ilk include Dark Souls II & III, sequels that show how the core gameplay of a series can remain the same, while also offering a more expanded lore and world in which to drive players mad with its trademark frustrating difficulty.
The Last Guardian shows how a simple premise can reap big returns in the right hands, and Fallout 4 shows how the weaknesses of a divergent plot can be with reinforced with strong gameplay and mechanics. Metal Gear Solid V combines cinema and combat into a fun journey that shows that open worlds can be engaging even in games not considered “full RPGs”. And Destiny shows that with solid gameplay and ambitious design, games with troubled development can still offer an enjoyable and memorable experience despite a lack of variety in their content.
In the end, the development team on Andromeda has had plenty of examples, both good and bad, of what the RPG genre has become in the last five years. If BioWare manages to capture the reactivity and meaningfulness of Wild Hunt, the continuity of Inquisition, the passion of FFXV, and the many smaller lessons taught by the other big RPGs we have seen since 2012, then they are sure to meet with success. Even without these lessons, BioWare has a proven track record, and knows how important Andromeda is to their name and the industry as whole. Luckily, we will not have to wait much longer to see what the years have wrought for Ryder as we follow the Arks into Andromeda and search for humanity’s new home.