Being the middle episode of a planned trilogy can come with some issues. The first episode gets to capture our imaginations with whatever new world the story is introducing to us, while the third will hopefully be able to tie together all those concepts established in the earlier entries. The second entry is essentially the load-bearing beam, sometimes serving as an extended second act. In something like Mass Effect, this second episode has to build up the threat established in the first game while doing little to truly advance the resolution.
While carrying this burden, Mass Effect 2 manages to excel by focusing on a different part of its narrative. Where the other two are stories of the galaxy at large, Mass Effect 2 hones in on the personal. This is Seven Samurai in space, the story of Commander Shepard as he brings together the perfect team for an apparent suicide mission.
Part of the excellence of this series is the deeply intriguing species. In the first game, the alien party members could sometimes feel overly expository, like they were teaching courses in Quarian 101. The characters in Mass Effect 2 tend to come from extremes in their society, resulting in more specific viewpoints. Samara is a justicar, a force which upholds justice within asari society. Grunt is a krogan grown in a tube purely for combat purposes. Thane Krios introduces the drell species, who appear doomed to shortened life spans after the decline of their homeworld. Saved by the hanar, Thane was raised from his childhood to be an assassin for this other species. While introducing a new species and adding heavier lore to a minor species from the original, Thane’s story is still focused on his personal struggle coping with his history and disease. Even Garrus has abandoned the disciplined nature of his species and gone rogue. This is a band of outsiders, only willing to join Shepard out of righteousness or recklessness.
Of course, plenty of other video games imitate the Seven Samurai narrative – that is essentially the central formula of the JRPG. Unfortunately, many of these games feature little beyond a bit of back story and some dialogue. In something like Final Fantasy, only a few party member ever seem to get extended focus; party members operate more as a collective than individuals.
It’s no coincidence that my two favorite RPG games are structured around learning about the party members. In Mass Effect 2, the central missions in the first half of the game involve gathering these people from their disparate locations. These episodes set the scene, establishing what makes this specific character special. In the second half, Shepard is also given the option to pursue loyalty missions, diving deeper into their personal concerns. Thus, most characters get not just one but two full segments dedicated to them specifically. Additionally, with all the inherent tension of the races and organizations involved, there are some moments where two party members come into conflict, requiring Shepard to talk them down. These are brief but necessary reminders about how this galactic civilization is barely holding itself together.
This also makes the finale more effective. On a suicide run where literally any character can die, having well-defined party members is essential. The structure of this finale is also exceptional. The game thankfully drops the good vs. bad system and instead relies on the player actually picking the right choices for each job, while also punishing the player for not investing into their ship and allies. This can obviously be negated by the save system, but much like Undertale, simply knowing the possibility for absolute failure actually exists changes the perspective. Unfortunately, the idiot Shepard I created in the first Mass Effect met an untimely end.
On a gameplay level, this is a total improvement over the original Mass Effect. This is the third-person shooter at its best, throwing in some fun extras; while Mass Effect 3 refined this further, it’s still excellent here. With the various loyalty missions requiring the participation of the relevant party member, there’s also a reason to make a full tour of each member’s ability. The level design is also a major improvement – in the original Mass Effect, side quests reused the same assets constantly. Here, each location has a unique design. Any story-rich video game I have played multiple times for the gameplay itself is an obvious winner.
Despite the middle episode of a trilogy traditionally serving as a bridge, Mass Effect 2 is the rare example which could stand on its own. The narrative dives deeper into lore beyond grand historical conflicts, the ending is perhaps the most explosive finale a game has ever pulled off, and this is all while featuring one of the strongest casts the medium has ever seen. With all of this being backed by an inventive and addictive action-RPG hybrid system, Mass Effect 2 is an unforgettable experience.