Something I was incredibly worried about upon starting Mass Effect 3 was how BioWare would handle the sheer scale of the Reapers, living up to the overbearing expectations it had built up across the trilogy thus far. These intergalactic terrors preyed on organic life in a way that was truly unprecedented, and it would have been so easy to fumble and dissapoint, but BioWare absolutely nailed it.
Mass Effect 3 begins on Earth, which has garnered somewhat of a mythical reputation throughout the series. We have no idea what it’s like barring second-hand accounts and descriptions we find dotted about the place. We can use our own knowledge, but in a futuristic world such as this, it’s unlikely to come close to reality. It’s the only home we know right now in our current time, but in Mass Effect, we’re the commander of a famed ship gallivanting from star to star and visiting alien worlds. Compared to that, such familiarity feels like a lost echo. BioWare’s decision to begin this final chapter on Earth is a paramount one, and it certainly pays off. The first time we finally see Earth, only to have it torn apart and destroyed is heartbreaking. It also sets a precedent – The Reapers are unstoppable, and no setting could have captured this better.
It’s one of the only moments in Mass Effect where we feel truly helpless. We mow down hapless husks and wade through the crumbling city as it’s blown to pieces right before our eyes. Shepard barely escapes, watching as a child is caught in the crossfire, knowing they can’t do anything to help. For once, we’re a witness, not an active participant, and that shift in narrative agency makes the Reapers a dominant, immediately terrifying force. That’s why, when we eventually take down just one, it’s liberating in the most bittersweet of ways. Sure, we can defeat them, but the cost is great, and that’s just one of many strewn across the galaxy. Now imagine an army. Mass Effect 3 shows us that, and everything such a threat is capable of.
On Tuchanka, the only way to defeat a single Reaper is by unleashing a legendary thresher maw upon it while orbital cannons reign hellfire down from above. They’re almost invinsible. Countless die and cultures are decimated in their wake, with nothing but dirt and rubble left behind amidst the overwhelming destruction. There’s a genuine feeling of weight behind the Reapers because, as a villain, they leave so much pain and suffering behind and most of the time, we can’t take them down – we can only run. Playing Mass Effect 3 was like being in War of the Worlds, and that helplessness translates beautifully. It’s a bleak and grim rendition, like Cloverfield’s monster ripping through the city while we watch its characters scurry through the sewers, unable to do anything but try and survive. Commander Shepard is seen as a hardened badass, but in the face of a single Reaper, the galactic saviour is reduced to nothing.
Before Mass Effect 3, Reapers were built up as an unstoppable force, with Shepard begging the council and fellow races for help simply to stand a chance at defeating Sovereign. When we finally see the entire fleet in this final chapter, I expected my character to waltz in and push them aside like an overpowered titan. Instead, the Reapers tear everything apart, looming above us as colossal aliens of an unimaginable nature. Shephard, meanwhile, barely clings to life. It leaves our hero vulnerable, broken and beaten down like never before. Reapers can’t be fought directly, and taking on an army of the damn things would be nigh impossible.
Stopping them is a shot in the dark, using their own technology against them often being the only way to victory. Reapers completely control every situation, and even their defeat is one of their own twisted making. Mass Effect 3’s ending is controversial, but going into it completely unaware of the discourse, having never played it before, I cherished every single moment. Right through to the climax, Reapers maintain an unbearable feeling of power, one that is manifested in the way they wipe away civilizations like they’re nothing.
There’s something utterly eerie about the sheer hopelessness that accompanies the Reapers in Mass Effect 3, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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