Mass Effect’s Reapers Don’t Live Up To Sovereign

I have played the Mass Effect trilogy several times, although admittedly not for a few years now. All that time, I’ve regarded the Reapers as solid but unspectacular villains. I have no major qualms with my canon ending, trading my death for their destruction, although I did not enjoy the A, B, C binary choice presented to me – presented to everyone, despite how differently they may have played the game. The Reapers are a good plot device, and clearly raise the stakes from Mass Effect 2 sufficiently enough that it feels like things are getting progressively tougher for Shepard to get by. But as villains themselves? Nah.

They’re just big sky machines that destroy worlds. They make for a formidable foe, but as characters themselves, I just don’t see it. Or at least, I didn’t. Reapers felt like the Death Star – just objects. Just things. It’s Darth Vader we fear in Star Wars, not the tool he’s wielding. With the Legendary Edition though, I finally replayed the first Mass Effect, and finally the Reapers made sense.

For the majority of my Mass Effect playthroughs, I have used the same Mass Effect save file. Renegade FemShep, save Ashley, romance Liara, kill the Council, keep Wrex alive, kill the Rachni, Anderson on the Council. My Mass Effect experience is shaped by these choices so much, I basically consider them the standard. I have had a run with Kaidan alive before, but when I think of how I played Mass Effect back then, those constants are fixed.

This time, I’m doing things differently. I have opted for a more mature and measured Paragon build, and that’s getting easier to reckon with. I saved Kaidan this time, and the Council, and the Rachni. Saving everybody, me. The choices around Liara, Wrex, and Anderson remained the same, but my penchant for tragedy already has me flirting with Thane in Mass Effect 2.

That’s all besides the point though. The main change to my Mass Effect experience in replaying the first game is meeting Sovereign, and suddenly the Reapers make sense. Rather than an entire army of insurmountable and unfeeling Reapers in Mass Effect 3, in the initial game, there is just one – Sovereign.

Throughout the game, you have been getting flashes of the Reapers, whispers of lore about the Protheans and their disappearance, and generally some idea that Saren is up to something nefarious with the geth, but without much understanding of how or why. You haven’t got the whole piece of the puzzle even after talking to Sovereign on Virmire, but for the first time in the game, things become a little clearer.

Part of the issue with the Reapers is that they’re scarier in principle than they are in reality. There’s a section in Alien: Isolation where you need to put down all of your tools and float out in space, completely vulnerable, and even now describing it, it’s the kind of thing you’d expect to strike fear into your heart – especially in a survival horror as effective at turning the inside of your trousers brown as Alien: Isolation. But when you actually play it, it’s nothing of the sort. The game gives you nothing to defend yourself with, so you know the alien probably isn’t going to attack you – and if it does, it will be choreographed rather than the innate fear of it hunting for you in the regular game.

The Reapers are the same. Shepard clearly cannot defeat an entire fleet, so the Reapers actually become less effective in scaring you than Sovereign is on its own. It’s not entirely a numbers game though – Sovereign itself is an excellent and extremely underrated villain in the Mass Effect canon.

Mass Effect has a bit of an issue with gravitas when it comes to villains. The series often overreaches, and the characters end up being less imposing than they should be, thanks to their unnecessarily dramatic dialogue and delivery. While Sovereign’s style is firmly in this wheelhouse too, it’s one of the few to knock it out of the park. Sovereign’s opening gambit is to call you “rudimentary creatures of blood and flesh,” and that sets the tone for its utter intellectual domination of Shepard, the player, and every other character we ever encounter.

It’s through Sovereign that we learn the Protheans were not the first race, and that the cycle of wiping out organic life has been eternal, much like the Reapers themselves. “You exist because we allow it. You will end because we demand it.”

The biggest problem with the Reapers is that they’re so impersonal in a game obviously driven by character, they feel at odds with the rest of the story. They’re things. Sovereign is the only one that fully establishes itself as a character, and sets too high a bar for the other Reapers to climb.

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