The opening scene of Mass Effect: Paragon Lost reveals its creative intentions out of the starting gate: in a swarm of energy rounds, snarky one-liners, and daring maneuvers, a brutish but admirably loyal Alliance marine, James Vega, earns his reputation as a capable leader willing to make tough choices and put lives in jeopardy for the greater good. In other words, this is fairly stock material for BioWare's popular science-fiction gaming franchise, extending the fundamental themes that the game's developers doggedly stress into the spectrum of anime. That "go big or go home" mentality perseveres throughout the course of this feature-length glimpse at the universe, a somewhat-detached diversion from the story proper that's built to enrich the audience's perspective of the main character. While Paragon Lost doesn't succeed on its own, clearly and awkwardly relying on the games as a foundation and telling a story that most wouldn't care about hearing otherwise, the footnotes it offers are presented in a brisk-enough package to enliven this addition to the lore.
While James Vega (voiced by Freddie Prinze Jr.) abruptly drops in as a new character to Mass Effect 3, his presence in the narrative had been established through other mediums (comics) both leading up and prior to the game's release. Paragon Lost fills in a key gap of the character's history, starting with the events that put him in a commanding position and then leading towards what turned him into a traumatized soldier. After he gallantly defeats a crew of Blood Pack mercenaries on a planet in the Terminus System, near a pharmaceutical R&D colony called Fehl Prime, he and his ragtag Delta Squad of marines stick around to offer military assistance while the region stabilizes. Cut to a few years later, during a time when the galaxy's poster-child "savior", Commander Shepard, has been incapacitated. Everything appears to be operating like clockwork -- Vega awkwardly flirts with an asari research scientist,
Paragon Lost promptly shifts from lively character development -- complete with stiff, often obnoxious humor -- into dutiful, bloody action/suspense mode once the attack hits Fehl Prime, replete with paralyzing swarmer insects and flying, gun-wielding Collector soldiers who pose near-indefensible prowess. Japanese studio T.O Entertainment introduce their own interpretation of the heroes, antagonists, and technology with their restrained designs, rendering a dull but sustainable visual style that discovers its strengths by keeping speed with brisk action and the stylized lighting. But, as with other anime of its pay-grade, they also employ an odd juxtaposition of modest hand-drawn artwork with exaggerated, corporeal CG builds for moving vehicles and architecture. Observing a faux-metallic six-wheeled vehicle stumble across a static vibrantly-colored cave is more frustrating than enjoyable, despite its reference to the first game (hello, Mako!).
It's hard to tell exactly who Paragon Lost will satisfy, though. One might imagine that the general premise would predominately appeal to the story's deeper fans, those who'd appreciate exposition on the harrowing history of James Vega and what this less-popular grunt brings to the table in Mass Effect 3. However, the clumsy way that it embellishes the series' key components -- how the tech and special powers operate; what a krogan is and how they act; lines like "everybody's crazy for some blue" about the alien asari species -- are explanatory enough to make the series' regulars roll their eyes yet not enough to genuinely inform newcomers what they're all about. Conversely, those with little to no knowledge of Mass Effect looking for a space-opera battlezone might be left in the cold with how the threat attacking the colony factors into the grand scheme of things, even though the rudiments are explained. Some will enjoy seeing the series through a new lens and others will relish the gory, blitzed warfare, but these ducks aren't in a row here.
Paragon Lost does get something right after building some tolerance for the production's central issues: it fleshes out the "meathead" character of James Vega into a much more interesting and appealing persona, driven by his infatuation with Treeya and his emotional bond with a civilian child. Henry Gilbert's writing understands how to convincingly navigate the mental arena of Vega's "paragon" devotion to protecting and bolstering others, as well as his reverence to Commander Shepard, and the impact of the hefty decisions he makes are given measured life by Freddie Prinze Jr.'s returning performance, bridging the gap between mediums. Once the story reaches its brash climactic end, despite being somewhat foreseeable for those who know what's coming and a shade heavy-handed, it allows the audience to take a Cliff's Notes-like understanding of the character's emotional shift into their gaming experiences. The rest might be made up of inconsistent and overblown space-military razzmatazz, involving biotic blasts and cryo rounds that'd better service other untold Mass Effect stories, but it does offer some form of takeaway out of the deal.
FUNimation have made it a habit to present their Blu-rays in appealing, stylized packages, and Mass Effect: Paragon Lost is no exception. It arrives in a standard eco-friendly two-disc case, with a fairly sturdy cardboard slipcase with slight foil accents and embossed lettering. On the inside, you'll find a "Normandy Forever" sticker -- like the one James Vega slaps on his chest in the film -- as well as a download code for multiplayer items in Mass Effect 3's MP (horde) mode. Disc Two presents the film on a standard-definition DVD, which retains all the special features from the primary Blu-ray Disc.
Video and Audio:
Mass Effect: Paragon Lost charges onto Blu-ray in a 1.78:1-framed 1080p treatment from FUNimation that's, by and large, pretty fantastic. The hand-drawn lines are mostly razor-sharp, aside from a few hazy or rough contours, while the versatile color palette forces powerful colors out with no perceptible bleeding or distortion: the dreamy blues and greens of a mystical-feeling cavern, the rich umber and copper tones of the Collectors' ship, and shifting flesh tones between the Delta Squad members. Despite feeling out-of--place whenever they emerge, the sharp computer-generated elements express fine metallic contrast and clean angles. Most importantly, the fluidity of motion and the preservation of contrast render the acttion sequences into tight, vibrant, engaging displays that never lose place or drown out details (in fact, you could say that the blacl levels could be a bit darker). The artistic work on this looks exceedingly good.
An active, occasionally aggressive 5-channel TrueHD track captures the essence of the Mass Effect universe overwhelmingly well. Distinctive sounds from the game make their presence know in the design; you'll hear the activation of omni-tools, the unique bass-driven effect of a singularity field, and the flutter / buzz of seeker swarms as they accurately replicate the game's accouterments. They remain exceptionally clear and dynamic within the sprawl of the surround channels, which are frequently and surprisingly utilized at several action-oriented parts of the film. Though, there's a noticeable lack of richness and heft to the overall presence of the track -- despite clarity, it could've felt richer. With that said, the voiceover work comes out clear as a whistle, with Vega's mid-to-low voice running along the bass channel and Treeya's alto-leaning tone hitting a sweet spot in the middle. It gets the gist of Mass Effect across fairly well, albeit in a lesser form.
The slipcover on the front of Mass Effect: Paragon Lost sports a sticker that boasts "45 Minutes of Extra Features". That's true; however, not very much of that concentrates on the actual film itself, perhaps only 1/4 of that. First, the supplements lead off with an All Doors Open: A Look Inside Electronic Arts (8:36, HD) featurette that fits the description fairly literally: the first half focuses on the structure of the EA base of operation and their amenities, then leads into an exploration of the Dead Space studio --- which, conveniently, is hard at work on the soon-to-be-released Dead Space 3. The second featurette is more substantive and Bioware-based, a piece entitled An Inside Look at the Mass Effect Universe (12:39, HD) which focuses on the visual creation, conceptualization, and sound design that goes into the video games. It's always great to see the physics and sound distortions that go into these things. A brief US Trailer (1:17, HD) can also be found.
The third supplement, thankfully, grows much more involved and focused on both Mass Effect's storytelling and Paragon Lost. Directing Effect (24:18, HD) first starts out by interviewing Executive Producer Casey Hudson and Artistic Director Derek Watts as they discuss the process of bringing their perspective from Knights of the Old Republic over to this new universe, as well as delving into the progression of the series' alien species and how they became visually realized (krogan as bat-reptile hybrids, turians as avian-like, etc). Then, about halfway through, the focus shifts more on Paragon Lost and Production I.G. / T.O. Entertainment's participation in their own interpretation of the series. Compliments are paid to the game's storytelling and theme strength from director Atsushi Takeuchi, and then the material follows down the path of how the animation itself came together through cooperation with BioWare. Those being interviewed keep the material very surface-level, very easy-to-digest, but it's nice to see.
Mass Effect: Paragon Lost fares a bit better than expected for a video-game tie-in film, even if it's still fairly middle-of-the-road with where it takes the once-vague history of James Vega. The characterizations and how the story interacts with the established universe aren't very organic, but the way Vega's trials on Fehl Prime are visualized tries to overcome that with endearing backstory and a respectable current of momentum propelling it forward. The animation style is straightforward but occasionally eye-catching, the voiceover work creates a suitable spectrum of soldiers, scientists, and civilians, and the action can get bloody when the time comes -- driven by familiar aesthetic elements from the Mass Effect universe, either in forced "Mass Effect!!" fashion or in fun organic ways. It's not great, and those really familiar with the story are certain to find fault with the details (the krogan do look pretty ridiculous), but it's worth cutting through the bad in order to get to Vega's development as a leader posed with tough choices in the middle of space warfare.
FUNimation's Blu-ray looks and sounds great, and the supplements get ME3's head honcho in front of the camera for a bit to discuss the series. It's an enjoyable Rental, though newcomers will likely feel pretty lost.