If Mass Effect 1 was the gaming equivalent of Star Wars: A New Hope and Mass Effect 2 was the gaming equivalent of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, what does that make Mass Effect 3? It can’t really be compared to Return of the Jedi since there’s no reconciling between Shepard and his/her father. The reapers are completely dealt with in Mass Effect 3 while Return of the Jedi isn’t necessarily the end of the Empire. The main hero in Star Wars returns from his final battle unscathed while in Mass Effect the hero doesn’t.
A much better comparison would be Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Return of the King is similar to Mass Effect 3 in its themes, story progression, and even their ending controversies. Yes the ROTK movie has a controversial ending as well. Let’s start from the beginning though.
(The harvesters are at least comparable to the ringwraiths in that they’re flying enemies of great power)
Edit: I’m not talking about the quality level of either title. I just noticed a number of similarities between the stories.
Mass Effect 3 is easily the darkest of the three games. There’s a general feeling of hopelessness through the majority of the story. The crucible seems to be the galaxy’s only hope against the reapers, who are simply overpowering everyone. The reaper forces are bigger, stronger, faster and more numerous than all the races of the galaxy. Many of their foot soldiers are twisted versions of the mortals they are at war with.
(Mordor’s most powerful leader is the Witch King. You could argue that Harbinger is the same for the Reapers, although you don’t see or hear much of him in Mass Effect 3.)
Lord of the Rings in general is like that. If you’re half the nerd I am, you’ll remember that the orcs in Lord of the Rings were once elves – they were tortured and mutilated until they became orcs. The forces of Mordor also have trolls, which could be resembled to brutes. They have ringwraiths flying around, which are similar to harvesters.
There’s also the crucible. The crucible is a device which, if built and placed properly, can end the reaper threat forever. It must be taken to the citadel, which at the time is controlled by reapers. Also worth noting that according to the extended ending, the crucible was originally built by those who control the reapers.
The crucible is similar to the one ring. Not in that it is made to destroy the forces of Mordor, but that it was created by the forces of Mordor. Destroying the ring is the only hope for permanently killing Sauron. In order to destroy it, it has to be brought to mount doom, which is in the heart of Sauron’s territory – like the citadel in Mass Effect 3’s final battle. I’ll refer to the ring and the crucible as the Trojan horse for the rest of this post, and Shepard as the ring bearer.
Both finales carry the theme of one little person, the ring bearer, heading into the very heart of the enemy’s land to save the world. They will probably end up sacrificing themselves in the process. Meanwhile, a very large battle is taking place nearby to distract the enemy from the hero’s true plan.
Probably the biggest similarity between Mass Effect 3 and Return of the King is in unity. In both final chapters, all of the land’s/galaxy’s forces have to join together to defeat their enemy. In Mass Effect 3, you spend the entire game gathering allies and preparing for one final counter assault. In Return of the King, nations that once warred amongst each other (Gondor and Rohan) join together to take on the forces of Mordor. This is like the Quarians and the Geth, if you unite them. The banished army of the dead also helps (LOTR), like the Krogan in a sense.
(The army of the dead aren’t too different from the Krogan. They were both punished for their betrayals – one cursed to remain alive, the other infected by the genophage. Both are forgiven in their final chapter – if you cure the genophage.)
In the final battle in both trilogies, if the ring bearer doesn’t succeed, the armies will fail to stop the forces of evil. While the gathered allies are impressive, they still pale in comparison to the enemy in both average size/power and numbers.
Furthermore, the Illusive Man could be equated to Gollum. Both of them have been corrupted by the enemy one way or another. They betray the hero throughout the story, they both seem to win at one point: Shelob seems to finish Frodo in Return of the King, the Prothean VI is taken by the Illusive Man’s number one in ME3. That’s not to mention that they were both properly introduced in the second chapter as an ally, and they both feel betrayed at the end of that chapter (if you destroyed the collector base).
The very last conflict of “the ring bearers” happens to be when they seem to have reached the end. While Shepard’s injuries are holding him/her back, Frodo is being held back by the corruption of the ring. Yet what stands in their way even more is the Illusive Man/Gollum. One last personal conflict to end them all.
Anyone who pays attention to gaming news knows about the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy, which will be ignored for the sake of this article. What most people don’t remember is that Lord of the Rings also received flack for its ending, or eight endings to be more precise. There are also plenty of fans of the novels who hated the movies, especially Return of the King because it doesn’t have the full ending. In the book, the destruction of the ring isn’t the end – there’s still the scouring of the shire.
The scouring of the shire is one last battle fought between the hobbits and the last of Saruman’s forces. There are tons of thematic meanings behind the scouring chapters that I don’t feel qualified to describe myself. Tolkein himself has described the scouring as “an essential part of the book, foreseen from the outset”. Here are some forum threads on the Return of the King ending controversy –
Some people even went on to say they can’t sit through the LOTR movies anymore, like some people have said about Mass Effect since the ending.
(I don’t believe Lord of the Rings has an answer to Grunt though.)
And that’s why Mass Effect 3 is the Return of the King of the gaming world. Similar themes, characters used in similar ways, and they were both subject to controversy surrounding their endings.