One of the larger choices in the Mass Effect trilogy comes near the end of Mass Effect 1 on the planet Virmire. Players have to choose between leaving either Kaidan or Ashley behind, killing them off for the rest of the trilogy. The Virmire survivor goes on to return as a crewmate and romance option in Mass Effect 3, meaning that a playthrough of the trilogy can vastly diverge depending on who is saved. For first time Mass Effect players, though, which character is most worth saving? Does Kaidan or Ashley have the better story arc?
Kaidan and Ashley are the first two crewmates introduced in the Mass Effect series, and can serve as romance options for a female or male Shepard, respectively. Outside of Liara, this makes them the only available romance choices in Mass Effect 1. Although they don’t return to the Normandy in Mass Effect 2, their romance can still technically be continued and will pick up where it left off when they become companions again in Mass Effect 3.
Their somewhat hostile attitude towards Shepard in Mass Effect 2, thanks to Shepard’s partnership with Cerberus throughout the game, tends to make them controversial among many Mass Effect fans. Others criticize their lack of dynamic dialogue; because of the Virmire choice in Mass Effect 1, Kaidan and Ashley fulfil very similar roles in terms of Mass Effect‘s overall storyline. That said, each has a unique story arc.
How Ashley Overcomes Her Biases By Mass Effect 3
Ashley is arguably the more controversial of the two potential Virmire survivors, if only because of her attitude in Mass Effect 1. Her tendency to rub players the wrong way in her early appearances means that many Mass Effect fans miss out on her development over the course of the trilogy, which is more thorough than Kaidan’s storyline. In Mass Effect 1, Ashley isn’t necessarily anti-alien, but her family history has left her with a mindset that humanity needs to be self reliant rather than relying on the other races of the galaxy for support.
Her grandfather was the first human to surrender to an alien force during the First Contact War against the turians, something that marred her family record and prevented her from rising in the ranks despite her performance in the Alliance military. This contributed in part to her distrust of humanity’s alien allies, though her view is more nuanced than many players believe, and she denounces xenophobic groups such as Terra Firma and Cerberus throughout the game. She readily volunteers to go with Kirrahe’s team on Virmire, respecting his command as much as she does Shepard’s despite their differences in species.
Mass Effect 2 sees Ashley finally earning new titles thanks in large part to her service with Shepard, something that culminates in Mass Effect 3 when she’s offered the position of Spectre. Ashley comments on her family history further in Mass Effect 3, even speculating that the “Williams curse” may be losing its grip thanks to her. She develops a friendship with James throughout the game, even flirting with him in Mass Effect 3‘s fan-favorite Citadel DLC, which offers Shepard the option to encourage the two to form a relationship.
She’s one of the few Normandy crewmates who can go through this development, the others being Garrus and Tali. Ashley’s attachment to her family and her religion is something that isn’t often seen among Mass Effect‘s human companions, as well, and adds nuance to her character. This is more so evident if Ashley is romanced throughout the trilogy.
One disappointing element of Ashley’s story, however, is her distrust towards aliens, which isn’t fully resolved in Mass Effect 2 or 3. Although she seems to have largely overcome it in later games of the series, it isn’t properly addressed and players are never given the option to directly discuss her views past Mass Effect 1 or how she came to move past them. This leaves her character arc feeling somewhat half-baked at times.
Some players may instead feel that a better culmination of her character arc comes from leaving her behind on Virmire; there, Ashley is able to give her life to protect the salarian task force. Her flaws, though, are more overstated than Kaidan’s, and she has far more growth than he does overall, even if much of it occurs off-screen without player influence. At the very least, it’s worth it to save Ashley in at least one Mass Effect playthrough to witness how she grows more trusting and confident over the course of the series.
Kaidan Is Already Fully-Realized In Mass Effect 1
Compared to Ashley, Kaidan has far less flaws to overcome in Mass Effect 1. He’s no more distrustful of aliens than he is of humans, thanks in large part to his history. Kaidan was one of the first human biotics in Mass Effect, and was sent to Jump Zero at a young age to begin biotics training. There, he accidentally killed his turian instructor after he pushed another student too far, losing the trust of his friends as a result. Despite this, he tells Shepard that he’s come to terms with the incident.
Although he dropped off the radar for a while afterwards, by the time he returned to the Alliance on his own terms he was fully ready to serve. In many ways, Kaidan has already been through the bulk of his character arc before the Mass Effect series begins. Although he at times expresses his reluctance to use the full brunt of his biotic abilities on living targets, he claims to have changed his mind after the events of Eden Prime, which occur very early on in the game.
It’s worth noting, however, that Kaidan goes through more development if romanced. In Mass Effect 1 Kaiden expresses reluctance at the prospect of things changing, something that he can be persuaded to let go of as the series progresses. He’s also one of the few companions in the game that goes through romantic development between Mass Effect 1 and 3. In ME1, Kaidan is only available for female Shepard to romance. In Mass Effect 3, though, he can also be romanced by a male Shepard. This change can even be discussed in-game and plays a role in Kaidan’s character arc. He starts out as a relatively conservative and cautious character who can be convinced to take chances and open up more thanks to Shepard’s influence.
Comparatively, Kaidan is already well-adjusted and confident by the time Shepard meets him in Mass Effect 1. Because of this, he can at times feel less dynamic than Ashley. Kaidan has already overcome his character’s major challenges and has come to terms with himself, as opposed to many other Mass Effect crewmates who are just starting out their storylines when they’re introduced to the series. Although it is possible to have an impact on Kaidan’s character development, he’s far more static than Ashley is. Unless players are intending to romance him, then, it’s likely more worthwhile to let Ashley survive Virmire the first time around instead. That said, Mass Effect can easily be replayed multiple times for those looking to fully explore both companions’ storylines.
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