The recent release of Mass Effect Legendary Edition on Xbox Game Pass has inspired many people to pick up the trilogy for the first time and try to answer that question that has haunted Mass Effect players for years: “Paragon or Renegade?”
Well, at the risk of negating the rest of this article, the fact of the matter is that the right decision in just about every game with a morality system is the one that feels right to you or the one that simply excites you most. Any reasonably well-designed morality system should encourage you to make split-second decisions based on your own moral compass, and, for the most part, Mass Effect does just that.
However, whether you’re playing these games for the first time and want a little better idea of the differences between the trilogy’s two moral alignment extremes, or you’re a Mass Effect veteran who wants an excuse to weigh in on this debate, here’s our look at the differences between Paragons and Renegades as well as a few words about which might be right for you.
Why You Should Play As a Paragon in Mass Effect
Paragons Aspire to be a (Mostly) Noble Hero
The word “Paragon” should make it pretty obvious that this is the moral path you’ll want to follow if you’re determined to play as the hero, but it’s worth emphasizing that Commander Shepard will still be a “hero” in Mass Effect regardless of which direction your moral compass points. This isn’t like the first KOTOR where you’re deciding between being a Jedi or Sith or other games that offer similar “good vs. evil” choices.
However, only a Paragon Shepard will consistently try to set a better example for the galaxy through their actions. They’re pretty much the opposite of an “ends justifies the means” kinds of character. There is a consistent logic to the Paragon’s decision-making that is easy to follow and appreciate.
Paragons Often Prefer Persuasion Over Intimidation
There are numerous points throughout the Mass Effect games when you’ll be able to “interrupt” a sequence and choose a special option based on your alignment. Generally, speaking, Paragons are more likely to use these interruptions to persuade people rather than intimidate them or simply harm them.
That’s not a hard rule (Renegade players will also be able to use persuasion), but if you’re generally more interested in using charisma and logic over fear and brute force, Paragon is much more likely to offer roughly what you’re looking for. They generally try to find a way to diffuse a situation than blow it all up.
Paragons Typically Inspire More Love From the People Around Them
Again, this isn’t a hard rule (and we’ll talk about some of the exceptions to this rule in a bit), but generally speaking, playing as a Paragon means that you’re more likely to win over the people closest to you and assist them in their moments of need.
While some races and characters will be more impressed with Renegade Shepard, Paragon Shepards are more likely to at least try to offer a moment of comfort to their crew and the other people they encounter. To put it another way, some characters may be more impressed with Paragon or Renegade Shepard, but few characters will outright hate Paragon Shepard the way they may come to hate a Renegade Shepard.
Paragons At Least Try to Save More Lives
You can’t save everyone in the Mass Effect franchise (or at least not all the people you’d like), but if you’re interested in saving as many lives as possible (including lives of minor characters you meet along the way), Paragon is the way to go.
It’s not that Renegades are outright killing more people around them (although that certainly happens) but rather that Paragons are more likely to go out of their way to save someone whereas Renegades may be too focused on an objective to worry about the collateral damage. Renegades may justify breaking a few more eggs along the way than Paragons will.
Paragons Decisions Tend to Play Out Across the Long Term
One of the great (though occasionally annoying) things about Mass Effect is that you’ll often make decisions that you don’t get to see the immediate consequences or benefits of. You sometimes just have to trust that you’re making the right decision at that moment.
Well, Paragons tend to make more decisions that may not yield immediate results but tend to benefit them in some way down the line and across the span of the trilogy. While it can be frustrating to have to just wait and see how certain things play out, the idea of not doing everything for the immediate payoff certainly bolsters the role-playing aspect of the Paragon path.
Mass Effect: Notable Paragon Specific Choices and Benefits
- Saving the council
- Rescuing the Rachni Queen
- Freeing Samesh’s wife
- Letting Shiala assist the colonists on Feros
- Helping to cure the Geophage
- Increased maximum health
- Decreased power cooldown
- Complete the UNC: Besieged Base mission
Why You Should Play As a Renegade in Mass Effect
Renegades Have a Dark Sense of Humor
One of the most consistent benefits of playing as a Renegade in the Mass Effect trilogy is the number of darkly humorous dialog options open to Renegade Shepard players. In fact, some of the most amusing and memorable dialog options in the game can only be experienced if you commit to the Renegade lifestyle.
I should clarify that your views on how “funny” Renegade Shepard’s dialog options and actions are may vary based on your own sense of humor. There is a bluntness to many Renegade dialog options that you just don’t get with Paragons, and even a few moments of dark slapstick humor that honestly justify going full Renegade at least once.
Renegades End Up With a “KOTOR-Style” Scarred Face
While Renegades aren’t necessarily “evil” in the same way that some of the…less than good player characters in other RPGs with morality systems tend to be, it’s worth noting that you can still get that cool “Sith-style” scarred face in Mass Effect if you go full Renegade.
You’ll start to see some facial distortion if you fill the first bar of your Renegade meter, but you really have to commit to the Renegade lifestyle to see just how twisted Shepard’s face can get.
Renegade Players Can Often Eliminate Extra Enemies and Receive Immediate Rewards
We’ll dive into this a little deeper in a bit, but one of the best reasons to even occasionally choose a more “Renegade” option when it becomes available is that those options can sometimes result in acquiring an additional item or even eliminating an enemy from a future fight.
Granted, it’s sometimes hard to tell whether the Renegade option you’ve been presented will result in such an immediately beneficial income, but this is one of the most obvious ways that even a dash of Renegade in your life can be surprisingly beneficial.
Renegades Slowly Dive Into the Dark Side
While Renegade choices typically exist in a kind of grey zone in the first Mass Effect game, choosing to commit to the Renegade lifestyle across the entire trilogy will eventually allow you to play as a much more cruel character who is shockingly heartless at times.
I’ll stop short of suggesting that playing Renegade will eventually turn you into Mass Effect’s new villain, but it’s certainly worth noting that Renegade Shepard becomes much more ruthless as the trilogy goes on. It’s honestly much more difficult to morally justify some of Renegade Shepard’s actions in Mass Effect 3, which is a big part of the reason why playing as a full Renegade is such a fascinating experience.
Renegades Get to See Arguably the Best Side of Garrus
Paragon and Renegade Shepards will appeal to different squadmates and NPCs who identify with their chosen alignment, but given how popular Garrus is, I should mention that Renegade players will get to see a very entertaining side of Garrus that Paragon players will only ever scratch the surface of.
A Renegade Shepard player is able to bring out Garrus’ darker side and really encourage him to become a confident assassin with a wonderfully weird sense of humor. Few crewmates look to Shepard for moral guidance quite the way that Garrus does, and it’s fascinating to see how he evolves if you go full Renegade.
Mass Effect: Notable Renegade Specific Choices and Benefits
- Punching a reporter
- Destroying a Reaper during a monologue
- Killing a bartender
- Shooting the Illusive Man
- Killing the council
- Winning over Garrus, Grunt & Javik
- Earning the admiration of the Krogans
- Increased health regeneration
- Increased weapon/power damage
- Complete the UNC: The Negotiation mission
Mass Effect Legendary Edition: Should You Play as a Renegade or Paragon?
Again, the obvious answer to this question is “whichever path you prefer to play,” and there is certainly some truth to that common conclusion. Much like choosing your Mass Effect class, you’ll ultimately enjoy the game most if you go with the moral alignment that best fits your personality and preferred playstyle.
However, if you’re coming into Mass Effect cold and just can’t make up your mind, then I’ll say that the best overall option is probably to play Mass Effect as a Paragon or to not commit to a specific playstyle and vary up your decisions based on what that moment calls for.
The biggest benefit to playing as a Paragon is that it just feels like the way that BioWare ultimately intended for people to play the game on some level. The idea of Renegades not being strictly evil or Paragons not being strictly good is great on paper, but by the time you get to Mass Effect 3’s final sequences, you really get the feeling that the team started to treat the Paragon version of Shepard as the canonical character they envisioned and the Renegade version of the character as this kind of rogue force whose most notable decisions are almost looked down upon from a lore perspective.
As I noted above, fully committing to a Renegade playthrough across the Mass Effect trilogy requires you to make some decisions (especially in Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3) that are sometimes incredibly stupid and often make you feel like someone who is mostly interested in being a jerk for no real reason. It’s always been a little odd that Renegades in the first game are often asked to make difficult decisions that may still be the right thing to do whereas Renegades in Mass Effect 2 and 3 often make decisions that feel self-serving and simply baffling in the grand scheme of things. By comparison, there’s a consistency to the Paragon path that feels slightly more satisfying when you look back on the entirety of your experience.
Official reports show that most Mass Effect players end up making more Paragon choices, and I honestly believe that’s because there is a stronger logical consistency to those choices throughout the franchise and because there are so many Renegade choices that feel needlessly cruel.
That being said, a full Renegade playthrough is one of the most unique experiences in the history of games with a choice-based morality system. Renegades get to enjoy some of the most darkly amusing moments in both the Mass Effect trilogy and many other RPGs. Maybe it’s just me, but there is something consistently hilarious about shutting down an elaborate conversation with a bit of violence or shooting down an enemy Indiana Jones-style before a fight even properly begins. You definitely have to accept the fact that Renegades end up being bigger jerks than you may think they’d be based on the biggest Renegade choices in the first Mass Effect game, but if you choose to commit to letting Renegade Shepard take the wheel, I can assure you that the experience will be everything but boring.
That brings us to the middle-ground. I’ve heard some people recommend choosing to go either full Renegade or Paragon in Mass Effect in order to experience every optional moment and dialog decision that those two extremes offer, and I understand why a lot of veteran players arrive at that conclusion. If you don’t go full Paragon or Renegade, you’re going to miss out on certain moments.
However, the idea of fully committing to a particular moral extreme in order to see everything the game offers to Paragons and Renegades is partially based on the idea that you’re going to play through the Mass Effect trilogy multiple times. Some people just aren’t going to have the time or desire to put that many hours into multiple playthroughs just to see what happens.
Besides, it really does feel like there’s a degree to which Mass Effect was designed to encourage players to not just blindly commit to Paragon or Renegade and instead base their decision on what feels right in that moment. While BioWare struggled to maintain that idea across the entire trilogy (and you really do miss out on some great moments if you don’t acquire enough Paragon or Renegade points), making choices based on what feels right at the moment is one of the things that makes Mass Effect great, which makes it that much easier to recommend that first-time players do just that when they’re presented with moral dilemmas.