Ranking my Bioware Romances to Date

There was a time I eschewed the romance options in Bioware games because I found the concept of in-game romance a little strange. I still do to some extent, but ultimately these games are story-telling simulators, and it’s just another kind of story. I’ve done enough of them now that I thought it might be interesting to rank them against each other, from worst to best.

Some notes on the scoring: I have tried as much as possible to be objective and to separate how much I like each character from how good their romance arc is. This isn’t a ranking of my favourite romanceable characters; it’s a ranking of how well-executed I found their romance stories to be.

I’m sure my preferences still influence the ranking, but I’ve tried to minimize it.

Leliana (Dragon Age: Origins):

Leliana in Dragon Age: InquisitionLeliana is the one romance I genuinely regret pursuing. I picked her because I loved the stories she tells (and because of the sexy accent), but she’s too churchy, and when you romance her she gets so smarmy it’s just intolerable after a while.

Plus, I wound up having a kid with Morrigan anyway, so in retrospect I really should have just romanced her.

Samantha Traynor (Mass Effect III):

All the feelsI don’t like giving a poor rating to Traynor’s romance. Traynor herself is awesome, and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise. If Bioware had designed a character to appeal specifically to me, I doubt they could have done a better job.

But if I’m being honest, the writing for her romance is terrible. There’s not much too it; mostly just minor tweaks to existing conversations, often involving awkwardly shoe-horned innuendo. The scene where you initiate the romance is so ridiculous I actually missed out on romancing her the first time through because I couldn’t believe the game actually wanted me to do that.

I still romance her on every playthrough, and to be fair, some of the scenes near the end are pretty good. But most of the time it plays out more like a cheesy porn parody of Mass Effect than anything, and turning Mass Effect into porn is supposed to be the Internet’s job.

Vector Hyllus (Star Wars: The Old Republic):

Vector Hyllus and Eckard Lokin in Star Wars: The Old RepublicI’m not sure why Vector’s romance leaves me cold. He’s a very unique character — a human incorporated into an alien hive mind — and a very nice guy despite all his oddness. I can’t say anything bad about him, and his romance is written well enough, even if it’s a bit by the numbers (rather surprising given his alien nature).

But for whatever reason I’ve already forgotten most of it, and it hasn’t even been that long since I did it. Maybe I just have trouble imagining Vector the soulful (if strange) romantic with my cavalier agent.

Kaidan Alenko (Mass Effect trilogy):

Kaidan Alenko in Mass Effect 3The problem with Kaidan is that he’s one of those characters who feels like he was written as a romance choice first and a person second. He’s very likable… maybe a little too likable. He feels like an archetype of romantic perfection, not a real person.

It is interesting to be able to continue the relationship with him over three games, and on the whole it’s a pretty well-written romance, but I can’t quite get over how unreal a character he seems.

Dorian (Dragon Age: Inquisition):

Dorian in Dragon Age: InquisitionThere’s nothing particularly wrong with Dorian’s romance, but not a lot about it stands out, either. It’s easy, and it’s sweet, and that’s about it. You learn a little more about what makes Dorian tick, but not much.

Dorian remains one of my favourite Inquisition characters, but romancing him isn’t really necessary. He’s just as awesome as a friend.

Vette (Star Wars: The Old Republic):

Vette and my warrior share a private moment in Star Wars: The Old RepublicMy adoration of Vette is by now well-documented. She’s just an awesome, delightful character in every way. She’s a bit like Dorian in that her romance doesn’t seem to add a whole lot to her story, but given how incredibly sad and lonely her life has been, I do like the idea of being able to bring her some happiness.

I suppose on some level I like the idea of playing the white knight.

Lana Beniko (Star Wars: The Old Republic):

My Imperial agent and Lana Beniko in Star Wars: The Old Republic's Shadow of Revan expansionLana’s romance is a hard one to rate. It spans several games, and due to the nature of MMOs, it isn’t over yet. Arguably this is true of the other SW:TOR romances as well, but companions from the base game still seem largely abandoned, and those romances tended to have a clear conclusion — usually marriage.

It’s also hard to rate because Lana is such an unusual character. She’s unusual in the context of Star Wars lore — a calm and selfless Sith, practically an oxymoron — but also just an unusual character in general. She’s so enigmatic, outwardly dispassionate with only tantalizing glimpses of the fierce emotion within.

But her oddness is what makes her compelling. I keep saying I want more variety in romantic fiction; here it is. Romancing Lana is far from the fairytale type of story we’re used to — it’s more sedate, more mature. Lana has other priorities beyond being arm candy for the player character, which helps her feel more real, and the story so far has hit a great balance between illustrating her feelings toward the PC without making them the sole focus of her character.

Lana is very three-dimensional, and by extension so is her romance.

Her occasional social awkwardness can be oddly endearing, too. You can ask her to fight a hundred Knights of Zakuul single-handedly and she won’t even blink, but try to compliment her or kiss her and she’ll get so adorably flustered.

My one complaint about her romance is can feel a bit rushed, a bit forced, at first — a common sin of these things. You’ll have known her for all of about fifteen minutes before she starts going on about your special connection.

Sera (Dragon Age: Inquisition):

My inquisitor and Sera on their wedding day in Dragon Age: InquisitonSera’s romance is many things: turbulent, challenging, frustrating, inconsistent. But it’s not boring.

Just initiating the romance with Sera was an uphill battle — though to be fair I made it harder on myself by being a Dalish mage — and even once I did lock in her romance there was still plenty of challenge. Sera is a strange, volatile person. She’s not easy to get along with, or even understand. Between her rambling speech pattern and thick accent, you practically need a translator sometimes.

There’s also one particular scene in her romance that really pissed me off, just for its poor design. I had to basically pretend that scene never happened for the sake of my sanity. I think the developers realize they screwed up there, though — Trespasser also seems to pretend it never happened.

However, there’s still something immensely gratifying about Sera’s romance if you can dodge all the landmines and make it through. Sera seems a simple character at first, but in actuality she’s spectacularly complex. Once you finally understand her, all her seemingly crazy behaviour starts to make sense.

She’s also an incredibly sweet and loving character (even if she can have odd ways of showing it). For all its frustrations, Sera’s romance probably has more “d’aww” moments than any other I’ve done.

Nadia Grell (Star Wars: The Old Republic):

A conversation with Nadia Grell in Star Wars: The Old RepublicNadia is a character I really enjoy. I know she can rub some people the wrong way, and I understand why — she’s very over-eager, and she does have a certain air of “Senpai noticed me!” that can be a bit much at times — but I can’t help but find her enthusiasm infectious.

I also appreciate that she’s an idealist, but with a hard edge when the situation calls for it. She’s got a gentle heart, but she’s no push-over.

Yet that’s not why I’m giving her romance such high marks. The thing I find interesting about Nadia’s romance is that it seems more like she’s pursuing the player than the other way around. Normally in these games NPCs don’t display any interest at all until you’ve made a concerted effort to win them over. It made Nadia feel much more like a real person with agency all her own.

Plus it’s a pretty well-written romance all around. It’s got ups and downs and interesting choices to make, and you meet her pretty early in the game, so it feels natural to see the bond slowly grow between her and the player’s Jedi.

Merrill (Dragon Age II):

My party in Dragon Age 2Merrill is a bit like Traynor in that she’s a character who could easily have been designed to appeal specifically to my tastes. A selfless, adorkable Elven blood mage with awesome tattoos and a charming accent? Sign me up.

Unlike Traynor, though, her romance arc is very well-executed.

There’s a lot to like about Merrill’s romance. I appreciate that it’s a slow burn. You can start flirting with her almost immediately, but it takes a while for an actual relationship to form. That makes it feel a bit more natural than these things tend to.

I haven’t played DA2 without romancing Merrill, so I’m not sure how much a difference it makes, but certainly it seemed to have a significant impact on conversations with her. Even her party banter with other characters changed. Also, her moving into Hawke’s house was a nice touch.

As with Vette, Merrill’s life is so sad that it feels good to bring her some happiness. She’s such a nice person, and yet she ends up hated and distrusted by almost everyone. At least if you romance her, she has someone who stands by her. In fact I seem to recall some party banter where she says her relationship with Hawke is just about the only thing keeping her together.

And there’s just nothing to complain about in Merrill’s romance. There’s no blatant poor writing or obnoxious game design. It just works.

SWTOR: A Knight of the Fallen Empire

I’m always so slow. I’ve finally gotten around to playing Knights of the Fallen Empire, and already it’s old news and everyone is talking about Knights of the Eternal Throne.

The opening of chapter three in Star Wars: The Old Republic's Knights of the Fallen Empire expansionWell, regardless, I finally made it to the expansion that initially inspired me to invest in Star Wars: The Old Republic against all odds. It’s Cipher Nine versus the endless armies of the Eternal Empire.

Start all over again:

Although it is technically an expansion, in a lot of ways Knights of the Fallen Empire feels more like a sequel — SW:TOR 2. Although some familiar elements carry over, for the most part you’re starting an entirely new story with new characters, new locations, and new threats.

It actually bears a very close resemblance to another Bioware sequel: Mass Effect 2. In fact the opening of KotFE is almost an exact duplicate of the beginning of ME2, to the point where some of the cutscenes are basically shot for shot recreations of ME2’s.

The transition to the new story is… less than smooth. There’s some pretty serious retcons going on, and you’ll have to suspend your disbelief quite a lot, even by Star Wars standards. Even putting aside how far-fetched a lot of it is (again, even by Star Wars standards), it would still be jarring to abandon the conflict between Empire and Republic for this new battle against the Eternal Empire.

(Tangent: How many damn empires does Star Wars need? There’s the Sith Empire, the Infinite Empire, and now the Eternal Empire, and those are just the ones I know about. My knowledge of the greater Star Wars mythos is pretty shallow. At this point I wouldn’t be surprised to learn there are half a dozen other empires in there somewhere.)

The Odessen Alliance in Star Wars: The Old Republic's Knights of the Fallen Empire expansionHowever, once you get past how jarring the change is, KotFE does start to look a lot better. The first nine chapters are incredibly tense and exciting. This was the first time in a very long time that a story — in any medium — has seemed so dire that I was truly at a loss as to how the heroes could ever prevail. The Eternal Empire is not a perfect antagonist faction by any means, but Bioware certainly sold their intimidation factor.

After chapter nine, things get a little more inconsistent.

The content in KotFE outside the main storyline certainly leaves a lot to be desired. I did one star fortress (twice, on both difficulties), and I do not understand what the point of these things is supposed to be. In theory I like the idea of solo dungeons, but in practice they’re just tedious. Like most of SW:TOR’s dungeons, they’re overloaded with endless swarms of tedious trash mobs, and their rewards are only marginally better than that of heroic missions — while being vastly more time-consuming.

Similarly, I did one or two alliance alerts, but quickly lost interest in the concept. I don’t see a compelling reason to trek all over the galaxy to recruit characters who have no connection to my agent and will likely never play a significant role in the story going forward.

Also, I would like to say I very much resent having to wait for a specific in-game event to reclaim one of my old companions. Even if the event comes around pretty often, it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

A star fortress boss in Star Wars: The Old Republic's Knights of the Fallen Empire expansionSo it didn’t take me long to return to the main storyline. The upside to waiting this long to play the expansion was that I could do all the post-launch chapters in one go — probably the best way to experience them since they’re all quite short.

Here, again, we see shades of Mass Effect 2. A great deal of time is spent simply recruiting more companions (and wading through endless waves of the same generic mooks). In some ways this isn’t as annoying as it was in ME2, but in other ways it’s worse.

The good news is that recruitment isn’t the same grind in KotFE it was in ME2. There are fewer missions devoted entirely to recruitment — both by raw numbers and per capita — and even those that are pure recruitment still have at least some connection to the main story. So on the whole it’s not as annoying as it was in Mass Effect.

There’s a downside, though. The silver lining in ME2 was you got to have all kinds of awesome, deep conversations throughout the game with all the characters you were recruiting, but that isn’t the case here. In fact there are no conversations beyond those that make up the chapters themselves, and on the whole there’s surprisingly little character development for a Bioware game.

It also feels a bit pointless because most of the time you’re forced to use a specific companion for each chapter.

Senya Tirall in Star Wars: The Old Republic's Knights of the Fallen Empire expansionThis is probably my biggest complaint about Knights of the Fallen Empire, honestly. They revamped the whole companion system to make it easier to use whichever one you want, and they built an entire expansion around collecting companions, and then they remove any ability to choose your companion for most of its content? Were the different departments at Bioware even talking to each other?

I grant that there are times where being locked into a specific companion makes sense for the story, but there are also plenty of times where it’s completely arbitrary and unnecessary.

I spent a fair bit of time and resources raising Lana’s influence and getting her a nice lightsaber crystal — my head full of romantic ideas of Cipher Nine and her love taking on the galaxy side-by-side — but I almost never got to use her for anything.

On that note, I should also point out that romances are fairly messed up. I would normally never say something like this, but if you haven’t played KotFE yet and are at all interested in romancing any of the new characters, I strongly recommend looking up some spoilers, especially as it relates to romances and chapter nine.

I very nearly missed out on Lana’s romance due to some mind-bogglingly bad design on Bioware’s part. The only reason I was able to salvage the situation was because I’d stumbled across some spoilers in the past and knew something was wrong when nothing happened at a specific point. With the aid of a kindly GM and a certain degree of luck, I was able to repeat the mission and fix things, but the Internet is full of no end of rage from those who weren’t so lucky.

My Imperial agent and Lana Beniko in Star Wars: The Old Republic's Knights of the Fallen Empire expansionOne final complaint is that this expansion leans very heavily on Force mysticism. Normally things being more fantastical wouldn’t be a problem for me, but it feels very awkward when you play a class that isn’t Force sensitive. Furthermore, one of the few story-telling sins SW:TOR shares with the films is that most of its Force mysticism consists of statements that sound profound at first but are revealed to be little more than meaningless blather the moment you start to analyze them.

It should be clear by now there’s a fair bit I didn’t like about Knights of the Fallen Empire. However, it definitely wasn’t without its strong points.

The award for best chapter definitely goes to The GEMINI Deception. In terms of both story and gameplay, it provided the most thrills, the best twists, and the all around most satisfying experience. It was just generally awesome from beginning to end.

The final chapter was also pretty strong, and Profit and Plunder was another favourite. Partly because life is always better where it’s Vette-r, and partly because it allowed me to finally rid myself of a long-time thorn in my side.

Something I found very interesting about KotFE is its theme of trust. By necessity, you’re forced to ally with a lot of suspicious characters, and never knowing who to trust adds a lot to the already high tension of the story. As the plot plays out, it’s fascinating to see who ultimately betrays you and who turns out to be trustworthy after all.

Lana Beniko in Star Wars: The Old Republic's Knights of the Fallen Empire expansionI wish I’d gotten to spend more time with her, but I still find Lana Beniko interesting. I’m having a very hard time nailing down what it is I like about her — she’s not the most immediately lovable or fun character. But there’s definitely something about her that’s fascinating.

I think part of it is how she can be so cold and reserved most of the time… but every now and then the veneer cracks, just for a moment, and you get a glimpse of the person underneath. That’s gratifying.

Taken altogether, I did enjoy Knights of the Fallen Empire, but I expected better. After how amazing Ziost was and all the hype around this expansion bringing a redoubled focus on story, I was expecting something truly special. Instead, I got an expansion that was more good than bad but which offered plenty of both.

Eternal Throne isn’t so far off now, and I’m of the impression all its chapters will be released at once (I think?), so I’m thinking I’ll jump into it at launch. In the meantime, maybe I’ll do more class stories. I know I said I wasn’t interested in smugglers, but now I have a concept for one I like…