The following will contain spoilers for Mass Effect 3.
Mass Effect 3 is my favorite game in BioWare’s science fiction trilogy, but it’s impossible to defend its use of “Lieutenant Bastard” Kai Leng, the sword-wielding edgelord and Cerberus lackey, as the on-the-ground face of the human supremacy organization. It’s wild that, in a series with villains as captivating as the rogue Spectre Saren Arterius and the calculated Cerberus leader The Illusive Man, that this man exists. But playing through Mass Effect 3 as part of the Legendary Edition remasters just reminded me of the actual issue with this motherfucker. It’s not that he looks like he was plucked straight out of the latest run of Nightwing comics and placed in a militaristic space opera. Or that he uses a sword in a fight against my shotgun-toting version of protagonist Commander Shepard. It’s that this guy never shuts the fuck up.
This is not a slight against voice actor Troy Baker (although, as a white man cast as a person of color, his role invites a level of introspection from everyone involved). My guy is doing the best he can with the material he’s got. But the rivalry Mass Effect 3 constantly tries to create between Leng and Shepard is never earned. The parallels aren’t subtle, either. At the beginning of Mass Effect 3, Shepard and The Illusive Man, once begrudging allies in the previous game, have a significant falling out. And Kai Leng is meant to be just as capable as the commander but completely loyal to Cerberus and its goals. This isn’t something well-reflected in the themes of Mass Effect 3, but that didn’t stop BioWare from trying to make it work, despite Shepard and Kai’s interactions often resembling a clichéd supercut from a cheesy action movie.
The first time Shepard and Kai Leng meet is at the end of Mass Effect 3’s first act. Cerberus is attempting to take over the Citadel and its governing force of galactic civilization. When Shepard and their squad surround him and point out he’s outnumbered, Leng, this man who anyone who hasn’t read the series’ books where he debuted knows fuck all about, laughs and says, “no, now it’s fun.” He then holds his sword behind him like a cool guy, murders beloved squadmate Thane, then runs away. This man is supposed to be sewing a bitter rivalry between us, but now all I can think of is how silly this Very Serious man comes off and how one of the series’ most precious characters has become collateral damage to convince me that a ninja that seems so goofy in this setting is actually serious business.
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Leng shows up two more times before Mass Effect 3 ends. Both encounters are riddled with cheesy dialogue and an insistence that Shepard should fear but also respect this man who is supposedly their equal. On Thessia, while The Illusive Man attempts to get Shepard to see the ongoing conflict through his eyes, Kai Leng is portrayed as an impatient, angry, and vindictive individual. He takes Shepard’s “betrayal” personally, and the game frames his cutscene-driven victory as an excruciating cut to the commander’s ego. But instead, it comes off as an overly familiar man showing up as I’m trying to do hot guy shit and save the galaxy. This is solidified in an email he sends to Shepard mocking them for their defeat, and all I can think is, “why does this man think he knows me well enough to slide into my DMs?”
All of it culminates in a third and final boss fight within Cerberus’ headquarters, where Shepard and Kai Leng have a deeply personal back and forth while they beat each other up. He tells you that you’re too slow. You tell him that he’s only fast because he runs away. Meanwhile, I’m holding the controller, wondering why this man is so obsessed with me. But then we stab him and he dies a dumb death, and thus ends the weirdest, most annoying fly in Shepard’s field of view as they move on to more important people, places, and things.
Kai Leng debuted in the Mass Effect novels, and if there’s any investment to be had in his appearance in Mass Effect 3, it’s from people who knew him before he was being poised as a personal rival to Shepard. Kai Leng’s biggest issue isn’t that he’s not really even a character; it’s that he’s being positioned as someone the player should have a deep-seated, personal hatred for based on who he is and what he does. But I hate him because he feels like he’s reading from a different script from a game where I should feel anything for him other than wide-eyed bewilderment at his insistence. So it got me thinking, would Kai Leng have been more intimidating and even possibly frightening if he had been a more powerful grunt in The Illusive Man’s forces that was otherwise silent?
That’s what most Cerberus lackeys are in Mass Effect 3. They’re outfitted with tech that enhances their combat capabilities but also makes them more or less mindless drones for The Illusive Man’s bidding. And I can’t help but wonder if a majority of Kai Leng’s grating could be rectified if he’d gone through some similar conditioning. I take less issue with much of Kai Leng’s actions than I do his cockiness. His attitude seems to stem from a connection he and I don’t have, but one that BioWare hopes to have established by the time I stab him with an omni-blade in Cerberus’ headquarters. Would he have been a more compelling villain if, instead of snickering as he ran away after each fight, he was actually a cold, unfeeling killer who knew nothing but The Illusive Man’s voice in his ear? Could he have been a sympathetic figure, as we potentially saw him try and fight against his boss’ indoctrination? We’ll never know.
It’s a weird place to be in because I don’t look at Kai Leng and see him as an underutilized villain that could have had a more meaningful impact. Instead, I think of him as an obnoxious shit heel who won’t stop bothering me and a stain on a series with historically strong antagonists. But he could have been a perfect example of “less is more.” If only he would have said less.