A mix of base-building, sci-fi, planetary colonization and a narrative involving an AI, Per Aspera is a refreshing take on a familiar genre from developer Tlön Industries and publisher Raw Fury.
It’s safe to say that Per Aspera has turned into a bit of a companion game for Auroch’s Mars Horizon, at least for me personally. While that game is all about getting through the space race and ending up on Mars, Per Aspera fast forwards through all that and thrusts players into a not-too-distant future where colonization of the red planet is the new goal to strive for.
Humans aren’t ready to live on the planet permanently and in large numbers though, so it’s up to an AI entity called AMI to make Mars habitable for humankind. You assume control of AMI, and you’re a linking pin between the newly arriving colonists and the people at mission control back on earth. While putting down and maintaining buildings and ensuring safe living conditions is part of your job, AMI also grows increasingly self-aware and always being compliant becomes less of a certainty over time.
Part of your own job is to assess risks and craft AMI’s personality through the responses that you give, and the game’s narrative supports this with well-written content that echoes some of the dilemmas that we face on earth today – with a stellar delivery through voiceovers as well. Much of your work is a balancing act, both of interests and of stuff that happens on the ground and in Mars orbit – which can get a little overwhelming because even though most of the gameplay is intuitive the tutorial is still a bit on the short side, skipping over several elements you later have to get to know by playing.
At first, your colony needs power and resources, which you can mine for. Once you get the basics up and running, your first colonists will arrive – which is when Per Aspera comes into its own as a city builder/simulation in which different elements all rely on each other. Colonists can do work for you, but they’ll also need to eat, and producing food will require more power and resources. It’s an addictive look that progresses through scientific discovery and upgrades as well. Every now and then a (natural) disaster will shake things up and set you back for a bit, but they also keep things more dynamic and interesting.
The narrative is restricted to the campaign mode and is missing from the game’s sandbox mode, encouraging replayability even though I’d personally recommend a second campaign playthrough over the sandbox mode. The reason behind that is the limited amount of information that the tutorial gives you, and tackling the campaign again with hands-on knowledge of the game’s mechanics is (about three hours in) increasing my enjoyment levels quite a bit. Even though I already had a good time during my first playthrough, it was nice to not feel lost and just push on with my ambitions to colonize Mars.
Per Aspera is a gameplay-centric affair that doesn’t excel through impressive visuals, but is extremely easy to get lost in. It’s not as deep as other simulations, but that’s exactly why it gets away with a tutorial that is too brief and why it’s such a good game to play once you’re done with something like Mars Horizon. If you’re a fan of the genre and enjoy space exploration, this one is happy to gobble up many hours of your time.