There are certain things I aspire to like–cultural experiences I feel robbed of based on my tastes. Sushi. Baseball. Any sort of video game requiring me to actually think and pay attention. Strategy, resource management, and tactics based games all rank high in that regard. I wish I could, but I can’t. Strength of will and just “giving them a chance” can’t sway me from putting in the bare minimum. In spite of that, Per Aspera consumed me.
The launch title of Buenos Aires-based Tlön Industries, likely a reference to Jorge Luis Borges’ sci-fi short story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Per Aspera is a story-forward base building and strategy game. Players assume the role of Autonomous Machine Intelligence (AMI), an artificial consciousness built to hold the reins of terraforming Mars. Players explore the Martian surface, gathering resources, developing new tech through skill trees, and monitoring operations while the game’s story unfolds.
Per Aspera’s main draw for me was the terraforming fantasy. Facing off against the elements and watching the planet surface shift from red, to blue and then green is something I’ve daydreamed of for decades. I was fully on board for a game type I normally wouldn’t bat an eye at, and mentally prepared for the resource juggling and number crunching my eyes typically glaze over at. The actual “oomph” in Per Aspera’s storytelling though caught me off guard.
There’s a cast of interesting characters, a plot that unfolds with your colony, and some great environmental storytelling. The geographically-accurate map built from NASA’s own data is littered with trivia like past rover mission sites and worldbuilding with landings yet to come. Spinning the globe and letting my eyes wander across the red landscape was one of my favorite things to do, and to have that rewarded with lore on this world or a new lake that wasn’t there before I upped the oxygen levels really dug deep into the experience I wanted.
Strategy and base-building purists may get more out of sandbox mode, picking landing sites of their own and seeing how they fare while trying new colony builds. While story mode is by no means easy, the story is very front and center, and could potentially take away from the experience of those who like getting into the nitty gritty of management sims.
By accident or design on the designers part, the experience is (I can only assume) true to an actual generation-spanning, terraforming mission to Mars. That is to say, hard. At least from the perspective of a base-building fledgling. If you’re shipping people in a sardine can to another spit of rock circling the Sun, you better damn well have a plan before you get there. As opposed to, I don’t know, let’s say…me, who spent half a century in-game during my initial playthrough expanding across an entire hemisphere with misguided goals. By the time I realized my supply chain was in shambles, building new machinery to fix it just wasn’t feasible, and scrapping existing structures would have likely taken decades. Per Aspera captured all the anger and confusion of being rudderless and overcommitting, and then finding out all too late. I felt exactly how I imagine an AI would charting its own neural pathway, learning through ineptitude laid bare. I have no resources and I must scream. My sea legs came to me though, learning to use my overlays and keep a better eye on structures as they degraded, lost power or were attacked.
Per Aspera definitely has its own shortcomings as well. Some of the dialogue about the evils of mindless consumption can be a bit on the nose, and the mechanics can undercut the narrative a bit too. Building at 16X speed and having an NPC chime in with exposition as days flit by, or congratulating you on a research breakthrough you leapfrogged over without completing could be so jarring I was unsure if they were pacing issues or a bug.
I found myself experiencing some cognitive dissonance as well while the years rolled by in Per Aspera’s storytelling. Spending half a century with your adult, human counterparts who never seem to age can really give you pause when a character chimes in. It reminded me of those scenes in Pokemon where they tell you the power of love brought you to the top, not the merciless, dog fight crucible you strung your “friends” through. It’s a small detail that doesn’t take much away, but it’s noticeable given how much attention went into other aspects of the story.
A future patch for some of the UI would go a long way as well. While it might be more workable for genre veterans, the biggest issue I had was features and skills I was unaware of due to a lack of walkthrough and not knowing where to look. I know the “Press ‘X’ to jump” tutorial can ruin immersion, but for a game casting players as a learning AI, it could probably be done without being too intrusive. I also encountered a bug on my first playthrough while trying to launch a secondary landing satellite. Without any guidance, and already aimlessly clicking and hoping to progress, I spent hours unsure if I was too thick to navigate the games menu or if something was legitimately broken.
I also found myself wishing for simple quality of life fixes that could really add some shine. Mass selecting structures for demolition and creating priority queues, or a log of what and when I had already built would have been a boost when I found myself tangled in the weeds of expansion.
Going into the colder months Per Aspera is going to continue filling my down time, both as I round out its story mode, and later in its sandbox as I get firmer footing with the mechanics. It maybe a tricky point of entry for those newer to the genre, especially if some bugs aren’t patched for initial release, but for space and science nerds it hits terraforming wish-fulfillment right on the head.
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