Review: Per Aspera
Per Aspera is one of those games you can become obsessed with far beyond its actual quality.
In short, the game is about terraforming Mars – a surprisingly crowded field these days. You are an experimental AI in charge of turning the red planet green, and must plan out a series of resource mines, factories, and resolve supply chain issues on your way. While you go through this process, you (the AI) will reflect on some of the philosophical ideas surrounding artificial consciousness, your role in terraforming Mars, and some political intrigue as major players swap out.
One of the reasons I don’t actually like the game is because it’s poorly paced. When you first start your journey, you have a single hub building providing minimal electricity, one worker rover, and some basic building materials. Your primary goal is to create a 2nd worker while acknowledging the existential threat of not having a Maintenance Facility, which is a building that’s required to keep everything else from decaying in the Martian atmosphere. One carrot, one stick. Okay. So what’s the path?
- Worker Factory = Parts + Electronics + Glass + Aluminum (and Steel to construct)
- Parts Factory = Steel + Aluminum
- Electronics Factory = Silicon + Aluminum
- Steel Factory = Iron + Carbon
- Glass Kiln = Silicon
- Aluminum Mine = Steel
- Silicon Mine = Steel + Aluminum
- Iron Mine = Aluminum + Silicon
- Carbon Mine = Aluminum + Iron
- Maintenance Facility = Polymer + Electronics (and Aluminum and Steel to construct)
- Polymer Factory = Chemicals + Carbon
- Chemical Plant = Aluminum + Steel
- Solar Farm = Aluminum + Electronics + Glass
Basically, every fucking thing.
So you’ll start by building an Aluminum and Silicon Mine, then a Glass Kiln. This will get you far enough to place a Solar Farm or two, as your original landing hub won’t have enough juice to power many more mines/factories. Then you can get started on Iron and Carbon Mines to fuel a Steel Factory. And so on.
This entire time though, you have one single worker rover, which means it carries a single resource at a time to a location. Does something take six total resources to craft a particular building? That’s six trips. The game offers a speed boost up to 16x, which pretty much tells you everything you need to know.
To say that the game is a slow burn is an understatement.
Having said that, I did start feeling the coals after a while. As soon as you get that second worker, things accelerate significantly. The 3rd/4th/Nth workers pop out as soon as you build the corresponding Worker Hubs, and you can get busy planning your expansion across the Martian surface. Your growth is kept in check by building limits, which is tied to Tech trees, which is tied to Research Points, which is tied to hosting human colonist and keeping them alive with Ice and Food. A lot of things to keep you busy planning and expanding.
Of course, it all grinds to a halt again in the mid-game when you slowly realize that “choices” aren’t really choices. Goal: increase temperature at Martian polar ice caps to release frozen CO2. Looking at the tech tree, you see things like “Construct Satellite Mirrors” and “Aerobrake Comets” and “Import Greenhouse Gases from Earth,” along with some lesser stuff like Greenhouse Gas Factory. What isn’t immediately obvious is that the comet is a one-time deal, and the Mirror project only heats things up by about 20% of the total. You’re back to doing all of the things, this time limited by how many Spaceports you build rather than Worker rovers.
And spoiler alert: there’s a third grind at the endgame, notwithstanding however long it takes to get a breathable atmosphere. The last two hours of my “playtime” consisted of me having the game run at 16x while I dicked around on my phone.
Ultimately though, I did stick around to the bitter end. Why? It’s hard to say. The existential musings were a bit basic compared with other titles, but they seasoned the stew. And this was a very, very long-burning stew. But perhaps in a cognitive dissonance sort of way, I began to really enjoy myself once I saw Mars starting to change. Once water appears, the game just feels different. You start needing to place Water Treatment Plants near the water, but take care that they won’t get flooded should you continue to pump up the water table. Some unique buildings require you to use craters rather than just placing willy-nilly, and that changes up how you approach base design and/or expansion.
I haven’t played many other sims like this, so I cannot really speak for whether Per Aspera is more worth your time than Surviving Mars or whatever else is out there. Hell, I’m conflicted as to whether it was worth my time to play Per Aspera at all. But I did play it for just shy of 30 hours in less than two weeks, so that’s worth something.