Best of February 2022
Ep. 02 - Per Aspera
A scenic, yet unfamiliar landscape, the beeping and buzzing of machines going about their business. The heartbeat of the terraforming process controlled by you, an A.I. sent to Mars to prepare the planet for humans to live on. That is Per Aspera. My personal favourite of this month.
At first glance, the game seems to be very relaxing, but the calming and soothing experience of playing Per Aspera can become quite intense and challenging at times, largely influenced by the difficulty you choose in the beginning of the game and your attention to detail. The game offers a choice between campaign mode and a sandbox mode. I only tried the Sandbox mode for about 1 hour, but I am sure that it offers the same amount of engaging gameplay as the campaign does, but with more freedom to go about your terraforming business. Especially since the campaign does not offer more than a rough framework of a story to introduce the games’ mechanics via some communication between earth based scientists and the A.I. on Mars, that is, you, the player. I found it to be easily dismissed, as it did not achieve much for me personally, but it is optional, so no harm done. I did play on ‘Simulation’ difficulty, which is the second out of the four available options. It could have been much more challenging with ‘Realistic’ or even something called ‘Per Aspera’ for ‘highly skilled players looking for an intense challenge’. Your call!
So, dear A.I. Person, you are now in charge of every decision regarding the terraforming of Mars. The campaign mode offers some guidance by setting certain goals during the course of the game. You can also set goals for yourself, but ultimately, it takes as long as it takes to make the Red Planet green/blue/red (totally your choice). The core gameplay is mostly familiar. You start with a single Hub, your landing site, that comes with just enough resources to start a tiny production chain using the few meagre resources in your vicinity. You place and connect buildings, one after the other and create a proper network. One thing that sets Per Aspera apart from ‘the other builders’ can be observed early on. Each building you place has to be connected to either the Hub directly or later on to other buildings that are connected to the Hub via a road network. These connections are automatically created when you place the building and are governed by the vicinity to other buildings. They also are what makes the buildings operable. A very interesting design choice, compared to grid based or free placement, this creates a hybrid of sorts. Where placement is free, but it is not completely open. I enjoyed setting up these networks quite a lot. Later in the game, you can branch out and have more than one ‘Main Hub’ and go as far as interplanetary or intercontinental ‘Cities’.
This is quite amazing to see in motion. The growth of your infrastructure, the slow and steady change of various planetary statistics and, most importantly, the visual changes that happen to Mars, some more subtle than others, over time. Ultimately you are constantly changing the face of the planet with a mix of artificial structures and slowly growing life. A very impressive visual feat the game pulls off here with rather simple, but elegant graphics.
Your main tasks, managing the limited resources on Mars and making it habitable for humans over the course of approximately a lot of years, gives you something to do most of the time, but there are periods, especially later on with an already established infrastructure, where you have to wait for nature to take its course. This hints at the scale of the game, a gigantic planet, a long time to spend on building, changing and creating a new Mars, a green Mars and, with the help of a DLC, even a blue one. The game offers different speeds at which your robots and humans go about their business which comes in very handy when you have the larger projects to finish up like, say, changing the atmospheric density or adjusting the O² content of the atmosphere until it arrives at a specific value.
There are moments of crisis in this builder and management hybrid, but it does never feel as intense as for example Frostpunk or Banished do with their constantly striving humans on the brink of death and destruction. Your decisions definitely matter and make a difference, but the dread of failure or total loss of control is not the theme of the game. It is much more like a Zen Garden that needs a lot of planning, the occasional re-shaping and proper tending rather than a wild and dangerous Jungle of a garden that demands constant taming, trimming and cutting.
The micromanagement in the game can be very much up there with games like Anno, but how necessary that is depends, again, on the chosen difficulty as well as your personal playstyle. Do you want to be 100% efficient? Then you micromanage away at your leisure. Can you deal with terraforming taking a few years more? Well, then you are sure that it will work out somehow and keep building pretty buildings and telling your robots to keep it up. Right? Right! You choose how you want to play. Per Aspera really starts to shine with the scale of it all becoming more apparent. Utilising a very clean and useful Interface that has a lot of information readily available, mostly at a glance using overlays or diagrams, it enables the player to tackle all those complex questions and tasks with a lot of ease.
I felt like my skills were growing alongside the terraforming process. My knowledge of the goings on, the controls and important information did steadily increase and I was able to meet all the challenges with a solution. Some of those solutions were easier and some were harder to achieve. Ultimately it was a playthrough of around 20 hours, spread over 8 to 10 sessions if memory serves, that provided mostly relaxing gameplay that allowed me to choose my pace and challenge. It was an interesting change from the regular builder formula, while keeping the tried and true parts of the genre did not hurt, the innovative aspects were very welcome indeed!