Per Aspera is a new PC game out this week that has you playing as an AI responsible for terraforming Mars. You’re tasked transforming it from a big cold rock into somewhere humans can walk their dogs outside in a grassy green park.
It’s a city-builder in spirit, in so far as you build buildings that interact with other buildings, and the gradual aim is to make your settlement bigger and bigger. But Per Aspera is very into the science of terraforming, and leans pretty heavily into its setting (of you being an AI in charge of loads of construction drones and robots), and so it’s also not really a city-builder after all.
Think of a game like Factorio and you might be getting closer to the mark. As you build more and more stuff and spread out across the surface of Mars, your only concerns are ripping resources out of the ground and turning them into more stuff for your expansion. So a lot of the stuff you expect from a city-builder—namely, the sandbox element of making everything look nice and pleasant—doesn’t really exist here.
Here, optimisation is everything. You’re a computer in charge of other computers and you have a very big job to do. So much of your time is spent making sure your roads are operating as quickly as they can, that your factories have enough raw materials, and that you’ve got enough power and minerals to spare to actually try to transform the planet, instead of just feeding your settlement’s endless expansion.
Which sounds very boring and mathy, and can get that way sometimes, but boy, Per Aspera knows this and compensates in a few key areas.
Firstly, this game has a story! Well, there’s a sandbox mode too, but the narrative campaign is definitely the better option. I won’t spoil it, since things get pretty wild later on, but you begin the game as a very functional AI with a very clear mission, and as your settlement gets bigger and you unlock more tech, things start to...change. With very few people on Mars, at least at first, you’re kept company by the constant radio chatter of your colleagues and supervisors, which help tell a story that unfolds the longer you play it (and is of the finest quality, especially Laila Berzins as the player AI and Troy Baker as your creator).
And second, it’s just beautiful. Per Aspera isn’t set on a tiled map, or a static isometric space. It gives you the entire planet to play with, which presents a sense of scale and achievement that’s wonderful to sit back and soak up. You can zoom right in and see your little drone workers toiling away, and you can zoom right out and see the whole planet at once. The best part is finding a spot somewhere in between and just moving Mars around with the mouse. It’s God-like, and for all the work that went into the systems of terraforming Mars, I think the galactic presentation of it all may be Per Aspera’s greatest success.
I’ve been playing the game for around a week now, and have loved almost every second spent with it, though it does have a few slight annoyances. The terraforming effort—and the story that’s linked to it—has some serious pacing issues, with stuff flying at you in certain parts then remaining deathly silent and monotonous for hours at a time. There’s also a whole combat side to the game that feels pretty under-baked considering how important and destructive it can be.
Per Aspera is a pretty good game if you’re into building cities, and it’s a pretty good game if you’re into optimising systems and making factories. If you’re after something that makes you feel like a less austere Dr. Manhattan, it’s fantastic.