Per Aspera Review

December 3, 2020
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In the mid-1900s, John F. Kennedy said that, like Mount Everest, mankind is destined to conquer space simply because it exists, and conquering is what we do. However, some 50-odd years later, we have barely scratched the surface of this destiny. The United States put men on the moon a handful of times throughout the Cold War, we learned what a black hole looks like, and there’s a floating space station with people occasionally inside of it, but aside from these achievements, the stars still remain the one thing in existence that hasn’t been truly explored by man. To many, this is our species’ single greatest failure, and it’s this failure that makes Per Aspera such an interesting, if often depressing, game. 

When translated to English, “per aspera” means “through hardship”, and there’s no better way to describe the game than with that statement. In Per Aspera, you take control of a sentient A.I. in a future that’s eerily similar to what our own will likely look like. After mankind failed to listen to scientists and destroyed our home planet, Earth is no longer able to sustain human life, so you’re sent to Mars to make it humanity’s next residence. You’re granted unlimited funding, given the smartest humans to ever exist, and are told to terraform the Big Red to the point where humans can reasonably live out the rest of our days on it. 

Obviously, this task is far from simple, but the game eases you into it. At its most basic level, Per Aspera is a city builder, and so the first five-odd hours of your playthrough involve building resource mines while managing things like power and the distribution of robot workers. However, as soon as you’ve developed a decent-sized colony, humans start arriving and you’re forced to explore the planet in search of resources to support them, while also making your way through a Civilization-esque tech tree in order to help you make Mars’ ecosystem better suited for people.

To nuke or not to nuke, that is the question.

Just like in games like Cities: Skylines and Tropico, then, this core gameplay loop is satisfying in its own right. But what makes Per Aspera stand apart is that there are real stakes involved in every single one of your actions. Whereas in a game like Surviving Mars misplacing a district may simply result in a few deaths, doing the same thing in this game could kill your colony. You need to constantly be vigilant about how you spend your resources, because those resources are finite and you can’t simply move to a new spot when you run out of minerals at your current location.

These stakes are further enhanced by the time commitment that Per Aspera requires. Unlike most games, this one spans literal centuries where you’re forced to watch every sunrise and sunset go by. You can speed the game up to watch these days go by 16x faster, but even then, the game’s core mission of completely terraforming Mars takes upwards of fifty hours to complete. Although this may be off-putting to some, this makes your accomplishments in Per Aspera feel real and earned. It’s not easy to survive the planet’s hostile environment, and especially when you can be ruined by making a handful of poor decisions, but when you finally see Mars turn from the typical red into an earthly green, it elicits a feeling of accomplishment that’s found in few other games.

The Big...Green?

This time commitment isn’t half as annoying as it may seem, too, because of how great the game looks and sounds. To put it simply, Per Aspera is an amazing feat of graphical engineering. It has a level of detail that’s rarely seen in games of this type, and more importantly, looking at the virtual world can often make you feel the same way as when you look up at the real moon. It’s difficult to describe, but the graphical design in the game always manages to make your colony feel tiny compared to the overall size of the planet. This frequently leads to moments where you’ll contemplate how truly insignificant mankind is in the grand scheme of things. It’s similar to how In Other Waters managed to capture how an alien world felt with only its visuals, and like in that game, it does this with some amazing background music. 

The game also has some seriously solid voice work. For a studio that isn’t particularly well-funded, the voice acting in the game is stupidly strong. Although this is something that is rarely worth calling attention to, the actors in this game are far and away better than the ones in certain Ubisoft titles. Especially of note is one of the main characters who is voiced by someone who sounds a lot like David Sarif from Deus Ex: Human Revolution, whose work in this game will likely never win him an award when it really should.

However, for as phenomenal as this voice work and the rest of the game is, it all pales in comparison to how bloody amazing Per Aspera’s story and subsequent themes are. Like mentioned previously, the game involves an A.I. overseeing the future of the human race, and this brings up more philosophic questions than Plato. However, unlike that Greek dude, it does so in a manner that’s truly engaging and interesting. The game frequently asks you to ponder the nature of mankind’s existence, forces you to make decisions between environmentalism and survival, and brings up topics such as war and nuclear weapons. It’s absolutely engrossing and will captivate you in a way that few other games can.

Isn’t risk slang for heroin?

The overarching narrative, too, is full of interesting twists and turns. As you play through the game, you’ll quickly learn more and more about Mars’ dark past, about the man who created the A.I. that you’re in control of, and about the events on Earth that lead you to colonising the planet. Given how long the game is, it’s seriously impressive that there are consistently interesting plot development, and this story makes the game a worthwhile purchase even if nothing else in the game interests you. 

Overall, then, Per Aspera is an absolute feat of a game that will likely never be replicated. With phenomenal city building elements, an amazing story, fantastic visuals and themes that will keep you thinking for weeks after completing the game, there’s absolutely no reason not to purchase the game if you’re at all interested in anything pertaining to space or even the nature of mankind. While Kennedy may have overestimated our ability to conquer the stars, Per Aspera provides a glimpse into a more interesting and hopeful future while also being a lot of fun to play.

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Per Aspera is not only the best city builder to come out in the past decade, but one of the most interesting games to grace computers in a long, long time. 
Derek Johnson

Somebody once told me the world was going to roll me, and they were right. I love games that let me take good-looking screenshots and ones that make me depressed, so long as the game doesn't overstay its welcome.