Per Aspera Review
Reviewed on PC
The management sim is not known for asking big questions. The most recurring question the genre faces is "Do you have what it takes to run a country?" And the answer is often "Good God, no."
Per Aspera is a management sim that asks big questions and about the nature of self and ones place in the universe, all while asking you to build and maintain a base. A big ask but one Per Aspera ably pulls off.
You play an AMI, an artificial consciousness tasked with terraforming and populating Mars for the future of humanity to colonise. The tasks begin small, easing you into your new objective by guiding you to build certain structures, putting together the faint outline of a base. You expand on this with new structures, new means of maintaining and powering these structures, and new projects to help improve the environment of Mars,, making it more habitable for human life.
Everything feels rooted in hard sci-fi concepts, there is no magic laser beam that solves your problem. If you need to melt some ice caps to release gases into the atmosphere, then you need to research into ways of manipulating physics to your benefit. Reflect solar rays, make use of radiation, redirect debris. You will find all manner of solutions to your problems, but they are all rooted in reality; conquering the stars is not easy.
You will maintain contact with humans, such as the doctor assigned with guiding you and monitoring your progress (with Troy Baker lending his warm and reassuring tones to the role) and the researcher who is among the first settlers to arrive on the planet. You are given dialogue options with these characters, and you even get choices to make when AMI has moments of self-reflection, as her consciousness and sense of self begins to expand. As much as Per Aspera is about growing your base, it is also about growing AMI from simple software to a sentient being with her own motivations. AMI begins asking questions about where it begins and ends, is it just code or does it extend into the physical world through the structures and machines she controls? It's an interesting metagame, ensuring AMI's mission does not feel like a rote every-day management sim. There is a soul here.
Per Aspera has a beautiful clean layout. The world map is based on actual NASA data so it is as accurate as possible, the game defaults to a top-down perspective, but you can spin and tilt and zoom, to whatever makes you most comfortable but, for me, the default layout had an appealing simplicity to it. The more complicated your bases became, the more the pathways connecting each structure began to resemble veins and nerve endings, passing around vital resources and data to ensure the base as a whole can function. As AMI's sense of self expands, the base begins to feel like an extension of her. Every design choice in the game feels thematically significant, it has a level of care in the details that feels so rare in the genre.
Everything about Per Aspera feels thoughtful. The game never spell everything out for you, there isn't an obvious tutorial mode offered, but a lot of it is very intuitive through a series of clear visual markers. The tasks become more challenging as you progress, expanding beyond the surface of the planet and into orbit, and the solutions are not always immediately obvious but you work them out in time. I ran into issues with my base several times, due to overzealous building that could not be met by my resources, but there was always a way to pull back and fix things with a little patience and some tough decisions. The game never felt like it was punishing me, the barricades to progress were always put up there by me.
The story goes in unexpected directions. There is real thought put into telling a good story with this game, rather than just asking you to build a base. There are secrets to unearth and personal discoveries to make, and it makes your progression and expansion of the Mars colony feel engaging throughout. There is a serene and rewarding quality in playing the game. The excellent, easy to grasp, challenging to overcome gameplay ensures the entire experience keeps you hooked but the added motivation to delve into the story and guide AMI to her own self-realisation elevates Per Aspera. I do not recall ever playing a management sim with such a compelling narrative before; it makes Per Aspera feel truly special.