For centuries, Mankind has looked to the stars and dreamt of the possibility of voyaging to new worlds, going boldly beyond our little blue and green marble and exploring the galaxy. You’ve got to walk before you can run, though, and even just having humans reach Mars for the first time would be a monumental project, let alone actually colonising it, terraforming our reddest of neighbours, or going any deeper into space.
Per Aspera is another relatively realistic take on the genre, loosely similar in tone to Surviving Mars. It’s not humans that build their first colony on Mars, but rather robots, machines and artificial intelligences laying the foundations and building the habitats that humans need to survive. Per Aspera cast you as AMI, the custodial artificial intelligence that’s running the show.
While AMI might be artificial, she’s given meaningful intelligence and awareness through the game’s early plot beats. Booting up upon arrival at Mars, you get a call from Nathan Foster from the ISA, who briefs you on the mission, and gives context. It’s curiously framed, making it clear that AMI is almost like a newborn in AI terms, able to run through simple initial procedures, but also set to learn from them.
It’s a perfect analogue for you as the player going through the game’s opening for the first time, but you’re given regular narrative prompts where you choose between two styles of response. Additionally, AMI’s internal monologue sees her awareness of the situation evolve and grow, pondering the scenario, curious as to how the arrival of humans will affect your work, if they will simply see you as a machine or as a peer and custodian that ensures their safety, and more.
Then there’s the seismic narrative twists and mysteries that were teased in the game’s reveal trailer. Any game that gives me the option to nuke the ice caps will have me smashing that launch button faster than a really fast thing.
But first you need to build a sprawling network of industry on the hostile, barren face of the planet. Starting off with just the lander, you need to create mining installations and the first factories to turn aluminium, carbon, iron, chemical, water and other resources into polymers, circuitry, glass, and other building blocks for everything that comes after.
You’re able to take a rather overarching view of proceedings, working in relatively broad strokes as the drone Workers scoot back and forth and move resources to where you need them. You simply have to pay attention when placing structures, to ensure that they are in range of an energy source, that it’s close enough to other buildings to have a road automatically created for it, and after a little while, that it’s within range of a maintenance building to ensure that it keeps on working.
Of course, you should consider the efficiency of your network, as each drone hub only has a single drone and they handle all the to-ing and fro-ing in their area.It can become exceptionally busy if you don’t have enough drone hubs, slowing down the growth of your settlement as factories are starved of resources. You can give priority to a construction or factory, but it’s really a stopgap measure for when you’re pushing your network to the limits. You can often find yourself creating this sprawling network and then having to dive in to fix a mountain of niggling issues from inefficiencies, especially as your initial mines start to run dry and you have to spread the tendrils of your Worker network further and further.
Once humans arrive, they’ll autonomously start to work in the colonies and research buildings you create, letting you pour research into advancing the structures and network of buildings, as well as opening up the options for expanding your reach to other parts of the planet. This starts to meaningfully advance the narrative, as you’re able to investigate leftover structures from previous expeditions. One of these is the abandoned and secretive Huolong mission by China which, as luck would have it, was based around using nuclear weapons to melt the ice caps and kickstart the terraforming project.
That’s a pretty big deal, because your overarching goal is to make the planet habitable for humanity. The first step is to raise the surface temperature, which can be done in a number of ways. You could use those aforementioned nukes (the whole radiation poisoning thing be damned), use giant mirror arrays to focus the sun’s light, import carbon emissions from Earth, and even drag an asteroid through the thin atmosphere in the hopes it releases some CO2. There’s other options as well, but I’m sure many people (like me) will have an itchy nuke button finger…
Per Aspera is a fascinating new take on the Martian colonisation project, not least for the way that it injects a science fiction narrative into proceedings centred around the growth of AMI’s consciousness, her interactions with the human colonists and how her choices affect them, and a mysterious threat that could derail all of your work.