Lucas Pope is known for his off-kilter monochromatic video game creations – including the critically acclaimed Papers, Please and Return of the Obra Dinn – but his latest venture is something of a gamble. The host platform, Playdate, is a niche proposition but one that offers some unique interface possibilities thanks to its black-and-white screen and crank. The good news is that, by embracing such an esoteric device, Pope has been able to fully embrace his talent for creating addictive and character-packed 'work sims' – and, in doing so, has duly crafted one of Playdate's best titles yet.

Described as an "entrant-screening, mess-tidying, session-planning, martian-filled game", Mars After Midnight puts you in charge of an off-colony community support centre, where you're expected to run sessions to help support the mental wellbeing of the delightfully odd alien population. You might hold a meeting for xenomorphs with excessive flatulence or oversee a discussion between blade-welding bugs; no two sessions are the same, but your main involvement is screening the participants when they knock on the door – admit the wrong ones in, and they won't benefit from the session and therefore won't pay you any money.

Using the Playdate's crank, you can lift the flap on the door to view the alien standing outside. Based on the topic of that night's session, you need to decide who to allow in and who to send away; these instructions are relayed via a simple diagram, and there's an element of fun to be had in figuring out exactly who should be granted admittance.

Once inside, each guest will venture past the refreshments table, which forms the other part of your duties. If you've selected the right food and drink items, each alien will greedily consume them and leave a donation (funds are key to maintaining a successful community centre, after all) before heading into the session.

You then have to use your two tentacles (yes, you're an alien, too) to tidy up the table, ready for the next participant. This requires a deft manipulation of the D-pad, action buttons and crank – the latter activating a special machine which sweeps the table clean, but only when you've lifted all of the items off it. There's a puzzle element to this section of the game, as you can only pick up two things at once and often need to stack items on top of each other to move them around.

While your character secretly harbours aspirations of one day visiting Earth, your ultimate goal is to provide support to all of the colony's inhabitants. To this end, careful consideration needs to be taken when it comes to planning each night's session. Posters need to be placed in the suburbs of the colony where they're going to be seen by the relevant aliens, and you also need to take into account their diet; not all of the refreshments you can offer have universal appeal.

Throw in little gameplay wrinkles, which include items to use at the door (such as a telescope to view tiny insects and a horn to gauge which aliens should be allowed in for a session for those of a timid disposition) and a travelling salesman who drops by once a day to offer new items, refreshment recipes and session types – all for a small cost, of course), and you've got a game which layers surprising depth on top of its seemingly hum-drum gameplay mechanics. (Our favourite unlockable is the 'Blab-o-dex', which instantly translates the odd sounds each alien race makes.)

All of this is wrapped up in some fantastic presentation, with gorgeous visuals and a suitably atmospheric chip-tune soundtrack. If we were going to pick fault, we'd point out that the experience doesn't last forever, and there's arguably little reason to return once you've achieved your community-oriented goal. Still, while it lasts, Mars After Midnight is wonderfully engaging and addictive, and effortlessly one of the best Playdate games released so far.