As I mentioned in a previous news item, I’ve been looking forward to Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime for quite a while. I’m a sucker for games with a big personality, which Lovers seemed to have in oodles. A unique gameplay concept, beautiful art style, and couch co-op; tie all that stuff to a fishing line and drag it past my house and you’ll see me running down the street groping at the ground like an idiot.
Before going too deeply into this review, I should mention that I’m a massive proponent of couch multiplayer gaming on the PC. One of the recent trends in indie gaming which I love is the dearth of games which include a local multiplayer component. The ability to beat on, or cooperate with, buddies in the same room adds massive amounts of replay-ability to almost any game. There is truly nothing quite like the exhilaration one gets from screaming obscenities in a friend’s ear at close proximity while in the heat of a tense moment of gameplay. Local multiplayer is a space which has been too long dominated by consoles, and it’s about time that PCs start playing catch-up.
I can’t help but think that Asteroid Base must have a similar system of beliefs. It’s a risky move to release a multiplayer-focused game which is local only, and even more so for an indie developer. It’s a good decision though, I can’t imagine Lovers working any other way. Unlike other more common two-player formats, such as beat ’em ups and platformers, Lovers requires true cooperation. The tension this game builds in a room is palpable. Each player character is a crew member of a two-dimensional spaceship, and there are eight stations for the various systems of the ship, such as engines, shields, gun turrets, navigation, etc. In order to successfully navigate and fight one’s way through the game’s procedurally generated levels, the players must frantically run and climb all over the ship, switching to each system station as needed to address the current situation.
If one needs to play solo, the developers have implemented a feature in single-player which allows the player to assign an AI station operator, represented by either a space cat or space dog, which will automatically operate the station assigned until a new command is issued. Time slows down considerably while the selection button is held down, making split-second single player decisions possible. The system works surprisingly well for the most part, though I would leverage a minor gripe that the AI prioritizes targets in a frustrating way sometimes. There were a few occasions where my space cat failed to maneuver the shield into a good blocking position for a swarm of incoming projectiles, presumably because of being distracted by a nearby flying saucer which he felt was flying too close to our blind spot. It’s a nit-pick, and of course Lovers shines brightest when played with a friend, but it is certainly possible to complete the game on one’s own, if necessary, and enjoyable to do so.
The multiplicity of stations contrasted with the limitations of two operators is a unique basis for gameplay, and Lovers leverages it to great effect. The developers should be commended for the design and difficulty ramp of the game. They could have easily rested on their laurels by simply making an obstacle course of enemies inside level designs of reasonable length, just playing off of the cooperative spaceship control mechanics, and the game would have met my expectations and I would have felt like I got what I paid for. Lovers pleasantly surprised me with a wide variety of enemies and environmental hazards which require different approaches and strategies.
Lovers also switches things up by providing gem power ups which can be installed in each station to change its properties. Some are straightforward and simply make the station faster, bigger, or more powerful. Others completely change the way the station works or adds a new aspect of functionality. Eventually, the player unlocks the ability to have more than one gem slot on each station, and then different gems can be combined to create completely new effects, or the same gems can be doubled up to upgrade the gem effect already present. Experimentation with gem upgrade combos is necessary to overcome some of the game’s more challenging sections and gorgeous-looking boss fights.
In this way, not only does Lovers create frantic fun by its system of two players/eight stations, but it also forces the players to constantly readjust their approach and work as a team to overcome the curve-balls. This leads to the best parts of local co-op gameplay; those fits of shouting, cursing, regrouping and high-fives. Lovers displays moments of incredible depth and challenge, in a game of relatively simple design.
Adding to the depth and replay-ability are additional ships which can be unlocked as one progresses through the game. These additional ships enable the player to start with all stations upgraded in a certain way, or fundamentally change the way the ship works; one alternate ship design limits which stations each player can access, another changes how the ship steers by making the engine a fixed point, necessitating rotation of the entire ship.
Couple all of the above with a gorgeous, geometric cutesy art style, and we have a game that is not only accessible to newer and more casual players, but also satisfying to veteran gamers. Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime is sublime, frantic, surprisingly-strategic, beautiful fun from start to finish, and should be an essential part of any gamer’s library, casual or veteran, indie or otherwise.