When looking at Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime through a thin and illusively directed vertical slice, you’ll find a brilliant and unique 2D space shooter. At a passing glance, it operates well as both a single player and couch co-op game, filling that narrow gap that’s positioned between action shooter and space-management simulator. But that’s what’s so nagging about vertical slices; it’s a snapshot that usually captures a game’s best features, leaving everything that exists around it an aching mystery.
Under Lovers’ adorable 2D neon visuals and story about restoring all the love in the universe lays a rather creative and sophisticated space shooter. Players take control of circular ships operated by an assortment of stations: one for shields, one for thrusters, a special weapon station, and a handful more for blasters. What’s interesting about operating your ship is instead of physically controlling the entire spacecraft, you control tiny alien sprites within its interior that run from station to station. Together, they can only control two of the ship’s functions at any given time. This is where Lovers’ simulation tendencies surface, as you are constantly prioritising which station needs attention while the situation around you changes dynamically. This also makes Lovers a rather smart and indistinguishable co-op experience.
The very hook in Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime is partnering up with a friend as the two of you volley orders while defending the ship. Thankfully, both the enemy AI and the level design accommodate extraordinarily well this constant multitasking. Anti-Love aliens (very cute Asteroid Base) pattern themselves around the spacecraft in a way that dual functions are always necessary. Most projectiles are slow enough to be trackable and shot down which allows one of you to focus on picking off enemy fire one by one, while the other swivels the shield on the other side of your ship to protect the rear. The cosmic terrain itself grows in complex and dramatic ways where simply ensuring that the hull of your ship isn’t smashing into space debris pales in comparison to avoiding and navigating around white dwarfs, dilating spiked wheels, winds gusts and water currents, and even a supernova. Shield use is effective here as well because you can utilize it as a buffer between the ships and external hazards, but not without careful use of your unit’s thrusters by the other player.
Interestingly enough, your play experience in Lovers might be more efficient as a solo one since using an AI companion is far more competent than it has any right to be. The manner in which your AI partner is able to execute tasks by killing enemies and shielding the ship is almost shocking, and the command UI initiating these actions is satisfyingly clean and streamlined. In fact, it’s so well done, that I wished the command system – which simply comprises of holding down Triangle and pointing to the station – was used to control your character as well. I’ve faced enough scenarios where my ship sustained a significant amount of damage after missing jumps and running past ladders in the hull’s interior trying to make it to another station.
Ship upgrades usually follow a standard formula in 2D space shooters. And while you’d think that Lovers offers reliable options for increased armor and better firepower, what you’re actually presented with here is almost equally as interesting as the moment to moment gameplay. Rather than pooling points to various assets, Lovers employs the ability to change the characteristics of your stations with gems. Each gem carries their own unique properties, and once you unlock the ability to combine gems, they create entirely new ways to protect your ship. Place a Power and a Metal gem on a cannon, and you’ll be able to fire slow but destructive missiles. Combine two Metal gems on your special weapons station, and you’ll create a devastating triple circular saw that revolves around the entire ship, obliterating anything it touches. Gems even allow you to weaponize components of your spacecraft that would be otherwise reserved for defensive or mobility purposes. I favored combining Metal and Beam gems for my shields which enable it to stack projectiles in the pattern that they’ve been received, thus turning it into a makeshift battering ram. Outfit two Beam gems on your thruster station, and you’ll fire lasers out of your arse once the thruster has reached full power.
All of this: the co-op/multitasking busy work, and the mixing and matching of the stations’ upgrades, are impressive in isolation. However when looking at Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime as a whole, its significant pacing issues become apparent, which are then exacerbated by its poor sense of progression.
It only takes a few levels before Lovers’ individual stages start to annoy. While engaging in actual combat may be fun, the manners in which the enemy AI encounters are scripted are relentless and disruptive. Almost all Anti-Lovers that show up on the radar will attempt to find a way to your position, and in most cases, regardless how far you flee from them once they’ve caught sight of you. Because of this, you’ll find that making your way through these cosmic stages quickly becomes a waiting game or a game of pursuit, as you’ll learn it’d be better to defeat each one by one instead of trying to avoid them and then end up with an entire fleet on your tail. The game even forces you to get up close and personal with enemies by preventing you from inflicting damage unless they’re within visual proximity. Some of the worst levels Lovers throws at you are ones in the later stages that require you to fire upon dwarfed stars that emit solar flares to defrost certain enemies, however you’ll find many instances where these enemies aren’t even close to the stars needed to defeat them. Having to track down, and then lead these enemies to where you’ll have the upper hand epitomizes just how egregious Lovers’ pacing can get, and it certainly won’t hold the interest of many who are simply looking for a quick co-op session.
But if just the incidental gameplay doesn’t make it feel like your time isn’t being valued, then Lovers’ lack of persistent progression would almost certainly bring on those issues almost every time you complete a level. Now first, to its credit, the game does feature a leveling system that is strictly dependent on how many animals you find (collectibles needed to open the exit gate in each level), however the leveling rewards are a literal small handful with even far less that are all that meaningful to your ventures through space. But what Lovers is most guilty of is erasing all of your gem upgrades at the end of each chapter. This unflatteringly highlights the limitations of Lovers’ upgrade options where Asteroid Base felt the need to reset your ship to default every 5 stages. Sure, there’s an emergent sense of discovery each time you combine any of the gems, but with only three different types, you would have likely seen all the available combinations within the first quarter of the game, which therein explains why Asteroid Base avoided retaining persistent upgrades.
At its core, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime offers something unique to both the 2D space shooter genre and couch co-op games. The act of scrambling from station to station while fending off hordes of Anti-Love space aliens with a partner plays just as brilliantly as it sounds on paper, and moments like these are ever present throughout the game’s entire campaign. However there’s no escaping Lovers’ core issues that bog down both its pacing and sense of progression that hardly even justifies this as a five hour experience.
A spiraling romance
Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime will instantly win your heart, but will test your love along the way.