Local cooperative games dwindled for a while during the previous console generation. The Xbox One's indie developer-friendly ID@Xbox program, as well as even more supportive environments on PlayStation 4 and Steam, have helped local co-op make a comeback. While AAA games largely focus on screen-filling shooting spectacle and online multiplayer, smaller developers tend to work with more genres and more controllers per console.
Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime from indie developer Asteroid Base is a Xbox One and Steam game designed especially for local co-op. Two players will pilot a single ship, manning various stations and turrets as they fight to restore love to the galaxy. With clever and unique co-op mechanics and lovely artwork, team players will have a blast. But will solo gamers feel the love? Read our detailed review with video to find out!
Saving Spacetime from the Anti-Love
Lovers' amusing introduction tells us that scientists of the future have built a machine to harness the most awesome force in the universe: love. This Ardor Reactor allows explorers to travel the galaxy and unite its peoples. Care for the Reactor falls upon the League of Very Empathetic Rescue Spacenauts (LOVERS), a team dedicated to peace and love.
One fateful day, an Error in the Ardor Reactor's XOXO Matrix allows the dark force Anti-Love to enter our reality. The forces of Anti-love quickly seek out and imprison the peaceful peoples who live near the reactor. What's more, a devastating explosion shatters the reactor and spreads its pieces across the galaxy.
Fortunately, the brilliant Dr. Hopsy-Flopsy manages to save a prototype ship (the Gumball Zero) from the Reactor's explosion. Now a duo of LOVERS must escape with the ship and reassemble the Ardor Reactor while there's still love left in the universe!
Sounds very silly and cute, doesn't it? My only complaint about the story is that players can't skip the text ahead, so it moves along at a slower pace than most text-based game narratives.
Galactic rescue mission
Pieces of the Ardor Reactor have been spread across four different galaxies or campaigns. Each of these campaigns consists of five stages. In the first four stages, the LOVERS will have to rescue Space-bunnies and other citizens from their captors. After rescuing five hostages, the Love-Gate to the next level opens up.
You can escape through it at that point, but you're better off searching for the remaining five captives hidden throughout the level. Every ten hostages rescued will increase our heroes' overall rank. This in turn unlocks a series of upgrades to the players' ship as well as a handful of new ships.
The fifth and final stage of each campaign consists of an exciting boss fight. Beat the boss to unlock the next campaign and a new playable character like Webber the frog and Hopper the bunny.
The first time players visit a campaign, they'll have to complete all five stages in a row. That should take about 90 minutes in total if you don't die much. After completing the campaign, you can revisit individual stages to collect missed hostages or Achievements. The game randomly generates stages, so they're different each time you play.
The starting ship is a sphere with four gun turrets. The ship also houses a pilot's seat, a map station, a shield station, and the Yamato superweapon. What makes Lovers so different and well-suited to co-op is that each player can only man one station at a time.
One person can pilot the ship, but he'll have to rely on a human or AI partner to fight off enemy forces. Your tiny character doesn't just appear on your station of choice, either. He or she will have to run, jump, and climb from station to station. This creates some tense and challenging moments as players scramble to hop between guns, shields, and the pilot seat amid barrages of enemy fire.
The shield absorbs or deflects enemy fire, as you'd expect. It normally remains stationary, but a player manning the shield station can rotate it around the circumference of the ship. Leaving the ship motionless during battle so that one person can jump between guns while the other uses the shield to block attacks tends to be a most effective strategy.
Piloting the ship works a lot like operating the shield because the thruster rotates along the outside of the ship as well. Just point the thruster appropriately, hit the fire button, and you'll fly in the desired direction. Most of your ships take collision damage, so you'll want to pilot carefully.
Incidentally, the fire button (X) controls the thruster. It'd be nice if Right Trigger performed the same function since that's the universal accelerate button in games. No reason that RT couldn't also fire guns, come to think of it.
When playing as a team, each player will probably gravitate towards the roles that suit him or her best – whether it's pilot, gunner, or shield operator.
An arsenal of upgrades
Throughout each level, the LOVERS will discover gems that can be used to upgrade the various stations throughout their ship. Upgrading is simple: just grab a gem and drop it onto the desired machine.
Gems come in three varieties: Power, Beam, and Machine. Each affects stations in different ways. For instance: the Beam gem will cause a turret to fire rail shots, make the shield reflect shots, or make the thruster emit a blast that damages enemies.
Most stations can equip two gems at once. Double up on a Metal gem in a turret to make it fire two huge ball-and-chains. But mixing and matching is where things get fun. Throw a Beam and Metal gem into the shield to give it the power to catch enemy projectiles in front of it, bashing them into enemies.
Solo versus Co-op
Lovers is built for local co-op play, but it supports single-player too. When playing solo, you'll choose between a dog and cat as your AI co-pilot. You can then assign the pet to a station by holding a button and pointing to the appropriate station.
Pets can man every station except for the pilot's seat. I find they work best as gunners, with shield performance a bit iffier. You can issue orders while piloting or manning a station, provided you have the fingers free to do so. But verbally communicating with a human partner will always be easier than trying to press a bunch of buttons and directions all at once.
Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime is a challenging game, at least on Normal difficulty. In co-op, both players have to constantly communicate and adopt effective combat strategies. Playing by yourself is harder, though not impossible. Levels don't have checkpoints, which can make it frustrating when you fail to compensate for your pet's weaknesses. I recommend playing on Casual difficulty when you don't have a human partner.
The Xbox One version of Lovers has 28 Achievements worth a total of 1,000 Gamerscore. Both players can earn Achievements, which is always important in a co-op game. And all of the Achievements will unlock on either Casual or Normal difficulty – another plus.
None of the Achievements seem especially hard, although a few might be tough to figure out before they receive guides at True Achievements. All four bosses have an Achievement for beating them in an optional way, such as avoiding Ursa Major's punches. And I expect the toughest will be finishing a level without taking damage.
Falling in love with Lovers
Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime is a game that only an indie developer would ever create. Asteroid Base has not only crafted a gameplay style that stands apart from other shooters; it also works brilliantly in co-op. And because the game mixes sci-fi with buckets of cuteness, it shouldn't be too hard to talk your casual gaming friend or significant other to play along. Just be sure to pick Casual difficulty if either player is less skillful.
The only real problem with Lovers is that it's just not as much fun to play by yourself. Sure, co-op makes almost every game more enjoyable. But co-op feels like the default experience here, with single-player unmistakably slower and clunkier. I doubt the developer could've done anything about that, but it's something to keep in mind when buying. If you do have a local gaming friend or partner, don't hesitate to give Lovers a whirl.