Conceived by indie developer Asteroid Base, almost entirely by random chance, Lovers in a Dangerous Space time was born to break the mould. The aesthetic of candy coloured hearts, rainbows and even the narrative of saving universal love are intentionally meant to be a diverse break from the norm. The polar opposite of the standard dystopian themed, shiny chrome and rusted metal sci-fi games that are all too commonplace. Don’t let its cute and cuddly appearance fool you as it belies how cleverly constructed this game really is.
The soundtrack is a playful space themed melody that will have you humming along in no time. You get to choose from several characters, if you choose single player mode then you get a choice of a cat or dog companion. However, the variety is purely appearance value and superfluous to the game itself. For the most part the story about the anti-love taking over the Universe is little more than a vehicle to drive the game. Your furry friends have all been captured and so it’s up to you to brave the starry expanse and get them back.
To accomplish this important mission you have been entrusted with the Gumball. As the name suggests it’s a bubble-gum pink star ship that’s spherical in design. You need to direct your crew of two around a cross-section of the craft to micro-manage its various functions. There are four gun turrets on the top, bottom, left and right of the outer extremities. Additionally there are the engine, shield, map and Yamato stations. Yamato is a super weapon that constantly rotates clockwise around the vessel that needs to recharge after firing. The engine is used to drive by rotating the engine around the vehicle. To protect from enemy fire and dangerous terrain you will need to take control of the shield station. The shield only covers a small section of the circumference so this also needs to be moved around. To help navigate the stars there’s a handy map console that you’ll want to refer to on a regular basis, especially when you pick up new co-ordinates.
Getting around in the spacecraft is really easy, using a system of ladders to access each area. This is where the gameplay really shines as you smoothly transition between each area with fluid ease. When you get to your desired station you will automatically pilot it and need to press the jump button to disengage. This may have been a problem but the ship design allows a direct route to each area that avoids ‘sticking’ to control points. The stations of the ship, with the exception of the map, use a four-point control system; push the analogue in the direction you want the mechanism to point, as opposed to just using left and right to rotate. This can take some getting used to but overall it’s a far more accurate way to play. Of course playing with a human player will require communication to man the correct stations at the right time. Expect the occasional argument, as you are blown to smithereens when it all breaks down. This is clearly the intended way to play, however, for the purpose of review I used the AI to see how it functions under fire.
Controlling the AI companion is a similar mechanic to a weapons wheel in shooter games. Hold the triangle button and push the analogue in the direction of one of the highlighted areas. It’s important to note that they can’t use the engine module to autopilot the ship for you. For the most part the AI functions effectively. I had it almost permanently controlling the shields and it did a great job. In later levels this tactic seems to have been predicted as enemies are used to fool the way it prioritises threat. So you can’t just lame it out and roles became reversed. I was maintaining shields and thrust while the AI was doing a great job of obliterating the opposition on the guns.
As you progress through the levels new elements are added which really adds to the feeling of discovery. You will come across at least one new enemy type or hazard on each level. Not just that but unique mechanics are implemented indicating just how inventive the team behind this title really are. For example, Planets have gravity that you allow you to enter an orbit. This enables you to prioritise defence and offence without worrying about being a sitting duck. You can also use the gravity as a sling shot to speed through the cosmos. Later on there are water bubbles in space that you can shoot out from but blocks incoming fire. These can be utilised as an all-encompassing shield offering protection for any that hide within them. This allows you to focus entirely on your offensive capabilities. The Ice levels have Suns that you will have to shoot at in order to create solar flares that destroy ice-shielded enemies that can be killed no other way. It felt kind of like playing intergalactic pool, getting the angle just right, the AI companion was far better at it than I was. In the final stages there are white dwarfs that have stronger gravity requiring you to shoot them to cause a shockwave that releases you from its grip.
Other elements could be considered more of a hazard than help. On underwater levels there are turbines that catch you in a whirlpool and rotate your craft. Other areas have currents that can be used for acceleration. You will be tempted to relinquish control of the vessel to the elements. Don’t be lured into a false sense of security, as you will likely be smashed upon the rocks. Perhaps even impact upon one of the egg pods littering your path. This hatches many small enemies that can make your life very difficult in large numbers. Mainly because enemy AI is top-notch, it knows exactly when and where to strike. Larger enemies will attempt to monopolise on moments where you’re surrounded by smaller ones battering on your shield leaving you exposed. It also knows when to retreat, regroup and lure you into ambush. Unlike your average shooter you will be progressing gradually and methodically to avoid becoming overwhelmed. The enemies are finite to a certain degree, so it’s not just another game that throws unlimited scores to beat you into submission. Instead it conserves them for an all out attack that you can minimise the impact of by just taking it slowly.
A truly intriguing mechanic of the game is the gem system. Engine, guns, and shield stations all have a port to plug-in gems. You acquire power, beam and metal gems throughout the game with one guaranteed after beating a level. Each gem is fairly self-explanatory but it’s still interesting to find out what they do on each station. The power gem will give you a homing missile launcher on the Yamato, double fire on the guns, larger area coverage if applied shield and a double turbo boost when affixed to the engine. Respectively, the beam gem will give you a powerful straight laser blast, single shot laser turret, a deflector shield that repels enemy fire and a laser cannon that charges while you press the thrust and fires when you release. Fit a metal gem for close range abilities such as a huge circular saw, spiked flails, a battering ram shield and wake mines.
You can rank up to unlock extra station slots and space vessels. However, this is based solely on the amount of incarcerated critters you save. Each level you will need to save a minimum of five to unlock the heart portal to the next level, with an extra five as a bonus. If you want to stand a chance in later levels I’d suggest saving more than just the bare minimum. By rank five you should have two slots on each station, which enables you to combine gems. Using the same two gems will make a significantly enhanced version of the singular modification. Things get a little more interesting when you mix it up. One of my personal favourites is Power and Metal on the turrets, which creates a powerful missile that can be controlled, aimed and fired. I’m going to allow you to find the rest out for yourself, as that’s half the fun. Each is really interesting and geared towards specific play-style. There are few issues I found such as their being no confirmation prompt so I occasionally replaced a gem in a station by accident. When replacing gems it’s completely random which gem is going to be replaced so I felt I was rolling the dice. You do get a removal wrench though you only get one between levels. Having the removal tool as a pick up in levels would have given more control over augments.
You can unlock more spacecraft at rank five though it’s more likely you will do this at a later rank, as double mod sockets are a priority. The Banana split craft seems to be designed to make life more difficult by having stations that can only be access by a specific player. The Jelly Roll became a firm favourite; though it’s only got three guns the advantages make it worth the sacrifice. The engine is fixed so the entire craft turns with it. Getting used to moving around the ship at different angles can be a bit of a challenge. The main reason you want this vessel is because it takes no damage when you collide with the environment. This will happen nearly all the time just while navigating at speed. Also enemies, including bosses, regularly try to smash you into the walls to whittle down your health. Fortunately you can acquire health from large enemies, small planetoids and coordinate boxes if you have already found and saved the indicated prisoner. One area you won’t find health pick-ups is in the arena of the highly inventive boss battles. Star constellations Ursa Major (the great bear), Cetus (The Sea Monster), Orion (The Hunter) and King Cephus (The Star King) each require you to think on your toes. Changing up tactics and using augments outside of your comfort zone is key to securing victory.
By rights a game with the title, Lovers in a Dangerous Space time that uses rainbows, heart-shaped space portals and cute critters shouldn’t be as good as this. Yet, it grips you by being constantly interesting and challenging. The sheer level of inventiveness captures the very essence of what exploration and discovery is all about. Add to that highly responsive gameplay and excellent AI across the board. The gem mechanic is pure genius and one I would like to see implemented further. Sure, everything can be completed in one play through but it’s one amazing experience you don’t want to miss. You really can’t judge this game on face value or by how long it will last. Though, isn’t that always the way when, by surprise, you end up falling in love with the beauty that lies within.
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