Looks can be deceiving
It has been awhile since I played a puzzle game that really messed with my mind. That’s not to say that there haven’t been great puzzle games released over the past few years, but rare is the one that manages to flip your way of thinking completely on its head. Going into Expand, I wasn’t expecting such a radical challenge. However, after running through its mind-bending campaign, I walked away disoriented, but fulfilled by the riddles I had managed to solve.
In Expand, you are given control of a pink square that has been tasked with navigating a series of mazes. As you move around these mazes, however, they shift to compensate for your movement. Sometimes this means that the maze expands longer and wider. Other times, though, the level will continually change regardless of whether or not you are moving. Besides messing with your vision, the constantly dynamic environment also gives way to unforeseen traps.
Despite being described as “meditative” by developers Chris Johnson and Chris Larkin, it is possible to fail in Expand. One of the most frequent hazards thrown your way are sections bathed in red that you cannot touch. Sometimes you’ll need to delicately maneuver your way through a small path, other times you’ll have to rapidly dodge red blocks that are careening towards you. Paired with the ever-changing environment and you have a tougher challenge than you might have expected.
Even if there are no sections of red in your immediate path, it’s still easy to find yourself in dangerous situations. Since the mazes of the game are constantly shifting and changing, if you stay in one location for too long, you may find yourself trapped in an uncomfortable position. If you get crushed between the walls as much as I did, you’ll be happy to know that Expand features a generous checkpoint system.
When you die, you’re never placed too far away from your most recent end, which helps take the sting away from failure. However, each time you respawn, the center of the level rotates by a couple of degrees. Due to this slight change, how you approach the maze that just killed you may be changed from how you approached it the previous time. It’s a unique and interesting way of keeping you on your toes, even if you think you understand how to finish a section. Or on the opposite side, a single shift may trigger a path to success you didn’t notice the first time.
For the most part, Expand isn’t a particularly frustrating experience, but there are times that it will truly test your patience. It’s easy to lose sight of what you have to maneuver around, as the monochromatic visuals blend together to deceive the eye into making mistakes. It would have been nice if the square was just a little faster moving around. Maybe upping the speed would have thrown the game completely out of whack, but there are times where the difficulty seems inflated because you move at such a slow speed. This is particularly annoying during the latter portions of each of the four sections in the game. These final challenges test your ability to quickly and accurately weave through a red-colored hell, and can be a pain when your block moves like it is stuck in molasses.
With that said, and taking into account the sub-5 hour length, Expand doesn’t overstay its welcome. Each section of the game either introduces a new type of challenge, or plays with what you previously experienced in a fresh way. It’s a game that constantly expands upon its basic premise in order to continually test your cognitive abilities. It teaches you to always be on your guard, even when things look fine, and that what you see at the outset of each maze will not always be what you get. This fiendishly creative puzzler manages to continually surprise, even when you think it has no more tricks left.
From a technical perspective, Expand is a mostly clean effort. It’s a pretty basic game at its core, so this is not entirely surprising. However, I did come across a frustrating glitch that was completely out of place from everything else. During one of the sections of the game, there was a moving piece of red space that was completely impenetrable. It was clearly supposed to disappear for a few seconds before reappearing, which offers a tiny window for you to pass through. However, it never closed fully, and it wouldn’t reset properly until I rebooted the title. After that, it worked just fine, but for a few minutes, I found myself getting terribly frustrated with this. Again, outside of this single instance, I never ran into any problems with the game, but there are some lingering issues apparently.
While it may not blow anyone away, the clean visuals of Expand are a solid positive for the game. There are only four colors in the game, black, white, pink and red, but they come together to really pop on screen. It’s a sleek looking effort, and I feel that if the visuals were played around with anymore, it wouldn’t be as interesting to look at. Not to mention if more colors were thrown at players, it would most likely change the fine balance the game already straddles in its current form. The sparse musical score also manages to perfectly fit the mood of the game. It’s contemplative, even if there is no plot for you to get hooked on. The fact that the score managed to create that feeling regardless was a pleasant surprise to me.
Considering its release during the busiest time of the year for gaming, Expand was an enjoyable offering to come across. It’s a challenging puzzler that will demand your attention, but doesn’t drag itself out longer than it needs to be. Outside of a minor control issue and some frustrating sections, it’s a calming experience that only takes a few hours to complete. If you’re looking for a nice change of pace during the next few hectic months, don’t pass on this almost meditative game.