Initial Release: 3 October 2017 (PS4)
For a small indie game it’s practically flawless
Expand is a wonderfully minimalistic puzzle game in which the player controls a tiny pink square as it moves through a series of constantly shifting mazes around a central fixed point. The developers, Chris Johnson and Chris Larkin, describe it as “meditative” and they truly couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate descriptor for the game. Right from the menu, Expand has the most beautiful and relaxing music, and this sets the atmosphere of your entire playthrough. Published on PS4 by Ukiyo Publishing and ported by BlitWorks, this is a delightful addition to any gamer’s library.
There’s no complex control system or elaborately patronising tutorial section, Expand basically throws you straight into the action from the moment you hit start. While there is a tutorial, it is as simple and minimalistic as the rest of the game. Giving you an idea of what you can expect as you progress is all it needs, and it delivers beautifully. The pacing is perfect, introducing new elements only once the player has had a chance to master the previous ones. That isn’t to say Expand is easy, however. Johnson and Larkin have skillfully balanced the difficulty on a sliding scale so that the player isn’t suddenly faced with an insurmountable obstacle with no warning.
Expand really keeps you on your toes, since there is no break between levels. Each level is marked only by the name of the level on the screen, which allows for seamless gameplay. You will go from a section where you simply have to find your way from Point A to Point B, to a section where you also have to avoid red hazards that will reset you from the last checkpoint. Fortunately for the most part these checkpoints are quite abundant so you won’t feel the constant frustration of having to start a level again from the beginning. There are exceptions though! More than anything the main keys to success are hand-eye coordination and use of your peripheral vision, as there are many portions where you simply won’t have time to stop and study what you’ll need to do next.
Compared to many other games in a similar genre, Expand has one feature that is a (literal) game-changer. When you touch a hazard, are squished, or otherwise fail to complete a level the game doesn’t simply warp you back to where you were. Instead the level shifts around you, spinning until you return to the previous checkpoint for you to try again. This adds a delightful extra challenge, since it means completing a difficult section isn’t simply a matter of using muscle memory to find your way through. Each time you fail, depending on where you are when you do, you will be faced with a new angle to work from. This definitely keeps you on your toes, and sometimes will result in choosing to deliberately fail in order to find the best angle to tackle the challenge that works for you.
Despite these challenges, it’s unlikely you will reach the level of frustration in which you want to quit or throw your controller at the screen, or both. This is almost entirely due to the masterful composition of the soundtrack. A frenetic score would work the player into a rage in no time at all, but instead they have created music that keeps your head clear and your heart rate low. The player is able to exercise and master patience and perseverance, and when you do fail it feels like more of an ‘oops’ moment. It is well worth picking up the soundtrack separately, as it is a perfect accompaniment to academic work, writing, meditation, or any other activities where you want to keep a cool head.
While Expand is relatively short and can be completed in around three to four hours or less, there is definitely a great deal of replay value to it. It’s the kind of game that you’ll want to fire up after a hard day or when you’re looking for a quick gaming fix that’s not too involved. For a small indie game it’s practically flawless, really the only improvements that could be made are purely aesthetic. It would be nice to have the option to change the colour of your cube or of the red hazards, or to invert the black and white of the labyrinth. However, not having these options doesn’t detract in any way from the game itself and would simply be a nice bonus. For players who would like more of a challenge, and who would like another PS4 trophy, it could be fun to add a small collectable to some levels that is hard to get. But, again, this would be a purely unnecessary addition for the sake of it rather than anything that will drastically alter the player’s enjoyment of the game.
Verdict: 9.5 out of 10
We were provided a copy of the game by the publisher for review purposes.