I’ll admit that aside from classics like Tetris and Columns I’ve never been a massive fan of pure puzzle games. I much prefer something with a bit more action, like an adventure puzzle game to tax my brain; basically something with a semblance of a plot. Despite my lack of recent experience of the genre, I still approached Expand with an open mind.
The game’s premise is incredibly simple: navigate a small pinkish-coloured square through a series of ever-changing, obstacle-laden circular mazes. The overall goal is to complete four mazes each with their own set of physics. Once these four are completed a final maze is unlocked, containing a mash-up of all the obstacles encountered in the lower order ones.
Expand begins with a short tutorial, with a single line of text explaining the physics of the game – basically when to move, and when not to. For the most part, the only colours in-game aside from the pink hue of the square are black and white, with the movement only possible through the white portions of the maze. Movement throughout Expand’s mazes is incredibly fluid, relying solely on the thumbstick. At times moving the square left not only moves it in the desired direction, it also shifts the environment clockwise, likewise moving right moves it counterclockwise. Moving up and down can expand or contract the maze accordingly. Some obstacles can also move independently of the rest of the mazes, which can lead to the square becoming boxed in. Each time you become trapped or a maze is completed the space the square occupies contracts and rotates to the next level, which adds a certain level of disorientation.
Tutorial completed, the main game begins in a central hub with four portals to the north, south, east and west. These portals lead to gateways that must be unlocked to enter the corresponding direction’s maze; each has a title on their threshold which hints at what the player can expect within – Peril, Reach, Elude and Control. The mazes introduce red obstacles that reset the current level upon contact, which adds a more jeopardy to proceedings. Negotiating these obstacles is much like playing a buzz wire game – the ones where the player moves a metal loop on a pole over a wire course without making contact and setting off a buzzer. Some parts of the maze also have a black or red portion enveloping the path you’ve just travelled and forcing you to navigate on the fly rather than allowing you the chance to spot any incoming hazards.
There were points where the environment constantly shifting led to frustration and very nearly to the verge of rage quitting. Don’t get me wrong, Expand isn’t unreasonably difficult; it’s just that after trying and failing to navigate certain sections for the umpteenth time I had to walk away and chill out for a while. After a quick breather I’d boot the game back up and blitz through the part I was stuck on and conquer the maze. Once a maze has been completed you’re once again dropped to the central hub to complete the remaining puzzles. It’s then a case of rinse and repeat until all four are completed and the final labyrinth is unlocked.
As is the accepted norm for most puzzle games, the soundtrack consists of a variety of looped tracks (largely piano-led) which seamlessly shift as you progress through the different sections of the maze. The music feels as fluid as the movement within the mazes, ebbing and flowing with the action on screen. The game recommends that headphones are worn, though I’m glad I decided to ignore the suggestion as the volume seemed louder than most games; so much so that I found that I turned the volume on my TV way down in order to compensate. The soundtrack will either help you to focus or annoy the hell out of you, there isn’t a middle ground.
Expand shouldn’t take a veteran puzzle gamer any more than a few hours to polish off. Even with my limited experience, I had the game licked in a few sessions. As I’ve mentioned the difficulty is set just this side of difficult, with completing a maze feeling like a well-earned pat on the back. The developer’s decision to keep the graphics deliberately simple ensure that the eye is left to concentrate on the task at hand rather than being distracted with busier areas of the screen. If you like a challenge or feel like dabbling in the puzzle genre instead of whatever your usually gaming preferences, Expand may be just what you’re looking for.