Developer: Chris Johnson and Chris Larkin
Publisher: Ukiyo Publishing
Release Date: 03/10/2017 (Playstation 4) 2016 (PC, Mac, Linux)
Format(s): Playstation 4 (Reviewed), PC, Mac, Linux
Every so often I like to play a game that doesn’t try to do anything too clever, but instead offers a simplistic experience that just works. That’s exactly what Expand does with its simple yet challenging gameplay and its modest aesthetic design – it’s a satisfying title that’s short, sweet, and offers enough to drive you on to see it through to its end.
In Expand, players simply have to lead a small pink square shape across a series of levels that are built around an ever-present circle in the centre. It mixes up quick reactions, precise movements, and patience across a large series of puzzles that constantly change and challenge your skills in a variety of different ways. Everything is controlled with just the left thumbstick though, so it’s also incredibly simple.
There are four ‘worlds’ that the player needs to travel across, with the order dictated by if you decide to venture north, south, east, or west in the small hub-like opening area. Each of the four worlds offers a different challenge to overcome that (although simplistic in design) will force the player to react a little differently than they would have had to in the last area they visited.
No matter how different each world and its gameplay dynamics are though, you always know what you have to do: get from one side of the level to the other. Of course, getting there isn’t always easy, but your goal is as clear as day no matter how disorientating or challenging the level itself is.
It almost starts to feel like routine at times, with the varying level design being simple and the puzzles easy enough to work out what you need to do. The earlier levels introduce you to the game’s mechanics quickly, and you never have to do much other than move around the left thumbstick. That’s not to say there’s no challenge though; whilst you know what to do, a forever expanding and contracting level along with constantly moving obstacles that are often fatal to touch ensures you’ll be constantly pushed. It doesn’t stop the game feeling relaxing though, which is what Expand often is.
If you fail by getting crushed by one of the many moving blocks, destroyed by the deadly red areas, or simply don’t escape a level’s maze in time, you’ll be sent back to a checkpoint. To the game’s defence the checkpoints are pretty fair and balanced, though it could be frustrating to carefully manoeuvre across a level’s hazards only to die at the last minute and have to do it all over again. That’s down to the player though, with the game never really feeling unfair; you’ve just to be quick, patient, and… well… good. Each checkpoint would typically move the level around a 360-degree axis too, which actually changes each level up a little. It’s a small touch, but given that the gameplay is driven so much around simply controlling a square, it could feel quite significant.
To go along with the simple gameplay mechanics, Expand also looks very simple in design with a monochromatic style that has small bits of red thrown in for good measure. That’s not to say it’s ugly though, because it’s not – in fact, its mish-mash of ever-changing shapes almost feels hypnotic at times, whilst the way some levels uniquely expand both in size and magnification is pretty clever. Expand is pretty to look at and will keep you ever engaged in the experience, whilst the relaxing soundtrack that plays alongside it ensures that the game is as pleasant to listen to as it is to look at.
Expand won’t take you too long to beat, with the game lasting around about the two hour mark (though that might vary depending on how often you fail). Given how simple the whole thing is, it’s a nice length; you don’t grow bored of anything, nor will you get frustrated at the sometimes tricky difficulty. At a low price point of less than £5, you get plenty of bang for your buck too.
Expand offers a simplistic experience that manages to challenge the player whilst also keeping them relaxed, with the ever-changing levels testing the player’s skills but also feeling simple and direct enough to not force them to have to think too much. Everything about the game manages to feel both formidable and calming, with the directness of each level’s goal making everything feel like a routine that is easy to get used to but never stops being enjoyable.
The simplistic nature of the gameplay and visuals might not be for everyone, but those who want an enjoyable little endeavour that doesn’t push (or cost) you too much might want to give Expand a look.