Every so often I get to play an almost perfect game. That’s not to say that it’s a 10/10. It’s not to say that it’s the best game ever made. It’s not even to say that it’s comparable to the games that will make the most money or get nominated for game of the year. In fact perfect games rarely fall into that category. What I mean when I make that statement is that every so often I find a game that needs not be changed. It, in and of itself, is perfect just the way it is. If given the option I would change nothing, with the exception of maybe the price. That’s what a perfect game is to me and the recently released Expand is such a game. Made by a two man development team that doesn’t even have a studio name, this game is small but exactly what it needs to be.
The graphics are elegant, creative, artistic, and alive, yet simplistic in just about every way. This continuous sequence of static and moving mazes is comprised of only 5 colors (pink, red, gray, black, and white) and two dimensions of space. The game plays with concepts such as perspective, movement, and placement to create a myriad of shapes and challenges that look beautiful and intimidating without pushing the boundaries of your graphics card. There’s not really a plot and yet the visuals do tell a story in their own little way. I know it seems odd and overly dramatic, but the word that comes to mind when I think about this game’s visuals is enlightening. The visuals are also technically sound. No lag, no freezes, no odd occurrences. The only thing that I noticed very rarely was that sometimes your avatar seemed to bleed past/into walls at certain times. But this may very well have been a trick of the eyes because of the visual style used in this simple, yet brilliant looking game.
The sound is amazing. Or more truthfully the music is amazing. There are separate sound and music volume options, but honestly I didn’t pick up any sound effects in the entire game. The music is so good and so appropriate, but I honestly don’t know why there’s even a sound effects option. The developer recommends that you use headphones and I second that. At first I tried it with just speakers and it was good, but once I put headphones on the music became great. There are so many subtle intricacies and beats that you will completely miss with speakers. Each of the different sections of the game has its own music, but they blend together so well that you might not even notice that it has changed. At the same time though, the tracks are all very different. The music is mellow and passionate at the same time. Even the more intense sections are so relaxed because of the audio. It reminded me a lot of the cinematic moments of Final Fantasy X. Sometimes the puzzle patterns line up with the music which is always cool. My only issue with the music is that it’s so mellow coupled with such relaxed gameplay that you might actually fall asleep if you’re not careful. Loved the sound overall.
The gameplay is perfectly simple at a mechanical level if you’re using a controller. It only requires a joystick, a pause button, and an entry button (A). But if you’re using a keyboard you’re gonna have a bad time. The buttons are mappable but that’s not gonna help. The movements required are too fast and precise for four separate buttons to be effective. Even the game recommends a controller at the start of it. All you do in this game is move a small pink square through a continuous maze of moving and static parts comprised of red and black objects and white paths. Your goal is to visit and complete four different areas which each hold a pink piece. Once you collect all four pieces you can enter the final area which takes puzzle methods from each of the four original areas and combines them to make a final, slightly more challenging area. Simple and clean this game is. The puzzles are challenging, but not in an abrasive way. You will get stuck at times but not for the traditional 10 – 30 plus minutes. Each area that you do get stuck at will take you no more than five minutes once you get the very simple movement scheme down.
The four main areas are broken up into several checkpoints. When you die, the game rolls back to the last checkpoint and lets you continue. This is a very quick process which requires very little time and no change of screen. Death is interesting in this game. The screen turns slightly gray, and everything literally rolls back putting your avatar back to the checkpoint. But at the same time everything changes its starting position. The maze is circular and you are constantly moving in a circular direction, though not always in the same direction. When you die, your starting point rolls to a different quadrant of the overall circle. This is interesting because it gives the player a different perspective on the same puzzle and often this makes all the difference. Obviously different angles are better or worse for different people based on how they see the puzzles. Very creative little mechanic that I feel really sets this game apart from similar puzzle/maze games. You have an unlimited number of lives. There are several different types of challenges. Sometimes the blocks move around the level and sometimes the level moves around the blocks. Red surfaces kill you instantly, but black surfaces can squash you into other walls so they are just as dangerous. There are gray switches to open certain paths and even some time based challenges. Ultimately the entire game is about finesse and timing, which is very traditional if not mandatory for this genre. Yet Expand does it better in so many ways.
The game is simple to play yet extremely fulfilling. The Steam page describes Expand as “meditative” and I don’t think that’s a horrible word to use. Though it’s just a bunch of twisting and turning 2D objects, there’s something very powerful about it. Between the gameplay and the sound I found myself getting very emotional while playing the game. I can’t really explain why or how, but for some reason I feel like this game spoke to my soul. And yes I understand how ridiculous that sounds, but it’s the way I feel when thinking about Expand. I mentioned earlier that the sound can put you to sleep because of how relaxed the gameplay is, but there are also puzzles peppered in that force you to completely change your style of approach and thus forcibly keep you aware and focused on the gameplay. Kudos to the developers for knowing their game well enough to spice it up when it needs it even while selling it as a meditative experience. You can have up to three save files and pause, quit, and continue whenever you want, but I was so enthralled by the experience that I beat it in one sitting. One thing I noticed was that when I quit and reloaded the game to test it out I wasn’t brought back to exactly where I quit. It pushed me forward at least one checkpoint. All in all I have no solid complaints about the gameplay.
There is a small amount of writing in Expand, but not really a plot. At least not in the traditional sense. The game plays in six different languages, but it’s all text based. There are a few notes and minor text-based narrations scattered throughout the game. Each of the four sections is also categorized by a word (control, elude, peril, reach). These short bits of text appear and quickly disappear as you progress forward past them. Simple white or black Arial block text. It looks great and reads very easily. That’s about it. The menus use the same text and are very intricate. Lots of options to play around with, most of which are unnecessary. There’s less than enough text to write a paragraph in the entire game which works well, but it also explains why localizing it was so easy to languages like simplified and traditional Chinese.
While this was a perfect experience, it was also a very short one as far as games go. I beat the whole thing in under three hours and that was while stopping to take screenshots and notes. I could probably clear it in under two. There’s honestly really no reason to play the game more than once. There aren’t even any achievements. It was like watching The Illusionist (2006). The first time around it’s amazing, but once you’ve done it once you’ve seen all the tricks and the game has little to nothing more to offer. You can beat the four sections in a different order if you want, but nothing will come of it. It’s a wonderful game but it’s a one and done at the same time. And for such a short game I feel like £4.75 is a bit much.
I thoroughly enjoyed Expand. I feel like my life is a little better having gotten to play it. I do encourage everyone to play it because it’s short and the learning curve is very low so it can be enjoyed by gamers of all types and levels of experience. But I can’t justify telling people to pay £4.75 for less than three total hours of play. Wait for a Steam sale and then snatch it up for £2 or less. Excellent game overall and I hope to see more from developers Chris Johnson and Chris Larkin.
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