Sometimes a game just doesn’t land regardless of its quality. Expand, an indie title from Chris Johnson and Chris Larkin, fits the bill. It hit Steam back in 2015 with relatively little fanfare, and the same seems to be happening again. This lack of buzz around the game says nothing of its quality, however, as it's actually rather excellent.
Expand is a puzzle game of sorts. An intriguing mixture of the classic board game Operation and mazes, the title offers a pleasant mixture of challenge and relaxation. You control a square as you have to navigate the monochromatic mandala-esque mazes while avoiding the red “danger” areas. The manner in which you have to do this varies from level-to-level, as sometimes the maze will get warped or react to you moving versus others where the challenge is built more around precise timing. There are four of these types of levels, and then a fifth final one that combines all of the previous ideas into one grand finale. Your goal is to collect a pink “quadrant” from each of the four levels, which then unlocks that fifth and final one. You are also able to play those levels in whichever order you see fit, though the challenge felt pretty much equal across the board, just emphasising different mechanics.
Each of the five 30 minute levels offer a satisfying challenge and learning curve, without ever really getting irritating. Other than a couple small bits of the final level, the game is downright flawlessly paced. Expand absolutely nails the balance of challenge to fun, which actually creates a bizarre juxtaposition of most of the game being simultaneously relaxing and tense. This stems from the precise timing you need for most of the games puzzles alongside its delightfully relaxing music. We even found ourselves just stopping the game at certain points to let the music play for a time. The piano driven music is a wonderful accompaniment to the gameplay.
Each level is built flawlessly, making incredible use of negative space both in aid to the puzzles themselves, as well as just sheer visual presentation. It’s a perfect puzzle game if you want to treat your eyes as well as your brain. In fact, it’s so pleasant that it’s really a shame that it’s as short as it is. The very low price point ($5.99) easily washes away any concerns over length, but it’s just so fun that we really wish there were more than just north of two hours of content.
The game runs like a dream, too, as all of the moving parts and fluid shifts in design of the mazes look gorgeous on the big screen. Its economic, no-frills design works exceptionally well here, as there is exactly as much happening in the game as there should be, with room for little else.
Expand is a great puzzle game. Navigating your square through monochromatic mazes offers a wonderfully relaxing experience that somehow manages to be calming and wrought with tension throughout. While it’s a relatively short title, its low price point and high fun factor make it a worthwhile venture. Sure, it may not have been a runaway success on its initial release, but we can only hope this title finds its audience this time around.