I wasn’t impressed after spending my first 10 minutes with Expand, a maze-like puzzle game that stealthily hit PlayStation 4 during the busiest stretch of the gaming year. Sure, I dug its minimalistic aesthetic, but the puzzles seemed far too simple early on. The core conceit was that the game was constantly playing with perspective, and the player never actually left the same screen they were already on. Instead clever screen wipes and shifts had the environment changing around my character, a pink square.
Luckily, I’m not one to dismiss a game after a few minutes of play, and things quickly ramped up into what became a highly challenging puzzle game. After an extremely simple opening stage, players get to choose which one of four main levels that they want to tackle. Each of these revolve around a different theme, and feature puzzles that use different mechanicss.
What’s really impressive about Expand is how simple it is mechanically. Throughout the entire game, players never have to press a button on their DualShock 4 controller. Instead, every puzzle is solved simply by moving the left analog stick. Movement can sometimes be trickier than one would think, as the entire world is curved, but there’s never any wondering what exactly to do as there’s only one thing the player can do in any situation: move.
There are two main types of puzzles in Expand: those where the player has to figure out how to get to an exit or ones that players have to survive a series of death traps to get to the exit. In the most hellish scenarios, the two puzzle types will intertwine to really test the player’s skills. A lot of the former puzzles revolve around the player’s movements, and how it impacts the world they’re in. Similar to Metrico, sometimes simply moving in a certain direction will open up a passable hole or a new area. These are typically the easiest to get through, as there’s no threat of getting crushed to death.
The skill-based sections, though? Get ready to die. A lot. Expand requires a lot of precision from players, and one mistake will lead to a moving object crushing the poor pink square or running into an instant kill in the form of a red object. Death is expected, though, and thankfully the checkpoints are typically very kind to the player. The only times I ever found myself frustrated by the checkpointing was during the final puzzles of an area, but since they’re essentially a boss battle, it’s hard to fault the game. Still, let it be known that I swore many, many times during these segments.
Death also showcases one of the coolest tricks of Expand. Since everything takes place in a curved surface, the game will redraw the level from where the player died. That can significantly change how the player has to move (maybe they have to move south rather than north), and sometimes moving upside-down in an area could be more difficult due to the player’s own failings. It’s an awesome effect.
Lasting only a few hours, Expand really won me over after I had made my way through the first couple worlds. It was only until the game’s final area, unlocked by clearing all of the previous sections, that I truly saw just how brilliant it was. It put together all the lessons it had taught me previously, and it truly tested my skills as a player. Once I had finally escaped from the maze, it felt exhilarating. I had overcome the odds and escaped. Sure, my character was just an on-screen square, but I felt an attachment by this point and was glad that he could run off-screen to go do whatever pink squares do in their free time.
I mainly loved my time with Expand, but I do have some small qualms about the controls. I found one puzzle in particular to be nearly impossible to do with the analog stick, and had to switch to the otherwise confusing directional-pad controls to finish it. It’s a small issue, but the fact that the controls felt slightly odd and off until the very end of the game says a lot.
When I wasn’t cursing at my television screen upon dying on the same puzzle for what seemed like 20th time, I was recognizing how brilliant Expand‘s design was. It’s rare to see a game this fully realized, one that sees all of its mechanics fully fleshed out, and when I finally escaped the maze after hours of play, it felt like a genuine victory. Expand may take joy in frustrating the player at times, but the true feeling of jubilation comes from overcoming its trickery.
Expand review code provided by publisher. Version 1.01 reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.