As a boy, I always loved mazes, and today one of my favorite things about video games is the ease with which they can impossibly manipulate space. So you can imagine what a dream-come-true Expand represents for me as it continuously draws and redraws its maze, repurposing the same canvas over and over again. It appeals directly to the child at the core of me with its beautifully animated clockwork machinations.
The effect is immediately enchanting, but what really surprised me was how dramatic and affecting this experience can be at length. Whether the maze seems to be guiding or daunting you, the flowing rearrangements of its space paired with a dynamically developing musical score create something rather cinematic in style as melancholy piano gradually builds into uplifting chords over encouraging percussion, each step in its evolution magically timed to your actions and progress, eventually reaching a crescendo to accompany a climax of level design.
Expand has been described as a slower Super Hexagon. That comparison may seem helpful on a superficial level, but it fails to meaningfully communicate (or appreciate) the nature of either game. Expand is not an arcade game. It's not a puzzle game. It's an action-adventure game—like a platformer, essentially, although obviously from a different mechanical perspective since it's top-down, gravity isn't a factor, and there are no actions to perform aside from moving with the analog stick. It presents a series of hand-crafted micro-levels, and you simply navigate their hazardous patterns. What makes it so special, however, is the relationship between these "levels."
When you watch its trailer, you might get the impression that Expand consists of a series of discrete stages, but it's not structured that way at all. While the game is divided into labeled sections like "Elude" and "Control" whose mechanisms pleasingly fit within the themes that those names suggest, every bit of the level design itself unfolds smoothly as the circular labyrinth transforms itself around you. The continuous experience created by these seamless changes in the long run captures my imagination so completely and so elegantly that I find this aspect of Expand invaluable and sufficient grounds for recommendation on its own, entirely regardless of its merits as a game.
Yet those merits, too, are strong. The entire game takes place around a circular core—such that lateral movement is actually rotational—and its scenarios explore the action-puzzle ramifications of this concept. For example, an early "room" sees geometry constantly push out from the center in a ripple. To stay ahead of it, you need to move around the circle while remaining as close to the center as possible because it maximizes your rotational speed; if you drift away to the outside of the circle, you will have more ground to cover, fall behind, and get squashed. Later situations add the wrinkle of maze design unfolding as you move closer to the core, as though your perspective were changing with distance. The environment responds to your movement in many other ways, as well; my favorite "device" is when paths open up or close off as you repeatedly revolve around the circle's center. It makes you feel like the brilliant pick inside an incredibly complicated lock.
Just about all of the action in Expand is quickly intuitive, and the whole game moves along at an even pace, aided by generous checkpointing and unobtrusive retries upon failure. It's challenging to the point of being engaging, but it's not a hard game. There are no limited lives or other penalties for failure, so even the most difficult patterns can be practiced repeatedly—although you generally can't brute force your way through because each trial is long enough to test for proper understanding. Overall, Expand is satisfying to complete; but it's not about the challenge—there are no achievements here—it's about the experience, which is remarkably emotional given its abstraction.
Expand is a short game, unlikely to last more than two hours for most players, but that length is just right for it to fully explore its premise. Once it's over, it sticks with you. There's just nothing else out there like it, and, as memorable as it is, I'm sure I'll indulge in regular replays. I never realized how badly I was missing something like this, but now that I have played it I can't imagine my library without it. If you have even a vague interest—if Expand even remotely seems like the sort of thing you might enjoy—I definitely recommend it.
This review can also be viewed and rated on Steam.