Few would argue that the DS lacks a robust library of puzzlers, and fewer still would suggest that in separating the wheat from the chaff, a PC port that retails for under 20 dollars and carried the label "Premium Casual Games" in its original incarnation would belong to the former. The unassuming Puzzle Expedition, however, proves naysayers wrong with its combination of a simple formula and dastardly complex gameplay.
You control the action entirely with the buttons rather than the stylus, aiming to send both Anna and Ben to the exit at the same time. You do so by pushing, not pulling, blocks around to access platforms, climbing them to reach previously unattainable heights. You'll also encounter metal boxes that you can magnetise with a switch to raise and drop them, combustible blocks that explode when they touch, elevators, fires, teleporters, fragile floors and ceilings that break away and more.
What makes Puzzle Expedition so much fun is its ingenious level design. You'll have to account for both characters' paths along the way; for example, Ben might need to push a block to reach a platform, but if Anna's not on the correct side, she may become trapped. Another level sees Ben operating switches to magnetise and de-magnetise boxes as well as extending and retracting a series of platforms, raising them up to create his own path and dropping the boxes to his companion, far below, as she pushes other blocks to the right spots so that when they fall they create mini-staircases.
The game is very unforgiving as well, and a big part of the challenge is making sure that you don't make the wrong move. You can't jump or pull, and you have to abide by a grid that you can make visible with the L button. Ben and Anna can only reach a platform if it's a certain distance above them, and similar rules apply to climbing up and down. Elevators won't move if either character stands atop them, magnetised blocks will only raise if directly below the electrical source, pushing a box up against a wall means that you can't retrieve it, and so on. It's extremely rare that there's more than one way to solve a level, so you can expect to restart many, many times.
Puzzles range from moderately difficult to excruciatingly challenging with very few exceptions. Luckily you can skip up to three stages and earn more skips by returning to and completing levels that you earlier gave a miss. Some will grow frustrated by the difficulty, but this also means that successfully solving a puzzle is extremely satisfying. Since some areas can take around an hour to complete, this also amounts to getting more than your budget price's worth as this expedition spans 100 levels.
Since there's so little variation in difficulty, there's not much of a slope, though stages become more complex over time, going on to utilise both screens and implement a gradual array of tools and special blocks. Help also comes in the form of dialogue that does a good job of explaining added components. Another boon to the game's accessibility is the storyline – it's fairly well-written, especially for a puzzler that could easily forego one altogether. It's also extremely amusing to go from the melodramatic, emotional narrative to stocky sprites pushing blocks about a stage.
The graphical style is very simple, with basic illustrations bracketing stages made of colourful but generic sprites in front of some generally nice images showcasing different locations. The music is a treat, providing a small selection of relatively high-quality tunes that fit the puzzle-solving atmosphere well. There are a few unpolished spots like the grid that overlays Ben's speech bubbles but goes behind Anna's and the little click that follows some sound effects, but overall these don't provide any trouble and barely make a dent in the experience.
The game's biggest downside is almost a necessary flaw of subsisting on a simple formula and complex, time-consuming levels, and that's the uniformity of it all. The experience doesn't change much from stage to stage as you have to utilise the same mechanics repeatedly, and while the varying levels can draw players in, things can grow a bit dull after a while, especially if you face a few dishearteningly difficult puzzles in a row and find yourself forced to skip after countless attempts to complete them successfully. On the other hand, the developers graciously circumvented a potentially tedious aspect of two-screen stages; each level of the game requires multiple steps, which these do to an even greater degree, and once you've figured out a large number of the requisite actions and moved on to later parts of the level you won't have to complete them all again and again every time you restart thanks to the helpful Quicksave/ Quickload function in the pause menu, which takes you back to a specific spot of the stage. It's quite unassuming and never really explained in-game, however, so if you don't know better you might just miss it.
Utilising a simple formula over 100 ingeniously designed and often maddeningly difficult levels, Puzzle Expedition provides a rewarding, long-lasting experience. Its unforgiving nature and inherent repetitiveness can deter some as well as make for a bit of tedium, but those looking for a good and enduring challenge should definitely pack their backpacks and head out to take on this puzzler.