Trade: raccoon for some answers.
“The following is a contributor post by the Wandering Mage.”
Welcome to Donut County, a quiet little vacation destination with a city, a desert, a beach, an observatory, and a popular donut delivery shop. It’s peaceful. Idyllic. It just has one small problem: an ambitious little raccoon named BK. And that it is now almost entirely underground.
See, there are two things you need to know about BK. One, he’s the newish proprietor of the famous donut shop, and two, he has a mobile app that gives him rewards for cleaning up trash. He’s already gotten to level nine, but if he can boost up to ten, he’ll get a rad new quadcopter. A real one! All for cleaning up trash, sending it plummeting into the hollow earth below the county with a well-placed, app-generated hole. Sounds like a good deal, yeah? Except to a raccoon, the whole world is one big dumpster, and now, in his eagerness to get that quadcopter, he’s swallowed, well, everyone. At least everyone who’s ordered a donut from him. Deep in the depths of the earth, surrounded by their belongings in disrepair and longing for the light of day, the donut-desiring denizens of Donut County are trying to piece together both what happened and how to get out of this predicament.
Donut County is a silly puzzle game by indie developer Ben Esposito in a similar vein of the Katamari games: you control a hole in the ground that is theoretically controlled by BK’s app. At first, it’s a small hole, barely able to pick up blades of grass, but the more stuff you grab, the bigger the hole grows, so you have to explore for yourself to see what you’re big enough to collect. Eventually you’re swallowing whole buildings and the many, many people who are now more than a little mad at BK. Part puzzle, part collectathon, Donut County won’t keep you busy for long, but it will keep you laughing at the pure absurdity of the situation.
I have been an addict of collectathons since Banjo-Kazooie, and a Katamari fan since the original, so Donut County seemed like the ideal game for me. I like collecting things. I like raccoons. I like donuts. Perfect. I am there. Gimme a chocolate frosted and a controller. Not at the same time, though. Don’t want to get icing on the controller.
As collectathon games in this style are wont to be, this is a bright, colorful game with many different things to see and drop into a hole. That said, it’s also minimalist and polygonal with no hard outlines, giving it a look that’s almost like a cleaned up, smoothed-out PlayStation 1 game. With the quality, it works. Each stage is unique, from a potter’s shed to a cat’s restaurant to a conspiracy theorist opossum’s house. You spend each level exploring a different part of the county with the people and animals in it, and each item and character stands out on its own. This is not a long game, but the visuals will keep you entranced from start to finish.
After a quick prologue to learn the characters and controls, the story begins in medias res: most of the county’s population has already been swallowed by BK’s notorious apphole, but no one really knows what happened. No one aside from BK’s friend and coworker, Mina, the sole human to be seen in this strange, unfortunate county. She knows what BK’s been up to, and she’s not happy about it. Everyone, BK and Mina included, sit around a campfire, swapping stories to piece their “mystery” together.
They all have their personal problems outside of the obvious issue, and everyone lays it out on the table: a potter dog whose son went missing in a hot air balloon, a desert ranger who’s scared of snakes, a cat chef with a few teeny tiny health violations at its restaurant (don’t ask about the roaches), the chicken farmer who had to sell his best rooster. Each story is a stage leading up to BK getting his quadcopter, and Mina’s more-than-a-little-upset reaction to him destroying the county for his new toy. She’s determined to make him see the error of his ways, fix the town, save everyone, and stop the holes from happening again. If only she can get BK to cooperate.
It’s a cute story that matches the cute visual style, but it is disjointed with the different areas you explore and devour. On one hand, it’s fun to see the many visibly distinct parts of the county. On the other, part of the fun of the Katamari games was seeing how the individual stages connected as you got bigger and explored further. Donut County doesn’t have any of that connectivity. The actions in one area have no effect on others. You don’t even see the places you’ve been in the distance. It gives the world a sense of scale, but when you’re confined to a small area in it with the potential to expand, it leaves you wanting just a little more.
You are BK’s hole in the ground. You are voracious, an unstoppable force of neutrality. You don’t care what you swallow or why. Your sole goal is to devour everything. Lizards, rock formations, grass, eggs, trailers, barns, nothing stands in your way. Not for long, at least.
But you are also so much more than just a hole, and the game is so much more than just “what’s next to eat”. Some of the things you swallow affect the hole’s ability to interact with the world, and a mid-game upgrade gives you the ability to tactically spit things back out. This is where the puzzle element comes into play. You’ll be interacting with a variety of objects at once, trying to figure out exactly how to make the stage progress. Spit a frog at flying creatures, and it may try to bring the bug down with it. Pull weighted levers and spit things to press buttons. Pick up two rabbits to… make more rabbits. Swallowing hot coals can make a fire spew from the depths, letting you light up sturdy wooden structures and break them down into manageable (and devourable) pieces. But be careful not to swallow any water when you’re on fire. You have to consider order of operations and tactics. That said, you’re also never stuck if you do it wrong. Anything necessary to continue a stage will respawn smoothly, giving you as many tries as it takes.
When the stage is over, you’re shown how close BK is to level 10 as well as given the option to visit the Trashopedia, a screen where you can scroll through all the items you’ve eaten. Each item comes with some descriptive text from BK, informing you of the world from a raccoon’s POV. That garden shovel? That’s a dirt spoon. The soup can is “a small food fortress.” That small pool? Don’t try to wash cotton candy in it. All told, the descriptions are a little memey, a little droll, and a lot of silly. They might not tickle everyone’s funny bone, but there’s definitely something to make anyone smile.
Challenge? What challenge? This game is a walk in the park. And I don’t mean a jog or a light run, I mean a casual walk, the kind where you don’t break a sweat and get into that pace where you almost forget you’re walking. There is almost no pressure whatsoever as you swallow everything in your path. You’re not on a time limit. There’s almost no one fighting you or fleeing from you. The only possible fail state is a single boss fight (what, a boss fight in a collection game? Yep. It’s pretty neat. Kinda wish there were more.) Honestly, the only challenge you’ll be facing with this game is the physics, when every so often the next thing you need to collect will fuss about going into the hole. I mean, understandably. Who wants to be plunged into the depths of the planet? But we need that quadcopter. A little determined wiggling should fix the issue. Overall, the game can be completed in around two hours.
If you’re an achievement hunter who loves to show off your completed games, this is definitely one to add to your collection. You’ll pick up most of them simply by playing the game and seeing what you can wreck. Several others require a second playthrough after you find directions on certain stage items in the Trashopedia. Luckily, once you’ve beaten a stage, you can hop right back to it in stage select. If the game can be beaten in two hours, you shouldn’t need more than two and a half to finish the achievements.
When your comparison series is Katamari, the biggest challenge you face is the music and sound effects. Rather than compete, Donut County doesn’t really try. Still, that doesn’t mean it fails. The music is pleasant, atmospheric. It’s something to fill your ears while you play the game, and each tune feels like a fair match to the stage it’s a part of. And due to the main focus being the story and the lack of a timer, it doesn’t need the Katamari music. You can’t help but want it, though.
Despite its simple concept, there’s not much else quite like Donut County out in the wild. Yes, there can be comparisons drawn between it and the Katamari series. I’ve certainly done it enough here, but the puzzle elements, ease of completion, and story set it apart from its inspiration. And there’s no cow-bear level, which any Katamari fan will tell you is a major plus in Donut County’s favor. Add in the clever puzzles, the colorful art style, and the equally colorful cast of characters, and you’ve got a game unlike any other.
Unless you aim to be a speedrunner, this game doesn’t offer much reason to replay it in its entirety. You’re practically required to collect everything to progress, so your Trashopedia should be mostly complete in one playthrough. Aside from the aforementioned achievement hunting or if you want something breezy to pass a few hours, there’s not much reason to play this repeatedly.
My personal grade: 7/10
Like I said, I am an unabashed collectathon addict. Give me a game with an empty list of items to find and I am there. If you’re like me, someone itching for a game to fill that Katamari void, well, let’s put it this way. If Katamari is an ice cream sundae with all the fixings, Donut County is a scoop of vanilla frozen yogurt with some multicolored sprinkles. They’re similar. It can satisfy a craving, stave it off for a few days, but if you really want that sundae, it’s not going to satisfy for long. Donut County has the charm and color but lacks the bells and whistles and length of its predecessors. Being such a brief taste, it almost feels like it’s more of a tech demo, something to show off the potential, the possibilities to explore further. Bigger stages, more boss fights, more world cohesion. As it is, it’s fun gameplay mechanics propping up a breezy, silly story, which isn’t bad. It just leaves you wanting so much more.
Aggregated score: 7.0
The Wandering Mage, aka Max, spends most of her days buried in her fiction writing, only coming up for air to dive into the escapism of video games, cartoons, or movies. She can usually be found on Twitter as @MaxNChachi or streaming on Twitch with her husband, also as MaxNChachi.
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Categories: Game Review