Donut County Review: Pit Falls
Donut County must be inspired by Katamari Damacy, one of the most important ‘weird’ games of the last 15 years. Much like that PlayStation 2 classic, it’s all about absorbing increasingly large items, although in this case you’re sucking them into a hole rather than rolling them into a ball. You drag the hole across the ground in each of the game’s 22 short levels, swallowing up any items that will fit. You start small, grabbing rocks, pieces of fruit, and inconsequential detritus, but the hole grows as you gather more items into it, letting you nab bigger objects and eventually, swallow everything in the level.
Donut County is, for the most part, a lackadaisical and gentle game. The control scheme is extremely simple, and the game’s laidback attitude is reflected in its pleasantly chunky art style and folksy soundtrack. It’s focused on the simple pleasures of manipulating in-game physics and the inherent fun of making objects and living beings fall into holes. When you’re finding the tipping point of an object–seeking the moment at which it’ll teeter over and tumble sideways through the hole, or when you’re trying to make an object fall over so you can nab the items sitting atop it–Donut County can be a lot of fun. But while controlling a malevolent hole that sucks in objects, people, and eventually buildings and structures is satisfying, there’s not a whole lot to the game beyond these mild pleasures. Donut County is not as deep as the holes it contains.
The in-game explanation for these holes is that BK, a raccoon who works in the county’s donut shop, is controlling them via an app. Most levels play out as flashbacks, with cutscenes showing the people BK has swallowed up reminiscing about what has happened to them while gathered around a fire in their new underground home (the earth, as it turns out, is hollow). The plot goes in some strange directions as it casually works through and untangles its own strange internal logic, and the script is full of irreverent ‘Internet’ speak–the term ‘lol’ pops up frequently in the dialog, which is very casual throughout. The flippancy of the script is charming at times, but it also means that Donut County is difficult to get truly invested in. BK is not particularly likeable, and his friendship with Mira–his human best friend, who encourages him to face up to what he has done–feels one-sided. The game clearly isn’t striving to offer a deep narrative experience, but there are quite a few ‘story’ scenes and most of them aren’t particularly engaging or funny.
Donut County lacks scale, too, with most levels feeling like they’re ending prematurely. Whereas you would sometimes roll up the entire world in Katamari games, levels in Donut County peak with you swallowing, at most, a building. The game instead focuses on the impact certain objects can have on the hole, often with clever or comical effect. Swallow up two rabbits, for instance, and love hearts will spring from the hole before a swarm of newly-born rabbits shoots back out. Swallow up a fire and some corn cobs and you’ll soon have popcorn shooting back out, which must then be collected again. The game is at its best when it’s testing out new ideas or gimmicks like these, but ultimately there aren’t that many clever things you can do with a sentient hole, and many levels absolutely whiz by without introducing anything new. The physics of the hole also don’t quite feel right sometimes–occasionally, objects don’t behave how they should after most of the floor disappears out from underneath them, which can be frustrating.
The last half-hour or so of Donut County is the game at its most inventive. While there are puzzles throughout the game the solutions are often immediately obvious, that is, until the final few levels where they become more intricate and enjoyable. Your hole becomes equipped with a catapult that is capable of firing objects back out, leading to a few neat puzzles where you need to spit objects back into the world to progress. These are mostly straightforward–for instance, you might need to catapult a frog out to capture a bunch of flies floating around the screen–but they add some much-needed variety to proceedings and open some new puzzle possibilities. Unfortunately, the catapult is only used a few times, albeit to an interesting effect, and it’s a shame that it isn’t gained early and used more frequently throughout. The final level hints at something greater still, taking the game in a different direction–without spoiling the ending, it’s an unexpected twist on what has come before, making you wish the rest of the game held such surprises.
Donut County is a game with fun ideas and a pleasantly relaxed attitude, but it’s not the most compelling of experiences. It’s easy to control, clever, amusing, and I finished it across a single session without growing bored. But it doesn’t offer the catharsis you might expect from a game about wanton destruction, and its lightness and short runtime make it feel inconsequential. Once it’s done you’re unlikely to think about it much again, let alone play it through a second time. Like a donut, it’s sweet and satisfying, but you’re acutely aware that there’s a hole in the middle of it.
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