Review: Donut County30 Aug 2018 2
Review: Donut County
Released 28 Aug 2018
Donut County is a quizzical, whimsical not-quite puzzler brimming with charm and vision. Players control a hole in the ground, ‘driving’ it around town to swallow anything and everything they can find. The story unfolds in L.A., land of fantastic donuts and cute animal residents disappearing en masse. In dry mechanical terms, this hole grows bigger with each fallen thingamajig swallowed during a level which means a complete level is also an empty one.
Overall, the game’s tone is droll, odd and at times a bit anticlimactic. While the experience is admittedly brief and the challenge practically non-existent, the game is an easy thing to recommend solely on the strengths of its aesthetics and good humor. (In every sense of the phrase: that is to say: its cheerfulness and wit.)
Its version of L.A. is stuffed with pastel hues and animals of all species and temperaments, but the game also begins on a mock-sombre note: the characters are all stuck nine-hundred ninety-nine feet below the ground, huddled around a campfire and taking turns commiserating. The game’s levels show how things got so wretched while the characters tell and embellish this tale. Pacing thus bounces between dynamic, punchy levels and the weirdly endearing scene underground, which serves to both introduce the cast and provide a dose of exposition. Our antihero, the rascally raccoon with a heart full of trash, BK, spends these interludes denying any and all accusations. His neighbors say he is the one responsible for the mess they’re in. In between this mainline argument there are quips and side quarrels about birdwatching, cat soup and moral justification for hacking. Yes, really. It’s also worth noting that this review’s diction is pretty much the polar opposite of Donut County’s breezy, bouncy dialogue. What is modern and fresh to some might be artificial and grating to others, but in general I’d rate the game’s characters and phraseology a big, refreshing plus.
As for gameplay, the levels are short, each with a small twist and different environment. Holes fill with water, frogs jump, bunnies ‘cuddle’ off-screen, chameleons hide and try to dodge the hole while cockroaches run towards it. So there’s pretty decent level variety and design, and most importantly, the feel and physics of the core ‘I’m a whole in the ground’ schtick are...surprisingly solid. It tracks fluidly, and objects fall and fit into the hole in a fairly intuitive and intelligible way. Some objects with sharp corners or unusual shapes will take a little more manoeuvring to get to fall. Progression is linear and a little flat in the game’s earlier section, though the final few are diverse and rich enough to make up for it. The game is more like a toy than a puzzle, proper, though, for its environmental interactions and number of player tools are extremely limited. It would be boorish to say this is a flaw, fatal or otherwise, but the comment needs to be added to the record because the game doesn’t belong to any particular wheelhouse. This will inevitably disappoint some expecting a holotype of beloved genre X. Donut County is very much its own thing.
But its style recalls other very fun, very unique games like Chuchel or Hidden Folks, and the story, though delivered with jokes and self-referentially ‘full of holes,’ is well-developed and with a nice thematic and emotional ending. Also the philosophical underpinnings and off-the-wall item descriptions (from the Trashopedia, no less) are to die for. The characters are barely given any lines yet already feel like they have distinct lives and opinions. The game builds the player’s understanding of a small world and its weird community, as its levels ask that player to tear it apart.
It’s a satisfying paradox and one familiar to those tinkerers: make it, break it, see what makes it tick. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and to BK, people homes are just giant trash receptacles, and in this world, raccoons covet and collect trash nonstop. So the possum recluse’s hideaway home is naturally strewn with masks and shrouded in darkness, because he’s a tech-savvy remote recluse by choice. There’s a smidge of the scrap-as-story to this, snooping around someone’s room to see what kind of person they are which is common to games like this as well as indies like Gone Home or What Remains of Edith Finch, even stuff like Prey or Bioshock. Basically, Donut County is all about environmental storytelling. It’s successful and low-key about it is all, so unless you’re looking for it or specifically a fan of the technique, it isn’t actually flashy enough to impress.
Donut County is also the poster child for quality over quantity. Every moment is memorable, amusing and distinct, but there also aren’t very many. For most players a complete playthrough start to finish will last about two hours, give or take some variation. The only enduring complaint is that the early levels do a lot of heavy lifting story-wise but are a little flat, with the hole growing in pretty much the same way each time.
A little arty, very funny, quite fun and brief, Donut County is a vivid vignette and great romp for an afternoon. Dive right in and lose yourself in its quirks and you’ll be delighted, jump down the hole with an archetype or rubric to fill and you’ll be bitterly disappointed. More oddball than cornball, the game is youthful, creative and clearly the product of a lot of time and imagination.