A Bite-Sized Experience With A Lot Of Flavour
Platform: Xbox, PS4, iOS, PC, Switch
Developer: Ben Esposito
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Release date: 28-Aug-2020
Over the past few weeks, I have been biting off quite a bit in terms of the games I have been playing. Maybe it's the year that I found myself in, but now more than ever I yearn for sprawling open worlds with rich tapestries of story for me to get lost in. The seemingly endless worlds such as Fallout: New Vegas and Final Fantasy XIV have been where I have chosen to spend my dystopian everyday life, however, sometimes you just need to plop onto the couch and play something fun for a while.
Well, Uncle Gamepass has always got me covered when that itch strikes, and once again it delivered. Scrolling through the games on offer, keeping a watchful eye for something manageable, this was to be a palate cleanser after all (and not another 100+ hour commitment). Perusing the indie offerings, one caught my eye. One that I knew was highly regarded as in my insatiable ingestion of gaming podcasts I have only heard positive things in the years since its release, but most importantly, one that I knew was short enough to finish in one sitting. That offering was Donut County.
Ok, let's get the wiki dump out of the way… Donut County was released in 2018 on pretty much everything under the sun at that point. Mobile, consoles, and PC. Its strikingly simple concept translated pretty flawlessly to all walks of gaming which is something I have rarely seen in the medium.
It began life as a game jam concept based on a game idea pitch from a parody Twitter account of Peter Molyneux, so you know the ideas were bonkers! That then thrown in with the idea to make something that was the “reverse Katamari” was a fantastic starting point for Indie game dev Ben Esposito to build up one hell of a charming experience.
It released to critical acclaim, however its greatest reviews always seem to come from the players. A tradition I'm happy to continue here. ;)
Serving you 'Mobile chic'
The first thing that took me when booting up Donut County for the first (and last) time was its eye-grabbing art style. Sharing something akin to Untitled Goose Game in its pastel cel-shaded graphical approach, it works very much in the games suggestive, imaginative, and playful favour. Often I found myself staring at a character, trying to figure out what exactly their Play-Doh form was supposed to represent, realising that as I stared my mind was filling in a lot of the visual detail without my knowledge. Something that always excites me as my mental image is unique, as will everyone who plays this game. However it may just be simple shapes not to be thought of too much, either way, beautiful stuff that translates as well on your 5” iPhone to your 50” 4K TV.
This then paired with a bouncy and energetic score by the talented Daniel Koestner makes for a very charming treat for the senses. Daniel uses electronic sounds, precautions, and chords to deliver beautiful pieces that keep you engaged at all times whilst also portraying a Lo-Fi study playlist mentality. A definite follow from me on Spotify for new working background music.
Have A Garbage Day!
The story has you follow the exploits of Mia (the seemingly only human character amongst an entirely anthropomorphic animal cast) and her raccoon friend and coworker BK in the madcap land of Donut County.
Early on you find Mia and BK chatting in a smile-inducing mid-teen text message exchange, one draped across her bed complaining about the neighbours incessant noise ruining their morning and spouting absurd ways they'd like to get back at them, while the other, sprawled out on a doughnut shop counter, joins in the fun while goating the other to make their way into work as their bored.
The bored party being BK, and to motivate Mia’s effort to move, helps her out in the most innocent yet grim way possible. By opening an unexpected chasm underneath this noisy neighbour, plummeting him and all he owns to the unknown depth below! It's at this time we get introduced to the game’s main mechanic, which is where I’d like to park for a moment.
You see, BK owns a tablet, one which has an app installed that allows a hole to suddenly appear in an area. This hole’s sole purpose is to consume, getting larger and larger with every object which falls through its ever-expanding maw. This is where you, the player, step in.
As the player, you have full control over the direction by which this hole travels, in the case of consoles via the left thumbstick, in the case of PC by mouse or keyboard & in the case of mobile by touch and drag. Each method is arguably as intuitive as the last which strikes me as an idea too good to fail in its execution. The challenge (though never too challenging) is in the growing of your proverbial land doughnut hole to accommodate for every item in the given play space.
Whether it be small tufts of vegetation and nick-nacks, or larger things such as furniture and characters, or even larger objects such as buildings and landmasses. Everything can only be swallowed by a hole with a big enough circumference, so the order by which your hole devours the play space is the puzzle to be solved.
Each of these items is stored for future reference in what's called the Trashepedia, accompanied by a small humorous blurb. A nice touch which ties into the nefarious intent of the Donut Hole app’s creator. Though that I will leave it to you to explore.
Wonderfully executed, if not a little easy. I certainly would have loved to see a ramp-up in difficulty requiring precise thinking and tactics such as what is seen in the later levels of the seminal Katamari Demaci by which this game gets its inspiration, but perhaps that would be a bridge too far for those who are controlling via their thumb in mobile.
“Why should I apologise for delivering this pathetic vegetable-eating coyote a donut?”
Another reason it may not ramp up in difficulty is that it might distract from the charming story unravelling before you. From the jump you are introduced to the previously mentioned swallowing of the noisy neighbour which tees off this game's story, however, you are suddenly thrust 6 weeks into the future where Mia, BK, and all of the inhabitants of Donut County are found huddled by a campfire. Each telling their tale of woe on how they ended up here sat among the wreckage of their fallen possessions, which each tee up the next level for you to destroy as they recall.
The writing found here is simple but still manages to evoke a lot of character out of each of the animal residents of Donut County, this then accompanied by unique aspects portrayed by their possessions gave me all I needed to know about them in our short time together. I felt a little for these characters, mostly in a light-hearted fashion and not on the level of let's say A Night In The Woods, but effective nonetheless.
That is where I will stop in terms of story breakdown as to experience it is half of the point. This paired with roughly a 2-3 hour run time doesn't leave much to the imagination. Just play it, you'll thank me later.
Donut County gave me exactly what I wanted. It provided me with a cheerful experience on a particularly draining day. It made me think and explore game design ideas I had not thought of before. It introduced me to a loveable (some not so) cast of characters but most importantly it gave me something easy to finish amongst my mammoth gaming undertakings!
Though if I had to offer a critique, it would be that once I had seen the very creative interactive credits scene, I felt I had no further reason to pick this up again. Something like a free play mode, score attack, or community map maker would have been a massive addition to what is a wonderful concept.
For that reason, I'm uneasy recommending this at its full price of €15/$13. Though if you are aware of its length and this is not a concern, or like me, you have access to Gamepass or find it at a reduced price then please get your raccoon tail on and jump the hell in!
Play this game if…
You like bright and fun experiences
You enjoy light-hearted social satire
You need something bite-sized to cleanse your palate
You’re intrigued by the prospect of the quote “reverse Katamari” :)
All images were taken from the press kit.
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