When Ben Esposito first revealed Donut County, I was sold. I loved the stark, colorful art style and simplicity of the concept: move a hole to collect the objects that fall in, thus making your hole bigger and allowing you to nab even larger objects. My only worry was whether the game could extend that basic idea into a full-length experience, something that feels more like a real game and less like a proof of concept.
Now, four years on, Donut County is finally here. The good news is that Esposito did come up with a few ideas on how to turn moving a hole into a full game. The bad news is he doesn’t have nearly enough of them. Instead, Donut County tries to lean on its quirky charms to prop up the gameplay, charms that prove far too thin by the final chapter.
In essence, Donut County’s primary method for padding out its gameplay is turning levels into puzzles, albeit fairly simple ones with (usually) clear-cut solutions. The appeal is in discovering the new rules of each level, not in stretching your brain to unravel any complex challenges. For example, on one stage, collecting a specific snake causes its tail to stick up from the hole, allowing you to press buttons and knock around objects in the environment. I won’t spoil more than that, since to do so would take away much of the point in actually playing the game, but most stages fall into the same mold. There’s some minor extension of the hole’s capabilities that helps you progress through the otherwise straightforward process of going from small to big.
And that’s pretty much all there is to it. I hate to play armchair designer, but one of the strangest things about Donut County is how it fails to follow the most obvious template for making its gameplay compelling. “Collect all the physics-based junk in a level to allow you to pick up bigger and bigger junk” is pretty transparently Katamari Damacy’s shtick, and that series accomplishes wonderful things with dead-simple gameplay by creating entertaining sandbox levels that take a playful approach to scale and allow you the flexibility to chart your own course through each miniature world.
Donut County borrows the basic formula but doesn’t crib the scope or freedom, and it’s worse for it. You’re just exploring small, one-screen areas, and the camera only pulls out to a larger scope at a few set points. The shifts have no real dynamism or drama. You hoover up whatever you can, then move onto the next phase. You never really get the sense that you made any actual choices along the way. There’s no room for surprise.
In fact, there’s not much room for anything in Donut County. I’d already nabbed the platinum trophy less than three hours after I first started playing, and that wasn’t continuous play. To be clear, I’m not faulting Donut County for being too short. I’d love it if more games could pack their full experience into a single afternoon rather than artificially dragging things out for dozens of hours. I adore 30 Flights of Loving, a game that takes all of five minutes to finish. But Donut County is short and somehow also too short on ideas for its playtime. It’s not just brief. It’s slight.
What’s more, a substantial portion of the game’s playing time is actually dedicated to story content, piecing together the tale of a raccoon named BK and the county full of talking animals he’s sending tumbling into the cavernous depths below. As we progress through the lineup of characters, each the focus of their own level, we get a thin sketch of their lives and personalities before they got holed, as well as a few clues about what’s afoot in Donut County on a larger scale. None of this is nearly compelling enough to justify the amount of focus it’s been given.
And if the setup all sounds a little twee to you, a little self-parodically indie, well, you’re pretty on the mark. This is maybe the closest gaming has come to all those navel-gazing indie movies from the 2000s that have aged quite poorly in the years since. It’s a modernized version of the vibe, sure, but the core elements are all there. The colors are bright, the soundtrack all jangly and dreamlike. Characters speak in a quirky and unnatural way—here even the spoken dialogue is littered with text-message acronyms. The world itself is packed with little unexplained oddities. And in the least admirable appropriation, the story’s leading woman, Mira, feels completely flat, only there to push back against, inspire, and ultimately forgive our trash panda hero. No one really has much of a relatable human journey here, but Mira has even less than most, despite being so central to the story.
The writing finds some redemption in the Trashopedia, a list of all the items you’ve collected throughout the game, each with a pithy, jokey description. These have more genuine personality than pretty much anything else in the game, but that’s not to say they’re great. I’m notoriously easy to please when it comes to dumb humor, but I’m not sure I cracked a smile reading any of them, and I certainly didn’t laugh out loud. The peak here is probably “mild internal amusement.”
In truth, perhaps the most damning thing I can say about Donut County is that I’m already forgetting it. I beat the game late last week but didn’t have time to sit down and write this full review until after the weekend, and already I’m finding myself having to look up specifics, just because the impression it left on me was so faint. Donut County has all the impact of a butterfly landing gently on a slab of wet concrete.
The pleasures of Donut County, such as they are, lie in the relaxation and immediate satisfaction of watching all manner of objects drop into a hole, over and over again. I won’t knock the zen appeal of turning off your brain and chilling out as you vacuum up a town, so if that’s all you’re looking for in a game, hey, you might not be as disappointed as I was. There’s certainly nothing overtly offensive in Donut County—but maybe that’s because there’s nothing much at all.
|Publisher: Annapurna Interactive • Developer: Ben Esposito • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 8.28.2018|
Donut County isn’t really bad at what it sets out to do, but its ambitions are so meager that you can’t help but feel the concept hasn’t been explored to the fullest extent. This is indie game design at its most disposable. I’d be shocked if anyone is still talking about—or even remembers—Donut County a year or two from now.
|The Good||Pleasant in small doses if you just want to zone out and watch things fall into a hole.|
|The Bad||Not much depth beyond that, and no real reason to return.|
|The Ugly||Having to page through dialogue when you just want to replay a level.|
|Donut County is available on PS4, PC, Mac, and iOS. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Annapurna Interactive for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.|