Video games can take on a plethora of beautiful forms ranging far beyond the traditional parameters of genre. This is something I’ve learned from playing more indie titles than ever over the past two years or so.
Knowing this, I’ve been motivated to experiment with options great and small, straightlaced and offbeat, praised and panned. I want to explore gaming for all its worth. From that mission comes this review.
Of all the titles I played in 2020, Donut County is simultaneously the simplest and the most impactful. Pretty bold claim, right? Yet it’s one by which I’ll gladly stand, and you’ll see exactly why throughout the remainder of this text.
Developer: Ben Esposito
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Release date: December 18, 2018
While it may best fit into the “puzzle” classification, Donut County plays most akin to Katamari Damacy. The main difference is that you guide about an ever-growing hole instead of rolling a ball to swallow up the contents of the titular region. This mechanic is every bit as gleefully silly as it sounds.
Most levels start you off with a teensy-tiny hole only capable of consuming similarly teensy-tiny objects like blades of grass and bricks. By the end of a given level, it’s not uncommon for that initial hole to have swelled to the point of dropping vehicles and buildings without strife.
As with Katamari before it, wrecking the environment around me in Donut County was both exciting from a gameplay standpoint and amusing in a narrative context. While I didn’t need to turn on my brain all that much, I believe the mindlessness of the experience atually contributed to the charm.
The one thing I’ll say Katamari does a little better is creating a feeling of havoc. Sure, I ruined lives with my hole in Donut County, but I never really felt all that “big,” ya know? Since the game takes place within a single county, this is justified, even if I would’ve preferred larger scope.
Don’t get me, wrong, though. Donut County definitely has its superb moments. I’ll never forget lighting a trailer park on fire, gobbling up a traffic jam like Tic Tacs or blowing over Raccoon HQ like a tornado. My brothers and I got a real kick out of playing with the physics just to see what would happen.
But hey, if there’s one thing Donut County does supremely well, it’s puzzles. I felt that these environmental enigmas tested my mind just enough without compromising the game’s chill atmosphere. The developers came up with some really clever stuff.
About midway through the game, you’ll unlock a catapult for your hole that allows you to propel recently swallowed objects into the sky. This mechanic proved particularly pivotal in puzzle solving, whether I was powering a waterwheel with water balloons or unlocking a door with a key card.
There’s only one boss battle of which to speak, but in a game this brief and saccharine, I couldn’t possibly ask for more. This final encounter smartly utilized every mechanic I’d learned thus far and expertly capped off the narrative at the same time. Talk about a rewarding resolution.
One thing I’d recommend is playing through the story with a friend or two if you can. My two brothers and I took turns completing levels, which made the experience that much better. This game is so downright funny that it deserves an audience greater than one.
I believe the gameplay in Donut County is phenomenal despite—or perhaps because of?—its simplicity. (Heck, you could probably master the mechanics immediately after reading this review.) As long as you don’t go in expecting intricacy, I have a strong feeling that you’ll like it, too.
Frankly, Donut County is not a long game—far from it. My brother and I completed the entire story in the span of a couple hours. But you know what? The experience was 100 percent satisfying from beginning to end.
Donut County resembles a movie, album, or arcade game to me in the sense that I’ll likely be able see it to its conclusion multiple times without feeling overly fatigued or like I wasted precious time I could’ve spent playing something new. I already plan to play this annually if possible.
The only issue is that, no matter how you slice it, this is not a game that will feel fresh with each playthrough. Once you’ve watched every cutscene and solved every puzzle, there’s not much you can do to shake things up. There certainly aren’t hidden collectibles or anything like that.
Still, the lack of change renders my comparison to movies and albums all the more apt. With a movie, literally nothing changes with each subsequent viewing, yet so many of us are content to pop in our favorite movies again and again. This is the kind of experience that lies in Donut County.
You can play levels individually if there’s a favorite stage you’d like to revisit or you just can’t stomach redoing the story all in one go. This was an especially useful feature for me since I took turns playing with my brothers and therefore didn’t have the opportunity to try every scenario myself.
Here’s something cool regarding the content: the Trashopedia. As you collect “garbage”—or people’s prized possessions, same diff—you’ll unlock written entries detailing said garbage from BK’s point of view. These are absolutely hysterical and totally worth reading if you want to spend more time in this universe.
The available options are fairly standard yet quite useful. You can adjust the SFX and music volumes, crank up the controller sensitivity, toggle rumble on or off, and choose from one of 12 languages on the fly. Being able to view the Trashopedia in the pause menu is also pretty nice.
Whether you’re as satisfied as I was will likely depend on how much you pay. I found Donut County on sale for a clean $3.47, whereas the usual MSRP is $12.99. In all honesty, I think the game still packs plenty of value to justify such a price, but your mileage will undoubtedly vary.
As for the $34.99 physical version…hoo-boy is that a tough ask. Maybe I’ll splurge on it someday.
There are few games on this Earth as wonderously easy to control as Donut County. For the first half of the game, all you’ll need is your trusty left analog stick. The back half merely throws the A button into the mix.
As you might expect, pushing the left analog stick moves the hole across the ground, and tapping the A button launches the hole’s catapult. There’s also a pause button. Try not to get thrown off by the complex inputs.
In all seriousness, my party of gamers, ranging in age from 7 to 19, had no trouble whatsoever immediately grasping the point of the game and how to make it do what we wanted.
It certainly helps that the physics functioned perfectly throughout the duration of our playthrough—a welcome trait in a physics-based puzzler. You won’t find the slightest hint of jank ‘round these parts.
That’s really all I can say, y’all. Donut County controls like a gosh darned dream without alienating less experienced players. (Not that it’s a competition, but I suppose that’s one point over Katamari Damcy.)
I’ve always liked stories in games. However, I don’t think I ever truly recognize just how powerful a storytelling medium video games could be until I played through Donut County with my brother New Year’s Eve.
Donut County is essentially “Bottle Episode: The Video Game” in that it charts a small group of characters as they discuss previous events while trapped in a single locale. Is this the most complex narrative ever told through a video game? Well, no, but it doesn’t need to be. The story is charming nonetheless.
Because I don’t want to ruin any of the good parts for you, I’ll sum up this portion by saying that the story is funny as heck, due in no small part to the expertly deployed “text slang” used for dialog. (The writing feels very similar to Ryan North’s Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, for the comic book fans among us).
I consider the deliberately low-poly, explosively colorful visuals a tasty treat for the eyes. The diverse characters smartly juxtapose with the somewhat tame environments, making the events Donut County feels simultaneously possible and improbable. I really dig the aesthetics, man.
Even better, the game runs precisely as it should. (In fact, I think I’d be more surprised if something this incredibly simple were lacking in framerate or resolution.) If you’re worried that potential technical issues may break your sense of immersion, don’t. No kidding.
In short, Donut County pulls off its gorgeous presentation without ever taking itself too seriously. As someone who appreciates artistry and comedy in equal measures, you can call me impressed.
Far and away one of the most pristine aspects of the entire Donut County experience is the bumpin’ sound design, which perfectly meshes with the relaxing mechanics and colorful visuals.
Daniel Koestner and Ben Esposito’s soundtrack is a literal blessing to the human ears. The 42 tranquil, bass-heavy romps strung throughout the game do wonders toward setting the tone. Beyond that, they were an absolute joy to listen to again while writing this review.
In a way, the musical direction sort of reminds me of the Toonami Deep Space Bass album. Although it’s not quite drum and bass, the Donut County soundtrack does manage to invoke similar vibes. My personal favorite tunes from the game are “Holes”, “999ft Below”, “Study Beats”, “Trash King”, “Boss Fight”, and—above all else—“Quack Anthem”.
The sound effects are equally delightful. To me, the Donut County universe manages to sound funky, silly even, without shattering any sense of reality. I’m also a big fan of the nonsense voices with which the characters speak in cutscenes. Everything resonates exactly as it should.
Considering how perfect the rest of the game is, it should come as no surprise that the audio is superb in all regards. Thanks, Koestner and Esposito. Y’all worked some real magic here.
Although this review is shorter than usual, my feelings on this title are no less strong. Donut County is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most entertaining video games I had the pleasure of playing in 2020.
In retrospect, I kinda wish I had purchased the physical version, but I’m glad I supported the creators regardless. Small-scale indie experiences like this need our support if we want to keep the home gaming industry interesting.
So yeah, with all that being said, you already know I recommend Donut County, especially if you’re a Katamari fan. I’d say this game sufficiently scratched an itch I didn’t even know I had.