After the heaviness of last week, I was looking forward to something a bit lighter and a bit more concise that could serve as a brief hiatus between Trails in the Sky SC sessions (a game that I'm adoring so far, by the by). I found a perfect example of what I was looking for in Ben Esposito's cute little tale of a raccoon, his human friend Mira, and a magical moving hole that can swallow anything and everything with enough time.
Donut County isn't trying to pretend it isn't anything more than a truncated Katamari Damacy with some snappy millennial humor and the King of All Cosmos's tenuous grasp on human civilization transplanted onto a tribe of avaricious and curious raccoons, as depicted by the "Trashpedia" which conveys their specious understanding of the world in much the same way KoAC's mighty intellect made the best guesses it could as to the purpose of a coffee cup ("tiny boat?") or a hula hoop ("an art piece that represents infinity?"). The gameplay follows a direct correlation: you have to start by eating the smallest objects and, once you gain in mass, are eventually capable of swallowing larger and larger items until the entire level has been devoured by your voracious void.
Perhaps due to the usual limitations of budget, time, and manpower frequently faced by Indie developers, these levels are relatively small and there's no real margin of error like there is in Katamari Damacy: with very few exceptions, you need to swallow everything in a semi-specific order to complete the level, because there's no room for asset superfluity given the requisite increased amount of 3D modelling involved. This, combined with the relative smallness of the levels and the lack of any danger or a time limit, makes for a very predictable and simple progression through each level. These levels, incidentally, are discussed in flashback by the people who owned the houses getting swallowed up: each level is bookended with a scene with the entire populace of Donut County somewhere deep underground, sitting around a campfire as they deliver their tales of property destruction woes. The foolhardy raccoon responsible, BK, is nothing if not adamant that he was doing a town a favor with these all-consuming "deliveries," though the reality is that he's simply hooked on a raccoon-created app for unlockable prizes as rewards for collecting "trash" for the raccoon leader, the Trash King. The story plays more of a role towards the end of the game as you take the fight to the Trash King, but the first two-thirds simply have you bouncing from one household or business to the next, figuring out what to drop down the hole and in what order, and occasionally solving puzzles (like catapulting objects out of the hole to hit levers high up, or cooking the perfect soup) to make progress. It's a remarkably simple, accessible game even compared to Katamari Damacy - instead of contending with two analogue sticks for movement, you simply drag the hole around the screen to where it needs to be, jiggling it when necessary to make the larger objects fit down. It is, therefore, equally suited to touchscreen controls, mice, and analogue sticks alike.
When the only major complaint I can make about a game is "I wish there was more of it," the critiquing process is starting on some firm footing. Donut County is incredibly brief: the whole game is unlikely to take more than two hours. Bonus objectives like achievements might take only a little bit longer - the means of accomplishing them are all pretty obvious once you've read their descriptions - and filling the encyclopedia of stuff to find, normally the longest "side-quest" of any Katamari Damacy, is automatically completed once the game is over. It feels like there were many ideas left on the drawing board that the designers simply didn't have the time or resources to figure out how to integrate, and due to the aforementioned smallness and "single critical path" nature of levels it's not a game with a whole lot of replay value. The very last level of the game is the only time it becomes truly challenging; the rest of the time the game's more eager to set a chill mood and let you have at it at your own pace. This chill mood is helped considerably with the cute cel-shaded graphics and a soundtrack comprised of soft guitar music, chopped and screwed, with some eccentric synth and vocals to suit the game's idiosyncratic personality. "Lo-fi beats to plunge the world into the abyss to," is maybe a good way of putting it.
Overall, I thought the game was a delightful breath of fresh air. It's a smart condensation of the strengths of the Katamari Damacy franchise, with its own distinct flavor and feel reminiscent of a latter-day Cartoon Network show, and hangs around just long enough that it doesn't wear out its welcome or find itself recycling mechanics once too often, and for as much as I think they could've gone a lot further with the concept I ultimately also appreciate their decision to draw a line in the sand and only go as far as they feel they should. I look forward to eating a bunch of trash with BK and his friends again someday.
: 4 out of 5.
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