Viva Pinata is the kind of game that you can lose hours in without accomplishing that much. Then again, what do you ever really accomplish in games like The Sims or Animal Crossing? Viva Pinata is a gardening simulator/creature raising game that takes place on the fictional land of Pinata Island. Here piņatas await their turn to entertain parties, as if a higher calling. While many Xbox 360 gamers are probably enjoying the likes of Gears of War, Lost Planet, and many other oft violent additions to the console lineup, Viva Pinata will probably be overlooked. It's a shame, since Viva Pinata is one of the best games this year.
It's important to disconnect the game from the humdrum CGI animation on 4Kids TV from which the theme of "piņata" is taken. The show concept was also created by Rare, however, so it cannot be disconnected entirely. Although I'm not a fan of the series, it's important to note that disliking the show does not mean you'll dislike the game. The game does sport an "E" for everyone rating, but is likely to be more worth the while of adults than kids, the latter of which might not be able to deal with the complexity of the micromanagement. In fact, I was surprised with some very adult minded gameplay and little to no hand-holding throughout.
There's no real linearity though there is logic to it; you progress by growing plants, attracting piņatas and breeding them. And in true "simulator" style, there is no real end to it. In what order you attract the different species of piņata is dependent on the kind of garden you create for them. Certain ones, like the doenut, for instance, like lots of long grass, while Swanana need lots of water. Piņatas need other piņatas too. The Sparrowmint, one of the early piņatas, needs the basic whirlm and even eats them. At first, their aggression to the whirlm can irritate (when Francis, one of my whirlm, was eaten, I was slightly irked), until you figure out that you can fence in your whirlm and breed them for food, selling the Sparrowmints for some cold, hard cash. You see, there are reasons to keep the bastardly Sparrowmints around, even if you're attached to your whirlm: they're worth more money.
Each piņata has a base worth. As you progress you'll be able to buy items from the store for your piņatas to wear. This increases their happiness and their worth. And as you level up as a gardener, you'll be able to attract new and more exotic piņata species. I really like the Cinnamonkeys; they're slightly creepy, but also cute at the same time.
Most of your time in the game will be taken up by planting new species of plant and breeding piņatas. Each piņata has specific requirements to breed and once you meet those requirements, a big pink heart appears over his/her head. Then you just direct one with a heart to another with a heart and they'll "romance." Pinata are unisex, so no need to bother pairing male/female - in this world of piņatas everyone can do it like they do on the Discovery Channel.
Get two piņata with hearts together and you'll go to the romancing mini-game. Here you have to guide one piņata to the mate while avoiding red bombs called loathers. Get them together and in a minute you'll have a brand new egg (all piņatas have eggs delivered by a strange flying woman named Storkos). The egg will hatch and voila
a new piņata! Each mini game is different and many of them, particularly the mini games for the rare piņata, are incredibly difficult.
The first time you romance a species you'll be treated to the "romance dance" cut-scene where the two parents dance together to music. The music varies from era to era; one species will dance the tango while others do a sort of heavy metal. It's fun to see what the next song type will be. And I couldn't help but be impressed by the cuteness factor, which is never overbearing.
Growing plants is also pretty fun and rewarding. Each time you grow a plant to maturity (this takes a long time to discover) you'll raise a few levels and progress quickly in gardener rank (just like by breeding piņatas). The garden will increase in size and you'll have access to more items for the garden. Some items attract piņata, while others keep some away (more on that later). As your garden increases in size, you will have the opportunity to hire help. Some hired help will keep sour (read: evil) piņata at bay, while other help will gather seeds and contraband, exchanging them for money.
Sometimes, Piņata Island Central will send word that they need a special piņata and then you'll be timed to get that piņata for them. These "missions" are pretty easy and you can always opt out. So if you don't have a "Mousemallow X 2" then just say no and next time maybe they'll ask for something you have. There doesn't seem to be any pattern to what Piņata Central asks for.
Graphically, the game is amazing. Every tree, flower, and piņata is rendered and animated extremely well. Zoom in on your Syrupent and he'll turn and look at you, maybe even do a little dance. Flying piņatas will perch on trees and houses, smaller prey will stay around tall grass so they won't be consumed by bigger predators. Certain natural piņata enemies (like the Raisant and the Buzzlegum) will get in fights often and need to be set apart. Some piņata can be evolved. Most can change colors, causing "variants." And nearly all piņata serve a purpose in your garden. For instance, the buzzlegums will harvest honey if you have the right setup. Viva Pinata is very lively and pleasing to look at. Each piņata is emotive and will frown, smile, or just muck about. But more than that, the game is never stagnant. Everything is either in a state of growth or decay. And the player has to constantly play keep up so the garden doesn't fall into disarray. Life
, it seems, has been breathed into a videogame, finally.
Topping the graphics, somehow, is the soundtrack. Somehow besting, at least in this reviewer's opinion, the soundtrack from Gears of War and Oblivion, Viva Pinata's music is of a lively, energetic, serene, and unique tone, ubiquitous but never too much. It is ever changing, with the weather, and does so fluidly and deliberately. Sometimes the soundtrack fades and you can hear the piņata chirping or mooing (or whatever it is yours do), the quiet trickle of water, or the rustling of the trees. You can even tell when piņata are able to breed merely by the more romantic soundtrack.
Life on Pinata Island isn't all fun romps through gardens though. Your piņata can become sick or get attacked by sour piņata, they can be smashed open by a guy named Dastardos, and your garden can be wrecked by Professor Pester and his pupils, the Ruffians. Fulfill the requirements and you can convert a sour piņata into a tame one. Find a key item and you'll keep Professor Pester and the Ruffians away for good. There are even ways to stun and stall Dastardos so he doesn't break open your precious piņatas.
Of course, life in Viva Piņata always comes full circle, and a piņata that has been smashed open leaves behind a bunch of candy. This is also slightly disturbing and humorous in its own way: other piņata will devour these candies and become happier. So piņata are constantly eating other piņatas innards. They're cannibals. Okay, I'm cool with that.
Controlling Viva Pinata can be done in two ways: there is an advanced and basic layout. The basic layout (which is meant for younger kids) doesn't let you pan around and look at the garden the way the advanced layout (just like a first person shooter) does. The basic setup is a little too basic for most people's tastes, but the advanced setup seems limited in what it can do. For instance, there are a few too many button presses to get to the store (including one load screen). You can always go back to the garden while purchasing an item with a simple press of the back button, but getting to the stores takes a little too much time. And since you'll be doing it very frequently, we would have liked to see that streamlined.
Another minor hiccup is that piņata and helpers can get eternally stuck in places around the garden, like between bushes, in the air, or in and at the extremities. Once I had to sell my Squazzil because he was unable to go breed. It doesn't happen that often, but I can guarantee that it'll happen at least once.
And there needs to be an easier way to get farther from the garden for a bird's eye view. The right stick click goes to an overhead, but you can't look around it from there to do any surveying for future landscaping.
And I'm not terribly certain that the lock-on grid mechanic is always working properly. It is currently impossible to select a flying piņata that is in a tree or on anything high up. You must first select the tree and tap it with your shovel (which requires a few other button presses). By then, the piņata might have moved on anyway and then you'll have to track it down.
The game is extremely addicting, however, which makes up, somewhat, for its minor shortcomings.
Rare has created a fine game. In my opinion, this is their best so far under the Microsoft umbrella. Not in the sense that I don't like Kameo, Conker: BFD, Banjo-Kazooie, or Perfect Dark Zero; I do. They're fun games too. But where Kameo was a mix of too predictable and too random and PDZ was unbalanced, Viva Pinata is a truly original and inspired game. It's also one that has moved my interests away from Gears of War, one of the most addicting games I've played in a long time. I'm not sick of shooting things yet, but there is merit in Viva Piņata that even Gears of War doesn't have.
Beneath the childish, puke-inducing exterior is a game that borders on brilliant. Here is a game of such addictive quality that few games on the Xbox 360, or any system for that matter, have managed to surpass. The only problem is getting past that tough outer shell. Do that and you'll be in for a real treat.