You could be forgiven for thinking Viva Piñata was just another attempt to cash in on the lucrative kiddy/casual audience, after all its accompanying television show certainly gives you that impression, but are Rare giving off mixed signals? Yes and no. Delve past the bright, flamboyant, almost hypnotic, flashy opening titles and things start to look up. Viva Piñata takes all the best parts of games aimed at kids and merges it with structure and more complex gameplay than your first impressions thought possible. The adorable Piñatas and picturesque environment is more than enough to keep even the youngest of kids attentive, whilst the challenges and actual building of an "ecosystem" make Viva Piñata possibly the 360’s first adult/kid combo game.
The story keeps things pretty simple and stays focused on the target audience. Piñata Central, located at the centre of Piñata Island, hosts multiple gardens, where Piñatas are lavished with toys, sweets and even fancy dress costumes. When they're ready, it's Langston Lickatoad's job to make sure the Piñatas are sent to the right party - no place is too far. Piñatas are flung out of a conveniently positioned cannon dubbed Cannoñata at the core of the Island, ready to charm and entertain children all across the world. Your ultimate goal, though, is to follow in the great Jardiniero's footsteps and become the Master Gardener. Oh, and to fend off the sinister Dastardos - Piñata Island's very own grim reaper!
Part of what makes your garden feel special are the surrounding backdrops - waterfalls, snowy white mountains, rivers flowing into your garden, and of course the town where all your helpers live - I'll touch on that later. If you take a couple of minutes to soak in the fairytale like scenery you can spot various Piñatas in the distance, such as a Fizzlybear plodding down Terror Mountain, or the unwelcome Dastardos, whose decrepit house lives on the outskirts of your plot. The day/night cycle helps bring a touch more realism to your garden. Sunset gives a beautiful monotone shade much like a summer’s evening. Thunderstorms are also an occurrence - I found myself rushing all my Piñatas back into their homes, even the annoying stray Whirlms. Another nice touch are the water droplets that appear during a rain cycle. The Piñatas themselves are really the true beauty of this game though, it seems a lot of passion went into creating and designing each Piñata, giving them each their own unique identity. Each Piñata has 3 varient options, simply feed a specific item to change their colour, adding another element to customizing. Each Piñata has its own quirky name, normally but not limited to, a sweet and always an animal. Rather than go down the route of calling them something basic, Rare came up with brilliant names such as Mallowolf and Sherbat.
Often enough I kept "misplacing" my Piñata after he got back from a party, partly because my little Crowla became invisible. The only thing I could do was either wait an absurd amount of time and hope he got some colour back into his cheeks or sell him. I chose the former, and safe to say he eventually returned to form. One problem I encountered was some of the smaller Piñatas getting stuck on some of the landscape, often causing me to have to readjust some parts of land, which was a minor annoyance. Finally, flying Piñatas can be a nuisance to get a hold of, also they shamelessly ignore orders even if their candiosity meter is full. I should note, if you want any of your other Piñatas to do anything their candiosity meter should be at least near full, this is indicates how happy your piñata is. You can keep them happy by treating them well, buying joy sweets and feeding them.
Pleasant backing music dips in and out throughout the game and never really changes - it's not dramatic or flashy. It creates, at times, a calm feeling to your garden, and that's all you really need to ask for given the genre and style of the game. The variety of music during each Piñata’s unique romance dance only adds to the bizarreness of it all. The dialogue is hit and miss - sometimes witty, sometimes just plain unfunny; though the voice acting itself is delivered perfectly on all fronts. However, after visiting Costolot's General Store for the umpteenth time, it gets very tiresome listening to the same old lines. Never to be outdone, the Piñatas make themselves noticed with their ever cute voices which could mirror Pokemon.
When you first enter your garden it doesn't much resemble one; the term blank canvas springs to mind. You're tasked with breaking up various pieces of litter that scour your mini wasteland. For this, you're going to need your spade, which can be used for breaking up said items, flattening dry ground, digging holes to plant seeds, and creating ponds. An easy way to access the spade is using the D-pad, from which you can also equip various seed packets to grow long or short grass, and the watering can, obviously for watering plants and sometimes Piñatas! Extensive makeovers to your garden benefit greatly from using the D-pad, helping to keep the flow by not having to constantly open and close menus. However, menus play a big part in designing your garden and more. You have a journal that keeps track of all the awards you acquire from completing various Piñata and plant tasks, it also tracks how many and what Piñatas you have in your garden, how much space you're using and all your basic stats, such as level and gardener status. There's also a handy "how to" guide and an encyclopaedia.
Most of the menu interfaces are well done, save for the village and post office, were I can't help but think a bit more effort could have gone in to designing them. They feel more like a device from a Saturday night gameshow; Leafos and co even serve as the mannequins standing to the right, needlessly hitting the item vending machines if only to annoy the player.
The Village will be the most commonly visited place, so I'll give a brief description of each vendor. Also worth noting: chocolate coins are the currency on Piñata Island. Willy the builder is going to build your Piñata homes and has a few other options such as Helper homes. Helpers can be employed from Arfur's Inn and each have their own uses with helping out in day to day gardening. Paper Pets is the place to go if you want to spoil your Piñata and dress them up, wait until you see a Squazzil in Astro-Walkers! Gretchen Fetchem's is the place to go if you want a new Piñata without all the hassle of having to attract one. That said, you can only have her catch Piñatas you have previously had reside in your garden, so this isn't a cheap trick to bypass all the hard work. Costolot's Store is going to be where you spend most of your chocolate coins. From here, you can buy fertiliser, seeds, fruit, vegetables, toys, ornaments and upgrades to your tools. I should also add: if you can pick it up, you can sell it; so harvesting fruit, or even Piñatas, can be a good money spinner.
However, what good is a garden with just a couple of Whirlms knocking about the place? Not very exciting, so you're going to want to bring new exotic Piñatas into the fold. To attract new Piñatas you're going to need to experiment with different landscapes and plants. This is usually pretty easy and as one new Piñata appears another isn't far away. You will know when you have a new Piñata appear, they pace back and forth around your garden and have no colour whatsoever. Once this is done you need to lure them in as a visitor. Again, there are set requirements for this but if you think along the lines of what each Piñata needs it shouldn't be too difficult to figure out - for example, Bunnycombs are going to be sniffing out carrots. When this has been done, you will get a notification to tell you a new resident has joined your garden, then keep a close eye on the Piñata as they shed their Zebra coat and form a natural colour in a mini dance.
Sour Piñatas. Treat them like you would a cockroach infestation, they're bad news! You can't miss sours, they have a distinct red and black coat and vomit foul steaming sweets ready for a poor innocent unsuspecting Piñata to gobble up, which in turn makes your Piñata very ill. Don't worry though as the Doc is always at hand. If you don't call the Doc however, things turn ... sour. When you see Dastardos, you should be worried, he's the grim reaper of Piñata Island and he takes no prisoners. You can't deter or delay him; so at all times, you need to make sure your Piñatas are safe and sound; and should they fall ill, make sure you call the Doc straight away. Back on the topic of Sour Piñatas, each has its own bad habit, but they can be reformed with a little devious trickery. Just like the process of attracting new Piñatas, you're going to have to complete certain tasks before they're tamed. Do that, and the rewards are well worth it. You will have a brand new Piñata for your garden, and they swap their bad habits for good ones - the Macaracoon can bring you home items, which is always very welcome. On top of that, you have the option to buy a piece towards the "Tower of Sour" which helps eliminate the amount of sours that enter your garden. One last pest is Professor Pester and his Ruffians. They can't kill your Piñatas but they can cause chaos and annoyance. Certain tamed sours do a good job of keeping Ruffians at bay. It's a nice touch adding a certain level of danger to the game but ruffians are just a pain, perhaps the weather could have been taken into consideration as a potential hazard instead.
Romancing is a beautiful thing on Piñata Island. Nothing lifts the spirits of a gardener more than a new born Piñata. Select your Piñata and find out what you need to do to get your little Casonova in the mood to breed; once that's done, you need to pair it with a Piñata of the same species that has also had romance requirements met. Now comes the mini-game challenge. The aim of the game is to guide your Piñata through a maze to his or her lover. Bombs mark your pathway, meaning precision is key. As you progress through the game, different Piñatas' challenges will prove more difficult than the last, including moving and invisible bombs. You only have a minute and several lives so you can't hang about! When you successfully complete the romance challenge, just sit back and wait for Storkos to deliver the egg; then you're free to continue breeding the same Piñatas, but the more you breed, the less lives you will have at your disposal. You can mix breed in the game but its very limited, the outcome of such experimenting brings with it some rather funny Piñatas though!
All of the above goes some way to helping you in your overall goal to become Master Gardener. As you level up through doing the various tasks and challenges, more perks will become available you, including garden size increases and rank ups.
Viva Piñata is one of those games you can sink hours into without realising. Although the goal of the game is to become Master Gardener, there isn't a lot of emphasis put on that, meaning sometimes it feels like the whole game is free roam. To unlock everything in the game you can spend upwards of around 30 hours, though even when you have unlocked everything it's nice to be able to build your own garden with no restrictions. Multiple gardens allow for the player to have different "themes" such as an entire garden made up of a lake, to help attract more amphibious Piñatas. Multiplayer is nothing to shout about, another player can join your garden over co-op but options are limited as to what they can actually do. You can also trade Piñatas, plants, seeds and accessories over Xbox Live via the handy Post Office. The lack of any real online multiplayer makes the game feel a bit shut off from the world. The improvements made in Viva Piñata: Trouble In Paradise could have been implemented in Viva Piñata given a bit more time, giving the game a lot more replayability.
In a generation packed with shooters and realistic mature titles, Viva Piñata is, simply put, very refreshing. The Piñatas bring this game to life, and the slow pace and calm vibe given off makes it perfect for a rainy day, whether young or old. Viva Piñata heads the pack for helping Microsoft diversify the 360's library. For any simulation fans out there, this warrants your attention.