Viva Pinata comes to the 360 straight from Rare, yes the same Rare behind Banjo Kazooie, Donkey Kong and of course Goldeneye. This is a pretty stellar background and sets the precedent for Rare as being a company which produces classic and original games. Viva Pinata is no different it follows, very loosely, the ideas set out by games such as The Sims and real time strategy games but apart from the idea that the gamer plays the role of a ‘God’ or some other sort of controller Viva Piñata is in a league of its own.
The entire idea of the game is to attract and breed piñatas and shape your garden to make them happy, doing so allows you to increase your level in numerical order which gets you ever closer to becoming the Ultimate Gardener. Of course there are other objectives, for instance Piñata Central occasionally contacts you once you reach a certain level requesting some of your piñatas to attend parties and there is always the threat of Ruffians, nasty piñatas, dropping their sour candy to contend with, otherwise known as poison to piñatas. While this seems like a somewhat limited style of play it’s expanded a hell of a lot by the sheer amount of things you can do in your garden and the amount of actual piñatas is staggering. Succeeding in your objectives means you gain better titles, more garden space and better equipment.
Gameplay is staggered by withholding certain elements until the player reaches a certain level. For instance you start with a very basic spade which is later upgraded to allow you to dig ponds, cut down trees and dig holes for seed planting. For the most part this holding elements back is done very well, you reach a new level and obtain a new tool or ability and it’s pretty damn handy and integrates itself into the game well. Now, this game was made for kids, as much can be seen by the simplistic menu layout and the colourful… well everything, even the controller had a simple and advanced setting. Having said that, even adults (I’m 21) can easily find themselves sucked into the Viva Piñata world despite the overly cutesy and, if you are older than 7, patronising way of explaining the game mechanics. It’s quite an addictive thing trying to attract that elusive piñata that keeps hanging around just outside of your reach and, while I never played Pokemon, I imagine it’s the same sort of drive.
Sound serves its purpose, there are ‘unhappy’ sounds when a Ruffian leaves a sour little present on your lawn, ‘happy’ sounds when a baby piñata is hatched and uplifting sounds when two piñatas are about to… get it on. There’s always something going on somewhere in your garden and if you play for long enough you’ll gradually get to know these sounds so you can be shifted into action as soon as you hear a fight begin rather than wait until you’re notified by the alert system which appears at the bottom of the screen when something noteworthy happens. It’s also strangely satisfying to hear the sound signifying you’ve got a brand new piñata resident and then hear the piñata making its own sound.
Graphics are truly great, granted there’s not really much to show off with but the piñatas roam with their ‘fur’ moving realistically, the grass and plants are suitably cartoony, water reflects and ripples and, even though you can’t get there, the surrounding village is out there looking inviting or threatening depending on what part of the village you’re looking at. The day is on an accelerated cycle but still happens on a regular basis and so you not only have to tend to your garden during the friendly hours of daylight but also at night time when your only source of light is your cursor, unless you buy alternative light sources of course. There is also different weather and the effect I first noticed in Metal Gear Solid 2 is present, the rain settles on your screen as if falling on the camera lens, it’s a little touch but it serves to suck you further into the game.
As for the AI it could be better, there are helpers who bumble around your garden carrying out the menial tasks that used to occupy your attention when you were a lesser gardener, there are helpers who water seedlings, who gather things to be sold and who protect your garden from Ruffians but none are fool proof, the Sprinkler is probably the most reliable of the lot and I don’t have any complaints about that one but unfortunately the Gatherling (a rather chunky woman) manages to get in places and then forget how to get out, if you don’t free her she’ll quit and go off to work for someone else, she also often misses fruit that has dropped and leaves it to go rotten. The day and night Watchlings are meant to keep your garden free of Ruffians and sour piñatas but they’re far from an impenetrable fortress and these nasty creatures often slip through to leave their sour candy, poison to piñatas. Although these are minor annoyances the helpers are not the main game, they merely supplement the gameplay mechanics and so these shortcomings don’t hamper the game too much. Onto the piñatas themselves, often to get them in the mood it’s required that they eat certain foods or perform certain tasks, to get them to do this can be a bit of a burden since a lot of the time they seem not to want to. Making a Redhott took me far too long. They do however possess enough intelligent to go about surviving which is more than can be said for The Sims so I’m not complaining too much.
Overall this is an excellent game, it’s quirky, it’s different, it’s a nice diversion from all the killing and explosions. If you want a normal, standard game then go for Crackdown, go for Oblivion or go for Test Drive Unlimited, if you want something different to all those then give Viva Piñata a try.