Short and sweet.
The stars of Viva Piñata grin and dance as if they’re oblivious to their brutal trade, but Microsoft and Rare just want you to adopt and coddle their paper maché creations. Don’t be afraid - Viva Piñata is a delightful sim literally bursting with sugar-sweet goodness.
is like a Zen garden
that you build for guests. You garnish your small space with different props to lure more than sixty varieties of piñata to your land; when piñatas decide to settle down in your garden, you can sell them, send them off to complete challenges, or pair them off to make (ahem) more piñatas. Don’t worry, I’ll get to that last part ASAP.
You win Viva Piñata
by earning levels, increasing your land value and collecting the threads of a ho-hum world history. Higher ranks yield better equipment, more garden space and prestige titles, until you are named Master Gardener of Piñata Island.
Excellent gameplay quickly drowns out the narrative. Between maintaining my yard, browsing the records and fighting off intruders, I can easily pass a few hours in the garden without aimless pauses or that terrible grinding feeling. It almost takes a little ADD to manage so many elements at once, but the game ramps up at a steady, manageable pace.
The world is a living, thriving ecosystem: if ants and foxes sneak in to eat your fruits and bunnies, you either work them into your plans or beat the candy out of them with your trusty shovel. Sour-candy piñatas leave poisoned treats for your pets, and sharp-toothed tiki men vandalize your stuff.
To the game’s credit, I couldn’t see a single clear strategy for winning the game. Piñata breeding seems to be the main focus: it’s such an episode to feed piñatas their romancing food, direct them to each other and complete the romancing maze (lined with bombs, no less) - it’s cute and you get a unique cut scene for every species, but I couldn’t see a real economic advantage for all the trouble and fanfare. The inoffensive routine should be fine for kids, or it can be wholly avoided if you have other ideas.
And it probably should be, since love brings out the worst in these candy filled animals. The piñatas have miserable, fickle AI. In the proud freeloader tradition, wild piñatas will stumble into your yard and eat whatever they need to become a resident; once they’re in, the piñatas are more interested in picking fights and working up medical bills than eating the food you’ve set out for their romance requirements. The creatures become such misbehaved pets that the breeding game can bring the experience to a screeching halt.
Players should also be careful about matching up too many couples at once - when two or more cut scenes run into each other, they form a queue and play one after the other. It’s easy to accidentally set up ten solid minutes of cut scenes, especially with all of the introductions at the beginning, and there’s no skip button on this island.
Finally, the romancing mechanics reveal control issues: to get your residents to find the right food and partners, you need to select the piñata, click on the food and hope the piñata complies. The cursor for Viva Pinata is a little awkward, constantly losing your target or not reading your button presses, so good luck getting that hyperactive bumblebee to eat the apple.
In spite of the game’s domestic issues, lenient economics help keep it enjoyable. I wasn’t happy with how my first layout was working, but I didn’t have to start a new game; I simply sold all of my items, buildings and major piñatas, and then had more than enough money left over to start a more orderly enterprise. Now I’m slowly chugging along with my squirrels and ducks, and it’s a chill, comfortable place for me. It’s been such an easygoing experience that I would even consider starting another garden or two to test some entirely different designs.
An eccentric cast of NPCs sell players tools, buildings and services. It’s like South American folklore crash landed in Jack Skellington’s Halloweentown
; the characters who aren’t dressed in amusing animal costumes have mailboxes and milk jugs for heads. The NPCs sink to terribly condescending levels when they first introduce game mechanics, but from then on they spout out delightfully wry dialogue.
Older gamers may dig into the ironic writing or the complexities of the game world, but Viva Piñata
has immediately appealing graphics and music. Each piñata appears to be rendered shred by shred, giving an expressive performance of facial animations and physical comedy. Particle attacks and candy explosions fly around constantly and even the 2D menu elements dance around in patterns. The only blemish is the claustrophobic camera; it really could have been loosened up a bit. The songs enjoy a full orchestration, and Viva Piñata
’s voice actors nail their deliveries every time.
The online experience is limited to sharing items and piñatas with other players, sent like e-mails. You can name or label your stuff before you send it, so I shudder in horror to think what vulgar piñatas are flying around the intarwubs. The sorry truth is, without the ability to battle or visit friends, Viva Piñata
is missing a competitive or social function that makes a game like Animal Crossing
stick long after the story has ended.
Viva Piñata can be overwhelming at times, with a few stumbling blocks and such scope and depth. On the other hand, there is enough color and irreverence to maintain a light and pleasant vibe through its short life span. It seems like the kind of game a child could share with a parent, although there’s enough sugar here to please anyone with a sweet tooth, and a sour sense of humor.