In a world where parties don't happen without piñatas and the candy-filled creatures need to be cultivated or captured rather than constructed, skilled gardeners who have a penchant for papier-mâché wildlife are in great demand. In Rare's Viva Piñata, you have the opportunity to become such a gardener. Although the game is very open-ended and looks like something that only young players would enjoy, its colorful exterior belies a carefully structured and occasionally challenging experience that provides plenty of depth. Yes, Viva Piñata is primarily aimed at the same audience that might enjoy the animated TV show of the same name. However, like hitting things with sticks or eating candy, you're not too old for its appeal just because you can get into PG-13 movies, drive a car, or claim a pension. Arriving on shelves almost a year to the day since Viva Piñata first appeared on the Xbox 360, the PC version is almost indistinguishable from the console game--save for some unfortunate technical issues.
Getting right into those issues, at the time of this writing we're unable to play the game for more than a few seconds at a time without it crashing back to the desktop, and, as evidenced by posts in various forums, we're not alone. The problem halted our progress after around 10 hours, but can purportedly do the same thing at almost any time. This appears to be a compatibility issue similar to that in the PC version of Gears of War, which, not coincidentally, incorporates the same Xbox Live-like "Games for Windows Live" service. Refusing to log in to said service will let you work on your Viva Piñata garden in most cases, but it'll also deprive you of the option to save your progress. These issues don't rob the game of its charm, but they do make the overall experience rather frustrating if you happen to run into them.
Technical problems aside, for those who never had the opportunity to play Viva Piñata on the Xbox 360, your life on Piñata Island begins on a small patch of land that used to belong to a legendary gardener named Jardiniero. It's been neglected for some time, though, and looks more like the beginnings of a desert landfill than a garden that any self-respecting piñata would want to call home. When you arrive, a tearful girl named Leafos, who spends her days lamenting the state of the garden, will guide you through all of Viva Piñata's basic controls and gameplay mechanics. By the time you're done talking to her, you'll be armed with a shovel, a watering can, and a packet of grass seeds with which to get started on your piñata paradise. The game doesn't present you with many specific tasks at any point; your goal is simply to create and maintain a garden that increasingly demanding piñatas will want to make their home. This degree of open-endedness can actually feel a little daunting at first, but you'll quickly realize that your progression through the game is more structured than it first appears.
Viva Piñata can be played using either a mouse and keyboard or a Windows-compatible Xbox 360 controller. Neither setup is complicated, and while the controller is definitely preferable, those of you who are more comfortable with a conventional PC setup should have no problems. The context-sensitive functions performed by each of the controller's four face buttons are displayed on a simple flower-shaped diagram at all times, and if you're playing without a controller you can simply point and click on the flower's petals or use keyboard shortcuts to do the same thing. Viva Piñata's numerous menu screens are also very user-friendly, and also take the form of flowers with an option on each petal.
Within moments of getting started in your garden, you'll begin to attract the attention of wild piñatas. Each of the 70 or so different species in the game has different criteria that you or your garden will need to meet before they'll appear. Once you've sighted a piñata, you'll have to meet further criteria before they'll visit, move into, and ultimately, procreate in your garden. In the early stages of the game, it can seem as if almost everything you do has a positive effect on the local wildlife. But as you level up and gain access to more abilities, more seeds, and better tools, the demands of the wildlife that you'll be trying to get into your garden increase proportionately. For example, you might attract a new low-level piñata simply by growing a vegetable or a certain kind of flower. But to even catch a glimpse of some of the larger, more impressive species, you'll need to dedicate large portions of your garden to their needs. In some cases, you'll even need to ensure that they have plenty of smaller piñatas to feed on. Still more challenging are the evil, sour piñatas that will be attracted to your garden from time to time. These instantly recognizable red-and-black creatures, which invariably have very sharp teeth, do nothing but cause trouble until you figure out a way to keep them out or tame them.
Viva Piñata's learning curve is near-perfect. It does a great job of giving you new abilities over time. It also prevents you from progressing to a point that you and your garden just aren't ready for, which is based on the way that you level up in the game. You'll earn experience points (read: blue flower petals) toward your next level each time you attract or breed a new species of piñata or successfully grow a new kind of plant. There are other, less obvious ways to level up as well. For example, you may discover different color variants of piñata that you already have in your garden by instructing them to eat or otherwise interact with different things. The majority of the piñatas have three different color variants for you to discover, and some will even evolve into entirely different species after eating certain items.
While you're experimenting with telling your piñatas to eat different things, you'll also want to try out different-colored fertilizers on any seedlings that you plant. Early on, you won't need to concern yourself with the art of fertilizing plants. But when space is at a premium later on (there's a limit on how many items--including piñatas and helpers--you can have in your garden), the skilled horticulturalists among you will find that growing one tree capable of bearing 24 fruit is far more efficient than planting two trees capable of only bearing 12 fruit each. Even small, seemingly insignificant plants, such as daisies and buttercups, can be fertilized to produce multiple flowers. Unless you figure out how to make your own fertilizers, you can count on regular trips to the gardening store.
As you progress, you'll gain access to a number of different store owners and other useful characters in the nearby village. You'll be interacting with most of these characters quite frequently. Their services don't come cheap, but the game's chocolate-coin currency should rarely be a cause for concern because every item and piñata in your garden can be sold quickly and easily if needed. Furthermore, certain species of piñata are capable of producing goods for you, including honey, milk, and wool. With the correct accessories from the pet store on the piñatas in question, it's possible to automate these production processes. You'll still need to hire a helper to gather the finished produce, though, if you don't want to bother with collecting and selling all of the items manually.
There are several different helpers that you can hire to carry out various tasks in your garden, though they become less useful as you level up and your own skills improve. It's also worth noting that because Viva Piñata is so open-ended, there might be times when you've established a largely self-sufficient garden and don't need to do very much. So there's plenty of time for you to take care of some of the more menial tasks before pushing forward.
The most unfortunate aspect of Viva Piñata occurs when you sight a new piñata species and decide that you'd like to attract it into your garden, because it often means undoing a lot of the work that you've put in previously. For example, our own garden started out as a carefully planned and quite formal affair, but it evolved (or devolved, perhaps) into something that resembled a swamp. This change occurred because we attempted to entice some piñatas that demanded large expanses of water. Later, when we were dealing with piñatas that resembled bears, elephants, lions, birds of prey, and the like, we had devoted so much of our garden to water that it became problematic. We were then forced to fill in much of what had become a nicely landscaped pond. It's possible to play multiple gardens while using the same player profile that is complete with its own chocolate bank account and experience. But because the aforementioned item limit applies to all of your gardens rather than each one individually, this doesn't really help matters much.
Your in-game journal does a great job of tracking and arranging all of your accomplishments, which makes it an easy resource to refer back to if needed. The journal also contains a detailed instruction manual and a storyline of sorts, which is presented through a series of unlockable journal entries. Like all of the other menu-driven areas of the game, the journal is presented as a series of easy-to-navigate flowers with options on different petals.
If you're a fan of achievement points, you'll find that the journal is a great way to keep track of how close you are to completing some of the point-scoring objectives. You'll likely earn many of the game's 50 achievements (many of which are simply described as "secret" until you unlock them) simply by playing as you would normally. However, there are definitely a few that you'll have to go out of your way to get. The same can be said of the optional "Piñata Central" challenges that crop up from time to time. Their premise is that you need to supply specific piñatas for use at upcoming parties. These challenges don't award experience points upon completion, but the value of the piñatas that you send will have increased when they're returned. They'll also bring back some candy with them that increases the happiness of any piñata eating it.
The crates that you use to ship off your piñatas to Piñata Central are the same ones that you can use to take advantage of the game's only online functionality, which is sending gifts from your garden to other players on your friends list. Of course, not everything that you send has to be nice. But you should know that when you receive mail, there are options to simply return to sender or forward on to another player. So habitually mailing out your problems isn't really an option. Sending valuable piñatas and other items is a great way to let your friends know when you're doing well. Even if they're further along than you, the game's open-endedness means there's a chance that the item you're sending could be something they haven't seen before.
This is not to suggest that Viva Piñata boasts a vast number of customizable items or anything. However, piñatas with variant colors (a blue fox or a pink duck, for example) are a good example of the kind of thing that you could send to a friend and reasonably expect to get a message back from him or her a few minutes later asking how you came by it. Piñatas that are born in your garden each wear your own customized label, much like you'd find on a teddy bear or some other stuffed animal. That label information stays with the piñata regardless of how many times it moves around to other gardens. If you zoom in close enough during the course of regular gameplay, you can make it out quite clearly.
The attention to detail in Viva Piñata's visuals is uniformly impressive, and you'll rarely find an object in the game that doesn't hold up to close scrutiny. The unique visual style of the game is likely something that you've already decided to love or hate. But regardless of your personal taste, there's no disputing the fact that the visuals are cohesive and impressive technically. The great animation in the game is what gives many of the piñatas their personalities, even more so than their distinctive appearances. The species-specific "romance dances" are especially fun, though you'll get to see each of them only once. Procreation can be a quite complex affair for piñatas, incidentally, because the romance dance can occur only after you've satisfied a number of prerequisites and beaten the species' unique mazelike minigame.
Even a year after its Xbox 360 release, Viva Piñata is a great- and unique-looking game. The game's colorful, bold style ensures that it holds up well even when played at lower 4:3 resolutions, but it goes without saying that the visuals improve significantly at higher resolutions. Widescreen displays are supported, and even a relatively modest system should have no problem keeping the game running at 30 frames per second provided your visual settings are realistic. For the most part, the gameplay is silky smooth and hiccups only briefly when the autosave kicks in once every few minutes or so.
Your ears are also in for something of a treat when you play Viva Piñata. Some of the animal sounds and character voices can become grating after extended play. But for the most part, the game's ambient sounds are really great. The game also boasts an accomplished, somewhat understated musical score, which gives way to much more brash noises briefly whenever a garden-wrecking ruffian or sour piñata finds its way into your garden.
It's unfortunate that Viva Piñata does seem to suffer from the reliability and login issues we encountered, but it's otherwise a game that is difficult to dislike. It oozes charm and personality from its every papier-mâché-covered pore. While it's accessible enough for those with very little gaming experience (and their children), it also has enough depth to keep anyone with a Pokémon-style "gotta catch 'em all" mentality--or perhaps a penchant for gardening--entertained for many hours.