Even a year after its original release, Viva Piñata remains an inexplicable game. The candy-colored visuals, highly marketable characters, and animated TV series that accompanied the game made it pretty apparent that Microsoft was looking to conjure up a kid-powered, Pokémon-style franchise. The game itself, however, was a relatively complex and slow-paced strategy game, featuring a level of depth and sophistication that was at odds with its cute, lively persona. By contrast, Viva Piñata: Party Animals is neither deep nor sophisticated, transplanting the anthropomorphic piñatas into a game that wants to be both a kart-racing game and a minigame collection, but it's not very good at either. The simplicity and familiarity of Party Animals probably makes it a better fit for Viva Piñata's target audience, and the party-time visuals are still busy and vibrant, but the gameplay is so rote and so uninspired that the charm wears off pretty quickly.
Viva Piñata: Party Animals is a pretty straightforward four-player party game that's exceptionally light on features. Your play options are to either "play at home" or "play online," and beyond that, there's little you can do to customize the experience. The four players are mandatory, so if you're short on live players, you'll end up saddled with some pretty meek game-controlled opponents. Your average game of Party Animals has you alternating between playing minigames and competing in single-lap races, and how you place in the various events will determine your score throughout. There are six types of minigames, and several variations within each type, but the variants end up feeling so similar to one another that the game might as well just have six minigames.
They're mostly simple, single-button affairs that you can pick up and play with no explanation, and they involve plenty of piñata-appropriate activities like apple-eating contests, squishing raisants, letting loose with soda-fueled belches, and collecting loads and loads of candy. As with any minigame collection, some are more entertaining than others. It's strictly luck of the draw as to what minigames you'll play in a standard match, though you can jump straight to your favorites in a practice game.
The racing levels offer few surprises, featuring the same fast, loose, and power-up-heavy gameplay as all of the mascot-based kart-racing games that have preceded Party Animals. There are boost pads and shortcuts to give you an edge, but there are also so very many power-ups on any given track that the power-ups end up having as much, if not more, of an impact on the race as how well you navigate the course. There are 14 different racetracks spread across seven different themed locations, which may sound like a lot, but the races are single-lap affairs, and the tracks themselves tend not to be very long. Furthermore, you'll race at least three times in a given game, and it doesn't take long for the races to wear out their welcome.
Despite how lousy Viva Piñata: Party Animals is as a game, the quality of the visuals keeps it afloat for far longer than it probably ought to. The game aims for the same bright, glowing look as the original Viva Piñata, and though it's not as meticulously detailed, it's mostly quite successful. The piñatas look great, and virtually everything in the environments has a look that equally recalls confetti and candy--there's also lots of confetti and candy. The backgrounds are nicely detailed and filled with activity, and it's not uncommon to see other piñatas leaping around enthusiastically during the various contests. The music is as aggressively upbeat as the visuals, and despite how overzealous some of the piñata voice acting is, it fits the game's overall tone.
Minigame collections and kart-racing games are two of the most obvious, thoughtless ways to cash in on a video game franchise, and considering how daring and unusual Viva Piñata was, it's disappointing to see the franchise go down this path so quickly.
Editor's Note: This review previously contained incorrect information about the number of available racetracks and access to individual minigames. GameSpot regrets the error.