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November 2006



- Brilliant character design, great sound and vibrant color

- Simple, intuitive controls

- Well designed strategy simple enough for kids, addictive enough for older players



- Very limited options on Xbox Live

- Excessively wordy and unnecessarily confusing instructions early in the game

- Restrictions on the variety in your garden may frustrate older fans of sim and strategy titles



Review: Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth II (360)

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Viva Piñata

Score: 8.5 / 10


For anyone who has ever thought that gardening would be a great hobby if it could be done from the comfort of a sofa, Viva Piñata offers the chance to get your hands in the virtual dirt and grow idyllic little meadows populated by trippy-cute, candy filled forest creatures. Combining the open ended feel of life sims like Animal Crossing and the Sims with strategic elements from “god games” like Civilization, SimCity and Black & White, the developers at Rare have made a great-looking, addictive title with a laid-back attitude that will appeal to the game’s young target audience as well as many older gamers that enjoy strategy games.


viva pinata          viva pinata


Players begin in a barren little patch of junkyard, where they are introduced to a girl named Leafos, who explains the basics of the game and its controls in a pleasant Irish accent while you whack discarded tires and machinery with a shovel. If you follow her instructions to clear and till the land, you’ll soon be greeted by a visit from your first piñata, a tiny, black and white “Whirlm.”


Unlike most of the 60 plus species of piñata that players will ultimately try to attract, these little worms don’t have very exacting standards. He takes a look around, performs a joyful little dance after seeing that you do indeed have dirt in your garden, and then changes from black and white to a technicolor orange and green, indicating that he has decided to take up residence.


Leafos suggests that you try naming him, but I wouldn’t get too attached. Soon enough, you’ll be visited by Fudgehogs and Sparrowmints, who will hurl flaming




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arrows or tires at the little guy until he explodes in a splash of confetti and candy.


It’s all part of the great circle of life in this detailed but easy to understand piñata ecosystem. Syrupents won’t move in or mate if there’s no mousemallows or lickatoads to eat. The swanana is very territorial, and will fight off any quackberries or 


juicygooses that try to swim in its creeks or ponds. Buzzlegums and tafflies, similarly, do not like to share airspace, and if you’ve got an arocknid living in your garden, both might be afraid to move in at all. The sour cocoadile, in turn, may visit your garden to wreak havoc, scaring away helpers and dropping candies that will make other piñatas sick, until he munches on a sweetooth beaver and a swanana and morphs into a peaceful, productive resident whose tears can help fertilize plants.


Early in the game, players will find that even minor changes, such as spreading grass seeds or planting flowers, vegetables, trees and shrubs with seeds offered by “Seedos”—a nerdy little dude who constantly wanders around inspecting your plants—will attract a constant stream of new piñatas to your garden, who will first appear in a brief cut scene, hang out on the perimeter of your garden for a while, possibly venture in once or twice to explore, and then move in when you’ve made sure that their environment has everything they need.


Young fans of the Saturday morning cartoon series that launched on Fox in August may be disappointed that none of these piñatas talk, but what’s really impressive about the game is how well the designers at Rare were able to invest each species with a full, distinct personality using facial expressions and movements, enhanced with a small palette of tailored grunts, squeaks, buzzes and whistles, and in the case of the snooty swananas, aristocratic yawns. Grant Kirkhope backs up these ambient sounds with a classically inspired soundtrack that alternates between jaunty, energetic passages and soothing movements reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s more mellow work, making the audio in the game unusually immersive and rich.


viva pinata          viva pinata


All of these qualities make Viva Piñata a great pick for kids 7-12, and a solid recommendation anyone that’s a fan of sims or god games. More experienced players, however, may begin to feel a little constrained after about 12 hours of gardening. The size of your garden will increase a handful of times over the course of the game, but even when square footage is completely maxed out, the game places fairly tight limits on how many resident pinatas players can have, as well as how many food producing plants can be growing at once.


The result is that, to make room for higher level species later, players are forced to continuously cull a lot of their lower level piñatas or plants and focus their efforts exclusively on whatever species they’re currently trying to breed or attract.


Larger or higher level breeds, such as the bonboon and the elusive chewnicorn, usually have very complex needs often requiring you to alter your landscape significantly, as well as breed and sometimes evolve several lower level piñatas and foods, and those population restrictions can make it difficult to focus on attracting more than one new species at once, slowing the pace of the game and reducing the variety in your garden in later stages.


But, it’s not a bad system—really just a different type of strategic gameplay. And fortunately, the game allows you to create, under a single profile, multiple gardens that draw from a common bank account of chocolate coins and share a common leveling up scheme, which offers better tools and access to specialized hired help the longer you play. Those that stick with the game will likely find it easier to just start new gardens to attract chippopotamuses, horstachios and elephanillas.


All of the necessary information about each piñata species is stored in an easy to access journal system, and the context sensitive controls are very simple and easy to learn. Rare, though, lately seems to have trouble doling out basic instructions in games targeted at younger audiences. Both here and in Kameo, their 3-D action adventure title for the 360, players spend the first half hour overwhelmed with wordy, elaborate explanations of almost every essential function of the game. Since they’ve designed a very intuitive set of controls for Viva Piñata, it seems like “less is more” might have been a better strategy. As it is, the early instructions make the controls sound more complicated than they are, and parents buying the title for young kids should probably consider playing through the earliest stage of the game with them to boil some of this information down. To facilitate that kind of interaction, the game also features a handy two player system, that allows two controllers to be used simultaneously on a single garden, allowing parents or older brothers and sisters to help out if a kid gets stuck.


What parents won’t have to worry about is cutting their kids loose on Xbox Live with this game. Here Rare has taken an abundance of caution, reducing online features to a leaderboard system and an option to mail and trade piñatas to people on your friends list. In a sad comment on the times, this may be a smart move for a game targeted at kids. Still, it seems like there could have been other ways to introduce more safe online functions by making the game incompatible with the headset or camera, for example, that would still have allowed you to take a flyby tour of gardens that other players have designed.


Overall, though, this is a great game that really showcases the creativity and innovation that made it such a smart move for Microsoft to acquire Rare a few years ago. It’s one of the most unique strategy/sim titles to appear on a console in recent memory, and fans of those genres should definitely consider giving it a look, however old they are.


- M. Enis

(September 14, 2006)


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