The Xbox 360 needed two games this holiday season to combat the twin launches of the Nintendo Wii and Sony's PlayStation 3.
"Gears of War" ensnares the adrenaline-addicted gamer that wants to flex firepower and drool over distinctly next-generation visuals — the PS3 crowd. But to hold off the Wii (and infiltrate the family room, where the real money is) the Xbox 360 needed something approachable and kid-appropriate. Enter "Viva Piñata," a fresh twist on the Sims formula, starring 60 colorful paper-mâché animals, called piñata.
Developed by Rare, the studio that once plied the Nintendo 64 with hits like "Banjo-Kazooie," "Viva Piñata" succeeds by offering a complete 180 from the traditional darker fare found on the Xbox 360. Players must transform a barren lot into a lush paradise, planting foliage to start attracting curious piñata. The first few piñata, such as worms and sparrows, that take up residence are small but cute; they're the gateway drug into the world of "Viva Piñata."
After a couple hours of play, you start spotting bigger piñata (deer, ponies, monkeys) on the outskirts of the garden, peeking in. This is when the addiction kicks in, not entirely unlike Pokemon. The piñata get more adorable and desirable — such as a googly-eyed bear or unicorn. But the only way to collect these piñata is to uncover secret requirements, such as growing certain goodies or feeding them smaller piñata.
Yep, you actually have to sacrifice piñata to attract some of the rarer species, and this introduces the element of choice and consequence to the game. Death is actually a first part of the circle of life in your garden, and truth be told, the cuteness of the piñata, what with their silly behavior, inspires a degree of emotional attachment that makes their demise palpable. (If you're playing with a child, have a box of tissues handy.)
The second part of the circle is birth, as you convince piñata to "romance" and create offspring. Just like attracting piñata, getting these animals in the mood requires meeting specific circumstances, and then shuffling them into a house where they perform a funny mating dance. (If you're playing with a child, have an explanation ready.)
There is more to managing your garden than just bringing in new creatures — you must maintain an economy by selling unwanted piñata, buying items and buildings from shops, and employing helpers to automate some of the most basic tasks that dominated the first few hours of play. You definitely want those helpers, because as your piñata ecosystem grows more enviable, you'll need to focus on keeping out destructive neighbors called Ruffians.
You must also keep an eye on sour piñatas, like crocodiles, that sneak in and pop your prized piñatas. The same shovel you use to cultivate the land doubles as an excellent weapon for shooing away these nasties.
"Viva Piñata" is not necessarily an online multiplayer game over Xbox Live, but you can send goodies from your garden to other players with the game. Exported piñatas born in your garden bear a personalized tag you create in an art tool. Microsoft has plans to sell extra "Viva Piñata content (such as accessories and perhaps new piñata species) via microtransactions for additional fees."
Rare infused "Viva Piñata" with plenty of personality. For instance, every piñata species has a candy-inspired name, such as the dashing horse, which is called Horstachio. The use of color is outstanding, making this a welcome divergence from grittier games that use a lot of gray and brown.
But don't let the day-glo appearance fool you into thinking this is a shallow game for the little ones. "Viva Piñata" is full of secrets, offering layered game play that many Mature-rated games only wish they possessed.