It was hard to go into Viva Pinata: Trouble in Paradise and look at it as a fully new game. This sequel to Rare's bizarrely cute and addictive 2006 gardening management sim reuses a heaping pile of content from its predecessor, including art assets, music, voiceovers, menu designs, and every single pinata from the original. For the first few hours, Trouble in Paradise felt more like an expansion pack than a real sequel.
All the familiar, lovable pinatas from the first game are back, and they all behave pretty much exactly the same. You'll spend just as much time trying to keep your kittyfloss from eating your mousemallows, or setting a taffly on fire and then putting it out with a watering can to evolve it into a more valuable redhott. I would have been put off by all these blatant similarities if the game didn't also do a good job of trotting out the new species, starting with the very first ladybug-like bispotti and continuing on through the tigermisu and other totally crazy larger animals.
Lots of the new pinatas won't show up on the fringes of your own garden. Instead, they live in the far-flung wilderness, in the icy Pinarctic and the arid Dessert Desert. You can travel to those places and drop some baited traps to retrieve new pinatas like the pengum, vulchurro, sweetle, and robean. There's not much else to do in the wilds besides enjoy the change of scenery, but since you have to entice these captured pinatas to stay after you nab them, you can also now lay down sand and snow in your own garden. Those new terrain types will later attract even more advanced regional pinatas, like the walrusk.
The last game forced you to hit the A button through numerous menus--and almost as many loading screens--every time you wanted to buy anything for your garden. That's OK once in a while when you want to add an uncommon object like a glow rock to spruce up your surroundings, but when you have to plow through the menu pile every time you need to plant a seed or fertilize a sapling--which you do about every five minutes--it gets old, fast.
Luckily, Trouble in Paradise has a new context-sensitive pop-up menu that lets you buy seeds, fertilizer, and other common objects without shoving any loading screens or full-screen menus in your face. That makes the gameplay a lot more efficient and pleasant to deal with over the course of the numerous hours you will inevitably play this game, because it's awesome.
Trouble in Paradise turns gardening into a social affair with a four-player mode you can run on Xbox Live or on the same couch. When other gardeners join your game, you can set the level of access they have to your stuff, so you can prevent them from selling your precious rare pinatas or digging a bunch of mud holes everywhere, if you want.
Guest players build up experience and money that go straight back into their own solo gardens, so the multiplayer experience is meaningful and rewarding for everyone. Like its predecessor, the game can get a little hectic at times with so much going on at once, so it can be useful to have an assistant or two to help you focus on a particular task. (I ran into some trouble when a higher-level player joined my low-level garden and brought a bunch of nasty sour pinatas with him, but quitting the multiplayer game and restarting it seemed to restore my garden to its former peaceful splendor.)
Viva Pinata might look like a kiddy game, but the management gameplay is surprisingly complex and hectic. That might have turned off casual players last time around, so Rare has included a "Just for Fun" mode here that relaxes the rules of pinata attraction and gives you unlimited money. I don't have much use for this mode because half the reason I play Viva Pinata is for the the rewarding feeling of meticulously setting up my garden's flora and terrain to entice new pinatas into staying there. But it's a nice feature for those who want to just mess around in a really pretty garden without feeling a lot of pressure or reading a daunting list of pinata resident requirements.
Strangely, the new Pinata Vision feature negates some of that reward if you let it run away with your self-control. You can take in-game pictures of your pinatas and items and then upload those to the game's web site, where they're converted into downloadable trading card images that contain bar codes you can scan back into someone else's game with the Xbox Live Vision camera.
This is a nice idea in theory, when the game isn't being picky about the lighting conditions, camera focus, and distance while you're trying to scan the image. But it can also make the game way too easy. Even before release, there were a number of advanced pinata cards floating around the Internet that gave me a silly amount of experience and money just by scanning them into my game. Nobody's making you use the cards, of course, but once the game is out for a couple of weeks and you can find cards for every top pinata online, it'll be really easy to cheese your way to a top level just by dropping cards in. At least the game makes some effort to curtail your use of cards in various situations, but I still ended up with a number of valuable species that seemed way beyond my level.
Trouble in Paradise offers everything the first game did--literally--with a heap of new content and enough streamlined gameplay mechanics to get even an experienced gardener's green thumb back into action. And if you never tried the original game, first of all, shame on you. Second, go play this one. The reasonable $40 price tag only sweetens the deal on this vastly improved version of one of the Xbox 360's most unique and endearing games.