jipearce's Viva Piñata (Xbox 360) review

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Viva Pinata is a fun trip through a virtual garden of delights.

Rare's latest gaming creation, Viva Pinata, is a leisurely game that gives you a spade and assigns you a plot of land, a tabula rasa of untouched earth for which you must mould a paradise, an ecosystem that will cultivate life and attract Pinata wildlife.

Like all great open-ended games, Viva Pinata presents a vivid, strikingly beautiful world that very easily ensconces you in its embrace - and constantly rewards you with new discoveries, pinatas and charming design.

The basic premise is very simple: take a block of land and transform it into something livable. Use the spade to create arable soil and the seed bag to sow grass. Slowly, but surely, your block will reshape. New flowers need to be planted, new crops need to be harvested, and all the while, you need to juggle the demands of the various pinata. Once you have created an ideal landscape, the first set of pinata will begin sniffing around, and if it is to their liking, they’ll become residents and change from black and white to vivid color.

Continue building your garden, hacking away weeds and smashing nasties (sours), and you can begin attracting multiple pinata of the same species. Fulfill the requirements to romance them (any pinata will romance another, as long as they are of the same species), and you can begin propagating the species.

And while you are working on keeping the various pinata happy and building up your ecosystem, more and more pinata will begin checking out your newly developed paradise, and it’s up to you to entice them in, if you wish. Each pinata species has specific requirements to visit, become a resident and romance one another, so you are often juggling multiple pinata and their needs at the same time.

Your journal represents every achievement you’ve made in the game, from growing a daisy to becoming a master romancer of flutterscotches, and if you are a fan of Achievements, then the journal will become an essential tool in monitoring your progress. It also details every Pinata you currently own, as well as those you can try to entice back in.

Thankfully, as you create your patch of freshly manicured lawn, a trusty network of characters become unlocked. Visit the town center and talk shop with Willy the builder (he’ll build your pinata houses) or Doc Patchingo (some pinata just don’t get on), or hire a helper to water the gardens or sell your produce. And there are more to unlock.

Another great feature which isn’t exploited to its fullest is Viva Pinata’s online play. Gamers can purchase boxes from the Post Office in the Village and pack away any item, from a pinata to some spare change, and send it to their friends. Many pinata have a color variant and some are far more valuable to others, so this can help budding gardeners early on, as well as give some incentive on working to get some of the rarer and harder to tame Pinata.

Unfortunately, there is no option to visit other gardens, which is a real disappointment considering just how much time you can invest in working away at them. I'm hopeful of a patch that will make this feature available, or that this is something that developer Rare will allow in future installments. It can be an empty feeling just sending a crate to another player and not get some type of response, but then you can always send them a nasty.

The gentle learning curve is one of the game’s greatest accomplishments. It rewards the player with more the more they play it. The kid friendly design is bolstered further with a multiple control set up that lets parents play along with their kids, easy controls if kids want to play alone, and a visual style that oozes personality and charm. There is even a video on the main menu to inform parents about the safety features of Xbox Live.

It can sometimes be a little overbearing, with the needs of your various pinata often outstripping the funds you have to quell them. And then a few of them go and have a fight and you need to call up the doc. Time to go build some fences…

And when you think you’ve seen it all, you start getting the call from Pinata Central for a certain kind of pinata. These optional requests are a great source of income, and can raise the value of your pinata and the status of your garden. Your patch of paradise can become a thriving business in serving the needs of party children everywhere.

Viva Pinata’s undeniable charm and beautiful design only further attach you to them. Every time you turn on the game, the creatures begin their routine and you almost bemoan the fact that you left them the last time. The technically impressive title showcases the power of next-generation gaming even in simple titles that don’t require fast reflexes and complex button layouts. Visually, Viva Pinata is uniformly impressive. You will rarely find any item that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. And it’s just so beautiful.

The visuals are backed up by an understated musical score that welcomes you into the game and sound effects that mimic what’s happening on-screen without fault. The various pinata have their own voice and actions, and occasionally they can grate, but for the most part, each pinata is as lovable as the last. The soothing music is gentle and welcoming, and changes daily as well as from night to day, so your ears will be happy as you hum along to some infectious and well-designed sound.

Overall, Viva Pinata is too nice not to like. While not for everyone, anyone who does enjoy games should give it a go. It has the design quality to appeal to the young, which the hardcore may be off-put by. While Viva Pinata is ambitious in its color palette, it isn't a child's game and can be enjoyed by just about any gamer. Those willing to try will find an experience as every bit as rich as those worlds gamers blast their way through, and an entertaining sojourn that’s somewhat different from the norm.

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