Review: Viva Pinata (X-Box 360)

Viva Pinata
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Rare
Genre: Farming/Pinata Collection
Release Date: 11/09/2006

There are a variety of angles or stories one could use to frame Viva Pinata, Rareâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s new adventure on Xbox 360.

One could bring up the recent, nearly decade long slump for Rareware, which stood atop the video game peak in the mid 1990s with classics such as Donkey Kong Country, Killer Instinct, Goldeneye and Banjo Kazooie.

One could point to the startling lack of anything kid-friendly in the 360 library, and how risky it is to launch an entirely new universe of new characters to an audience that is used to Halo and Gears of War.

Or one could even tackle the industry wide issue of having less original intellectual properties than ever, and a high profile first party launch by Microsoft is important not only for this game and this holiday season, but has implications on the whole industry.

Instead, Iâ┚¬â”žÂ¢m going to focus on the game itself. It was built from the ground up to take advantage of the Xbox 360 hardware, with super slick polished graphics in HD, online compatible and able to have more going on than would have been possible in previous consoles. Viva PiÃÆ’±ata is the first game on 360 that breaks the mold of gameplay created in the previous generation and brings not only new visuals but a new experience to the party.

1. Story
The actual storyline of Viva PiÃÆ’±ata is reminiscent of Nintendo classics â┚¬” just a bear bones narrative to frame the bizarre universe of characters and abilities presented in the game. The basic gist is that the player is a gardener, who raises plants and maintains the land in order to attract wild piÃÆ’±atas to live and breed in the garden. Oh yes, piÃÆ’±atas are real, live animals with cute personalities and neon facades on PiÃÆ’±ata Island. The player, who isnâ┚¬â”žÂ¢t pictured and is assumed to be the player at home, is following in the footsteps of the greatest gardener in PiÃÆ’±ata Island history.

Throughout the game there are some story updates, but they are in the form of longform text that is read by a British announcer. No animation or cut scenes. There are characters that pop up throughout the game that support the story as well, but overall the story takes a backseat to the gameplay.

Story Rating: 5/10

Graphics
The game library for Xbox 360â┚¬â”žÂ¢s first year has been primarily composed of sports, war and racing games, with less creativity and art and more realism and gloss. Viva PiÃÆ’±ata is the first game for 360 where the high resolution and widescreen is used to display a visually stunning fantasy game set for kids. Every screen in the game, from menus to storyboards to the game itself are bursting with color and life, with tons of animation throughout.

Front and center are the piÃÆ’±atas themselves. All uniquely designed with brightly colored coats and paper pieces that flow off of the surface, the piÃÆ’±atas look magnificent. There are times there will be dozens of piÃÆ’±atas on screen at once, and seeing them all moving independently in all their glory is one of the true treats of Viva PiÃÆ’±ata.

The environments are lavish and lush, and give a cartoony feel to organic items such as grass and trees. The water in ponds and streams is clear and crisp and provides great reflection effects. Even the animations used to wipe between gameplay and menu screens are very colorful and really stand out.

However, there is one major issue with the graphics engine, and that is during the auto-save. Many times per game-day the game auto saves the progress of the garden, but the game chugs to a crawl for a second or two. This causes everything in the garden to go slow and interrupt whatever the player was doing. It might not sound like a major issue in theory, but for a game that is all about immersion in a fantasy universe, the loading chug really mars the experience.

Graphics Rating: 7/10

3. Sound
To accompany the graphically impressive world of Viva PiÃÆ’±ata, there is a relaxing soundtrack of tranquil music that fits the garden theme perfectly. The music picks up when there is danger or a fight has broken out, but for the most part its peaceful background music.

Each PiÃÆ’±ata makes a unique sound, kinda similar to the way that Pokemon is done, that is repeated over and over again. Apparently the Pinatas in the cartoon show and some of the cut scenes have voices, and those are funny and well done as well.

The sound effects are fitting and well done, with some that are especially funny or entertaining. The â┚¬Å”hooray!â┚¬Â sound when a pinata is destroyed is somewhat unsettling, especially when the piÃÆ’±ata was just beaten to death by a shovel or attacked and eaten by a predator.

Overall the sound design works very well with the gameâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s overall experience.

Sound Rating: 8/10

4. Control and Gameplay
There is a whole lot to do in Viva PiÃÆ’±ata, and the game makes good use of the many buttons and control sticks the Xbox 360 controller has to offer. In typical Rare style, the game integrates control help and instructions into the gameplay, with certain characters tasked with helping the player get accustomed to the controls.

The actual control of the game is easy and fairly intuitive. The player controls a circular cursor that is moved throughout the garden (and moves extra fast by clicking down the left trigger), and then can snap onto piÃÆ’±atas, plants and other items in the garden. Once the item is selected, it can usually be interacted with, even if only to check for more information in the journal. There is a menu of immediately accessible options that are unlocked early in the game, including use of the shovel, seed packets, access to the journal and village. The camera is smooth and does a great job of shadowing large items that obstruct the camera view. The horizon seems endless, with no draw-in even when moving the camera around quicklyâ┚¬Â¦ the entire garden is visible at any time.

The journal is an epicenter of PiÃÆ’±ata information, with encyclopedias of all piÃÆ’±atas the player has encountered (with a history of all piÃÆ’±atas of each species that have ever lived in the garden), storybook chapters, awards given and more.

The village contains a variety of shop keepers and service providers, such as re-buying piÃÆ’±ata that have been to your garden before, new accessories, new piÃÆ’±ata houses and much more. Chocolate coins are the currency of choice on PiÃÆ’±ata Island, and they can be earned by destroying debris, mating piÃÆ’±atas and selling off various items from the garden.

Each species of piÃÆ’±atas has a list of requirements to get the piÃÆ’±ata to visit and live in the garden, and then to mate and make new piÃÆ’±atas. The piÃÆ’±atas that wander into the garden are black and white, and only turn full color when they decide to live in the garden. When piÃÆ’±atas make, a stork delivers a new egg, which hatches a new piÃÆ’±ata of the original species. The new baby piÃÆ’±ata will have a tag associated with the playerâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s account, so when the piÃÆ’±ata is traded online, the tag will be custom and stay with the piÃÆ’±ata forever. PiÃÆ’±atas that simply wander into the garden have a blank white tag. At first the piÃÆ’±atas need to fulfill the checklist of items to get ready to romance, but after they romance once, romance candy can be given to 2 of the same species and it will make them in the mood for love (as seen by a giant heart above them).

The tools are used to do the gardening itself. The shovel clears away hard soil and debris, and allows for digging holes and ponds. Of course it acts as a weapon to hit things with as well. The shovel is upgraded a number of times for strength and functionality. The watering can allows the player to water plants and keep them growing, although tasks like this can be outsourced to one of the variety of supporting characters that can be paid to take some of the tedium off the playerâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s hands.

At first itâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s a matter of learning about the gardening and piÃÆ’±ata-attracting, and just doing everything possible to build up the garden. However, it quickly turns into a resource management issue. The days go by very fast, and every day there needs to be maintenance, new building, solving fights and healing sick piÃÆ’±atas. Turn around and take too long and your sick piÃÆ’±ata can be destroyed by sour piÃÆ’±atas or the bad guys such as the ruffians. There are some tough decisions to be made as well, such as which of your beloved piÃÆ’±atas youâ┚¬â”žÂ¢d be willing to sacrifice to new species that have eating requirements. Plus if you need coins and have nothing left to sell, sometimes selling a piÃÆ’±ata will be necessary to pay the bills.

In the end, managing the garden becomes the primary focus of the game, balancing the desire for new piÃÆ’±atas and new plants with the maintenance of the current items.

Control and Gameplay Rating: 9/10

5. Replayability
According to Rare, each experience of Viva PiÃÆ’±ata should be different, and two players who start at the same time and spend the same amount of time in the garden will have vastly different garden compositions.

The actual garden can consist of different plants and piÃÆ’±ata, and the amount of everything you add to the garden impacts which piÃÆ’±atas come knocking and which end up staying put. After the initial finding and collecting of the basic piÃÆ’±ata species is completed, there are other options such as changing piÃÆ’±ataâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s colors with diet and even changing their species.

The replayability is hampered a bit by the limited online options, but the single player mode can be replayed at least a few times to truly see how different a garden can be.

Replayability rating: 9/10

6. Balance
Viva PiÃÆ’±ata is a well balanced game that doesnâ┚¬â”žÂ¢t have anything too powerful or too weak to make the game unfair. The enemy characters have the ability to smash the piÃÆ’±atas in the garden that are ill, but generally donâ┚¬â”žÂ¢t attack well piÃÆ’±atas. Some predatory piÃÆ’±atas will attack and eat lesser piÃÆ’±atas if they are needed for a requirement, such as residence or romance, but after the requirement is filled, the piÃÆ’±ata can live alongside ones of the same species that was eaten.

Balance Rating: 8/10

7. Originality.
Itâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s rare these days (har har no pun intended) to find a game that defies genre-classification, but Viva PiÃÆ’±ata might fit the bill. Part Animal Crossing, part Pokemon, part Sim City, Viva PiÃÆ’±ata is a game unlike any other. The farming yields piÃÆ’±ata collecting, and the look and character of the game is so fresh and unique.

The key is when you are actually playing the game that you donâ┚¬â”žÂ¢t constantly feel like youâ┚¬â”žÂ¢ve done this before, or that a certain aspect of the game is derivative of decades of similar styled gameplay.

Originality Rating: 10/10

8. Addictiveness
Talking from the point of view of someone who played the game almost nonstop for 3 days, Iâ┚¬â”žÂ¢d say the game is very addictive. There arenâ┚¬â”žÂ¢t any natural breaks in the game play, and there is almost no loading in any part of the game (except the aforementioned auto save chug), so there isnâ┚¬â”žÂ¢t a natural time to take time away from the game. There always seems to be another task to complete, or a visit from another character or piÃÆ’±ata.

Just when it seems like things will slow down, the size of the garden is increased or the player rank is upgraded. The game never stops moving and continues to expose the player to new and exciting things dozens of hours into the game.

Addictiveness Rating: 9/10

9. Appeal Factor
Hereâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s the tricky thing â┚¬” who exactly does Viva PiÃÆ’±ata appeal to? On face value, it appears to be targeting kids with its cute colorful graphics and non-violent (in a sense) gameplay and concept. The gameplay seems simple, but is remarkably deep and fulfilling, and lasts dozens of hours. It harkens back to a time where games were designed for a range of ages to enjoy it at different levels.

The other issue is that a vast majority, well into the 90%s, of the Xbox 360 user base is male 18-34 and just not interested in this type of game, even if its based on looks alone. The appeal of seeing an original exclusive game like this on 360 could end up being a system seller, if it continues getting praised and creating a buzz.

Appeal Factor: 5/10

10. Miscellaneous
Personally, I never put a high amount of value in the online component of console games, I prefer playing them locally (either myself or with friends). However, a game like Viva PiÃÆ’±ata lends itself very well to the concept of online gameplay, with many possibilities to enrich the experience of creating and perfecting a garden. Imagine visiting other gardens from throughout the world,

Instead, the online interaction in Viva PiÃÆ’±ata is limited to online scoreboards and trading of items with designated friend list members through the use of crates in the post office. Considering no one on my friend list has Viva PiÃÆ’±ata yet, I havenâ┚¬â”žÂ¢t tested the trading aspect, and while it seems ok in theory, I donâ┚¬â”žÂ¢t have an overwhelming urge to try it out either.

To see Nintendo pull the same thing off with Animal Crossing on Nintendo DS, itâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s disappointing to see so much of the online potential of Viva PiÃÆ’±ata unrealized.

Another miscellaneous note is the packaging. Unlike a normal Xbox 360 case, which is like a DVD case, the Viva PiÃÆ’±ata case is diecut with a rounded top, and a 3D cover that has a Horstacio that is popping out. The instruction manual, fully in color, is also die cut. Itâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s a nice touch to see Microsoft put some investment into packaging, which can make a big difference in making a game like Viva PiÃÆ’±ata stand out in stores.

Miscellaneous Rating: 5/10

What can you say about Viva PiÃÆ’±ata. There are a couple of small details that mar the experience, like the repetitive nature of the mating mini games or the slowdown seen during the autosaves. There are also small things that are bothersome, like the alerts about problems in the garden not singling out piÃÆ’±atas by name. (ex: a â┚¬Å”piÃÆ’±ata is sick in your gardenâ┚¬Â leads to a mad dash to find which piÃÆ’±ata is sick and hope itâ┚¬â”žÂ¢s not been destroyed yet).

For those who have a 360 that have been waiting for an engrossing, beautiful game that presents a fresh experience, then Viva PiÃÆ’±ata should be perfect. For those who have been on the fence about whether to buy a 360, if this is an indication of the variety of titles to be expected in the next year or so, and then it should be a bright future for 360.

The Scores
Story: 5/10
Graphics: 7/10
Sound: 8/10
Control & Gameplay: 9/10
Replayability: 9/10
Balance: 8/10
Originality: 10/10
Addictiveness: 9/10
Appeal Factor: 5/10
Miscellaneous: 5/10
Total Score 75/100
Final Score:.7.5 (Very Good)