After hitting the Xbox 360, Rare's Viva Pinata has now been ported to the PC, giving more players the chance to find out just where pinatas come from. It might not be as glorious as setting the course of a civilization with every move, but it provides a few sweet, tooth-numbing distractions.
The title takes you to Pinata Island where, surrounded by lush greenery, soaring mountains and crumbling ruins, you discover a small patch of dried, caked earth. Greeting your arrival, a mysterious masked girl named Leafos becomes your guide and explains that this used to be a fantastic garden filled with pinata goodness. Now it's up to you to return the garden to its former glory by creating an area on Pinata Island that pinata everywhere can call home. You don't have to be a fan to know what's going on, so it's not a problem if you haven't seen the CG cartoon series of the same name. The story is revealed in read-along voiceovers, but you're pretty much free to ignore them and get right down to building your dream garden.
As part of Microsoft's "Games for Windows" initiative, Viva Pinata for the PC is hooked right into the service and requires you to create a Live profile online if you want to save your progress. For PC players who aren't used to Live, it can seem like an obstacle to simply playing the game. A free month of Live is included with the game, allowing newcomers to try out the service's Gold membership, while those who already have an account can sign right in. Oddly, Live doesn't actually do much for Viva Pinata, aside from allowing you to earn achievement points for your profile or e-send pinatas and chocolate coins to others who also have the game.
The colorful world of Viva Pinata looks ready to party on systems that can provide the horsepower to drive the detailed visuals, with a virtual menagerie of appropriately adorable animals and insects that want to be in your garden. Much of this cutesy charm is present throughout the game, from the pinatas down to the candy bursting from one if it happens to meet an unfortunate end, to the plants and buildings that you can add to your ecology. One thing that you might want to do is check your brightness levels, as Viva Pinata raised mine to make the colors seem more vibrant, which nearly gave me an ocular migraine. Lowering it improved my experience significantly.
There are many different pinata for you to discover, and each has its own behavior, right down to the animated mannerisms that it displays whenever it's happy, sick or depressed, providing plenty of life within your garden if you can get them to stay. They'll drink, cock their heads at curious sounds, jump around just because, fly through the air, or simply fall asleep and snooze the day away. Day or night, appropriately happy music washes over the whole scene, and every pinata has its own distinctive sound, adding even more ear candy to the title.
Once you've signed in, you'll be asked to create and name a garden. You can have multiple gardens, and the experience, money and other bonuses that you earn will be available for you to use across each one. If you find that you want to focus on one particular strategy in one garden, you can start a new one and try out something different without having to destroy everything in order to get what you're looking for. This can be particularly useful late in the game, especially if you're looking for some of the rarer pinatas and hate having to landscape everything again.
Don't let the deceptively childish visuals fool you: Behind Viva Pinata's sugary smile lies a virtual fishbowl filled with deep gameplay that can challenge virtual Caesars looking to try something a little different. Multiple goals in the game will keep you busy, and the sandbox that you're given is yours to customize as you will, but most of what you do will be centered on getting pinatas to settle in the green haven with which you're providing them.
Each pinata has a set of requirements that will make it appear and ultimately stay in your garden. Some will require certain other rules to be met before they even start the process, especially when it comes to the rarer pinata. Once you have enough of a particular kind, it's up to you to try and figure out how to get your pinatas to "romance" each other in a comical dance-off that brings in a delivery from Storkos, the egg delivery expert. Before they can get to that point, you'll need to play a maze minigame to guide the pinata to its partner while avoiding obstacles, such as mines. The minigames are fun at first, but they can get very repetitive later on, considering how often you'll be doing this.
Once the offspring is hatched, it'll usually cocoon itself and mature quickly to an adult. You now have a decision to make: You can either sell it for chocolate coins that you can then spend on other improvements, or keep it around to add color to your garden and bring it into another "dance off" romance with one of its own. Be careful, though, as overpopulation can often bring one species to clash with another one, and fights are only one of several other issues that will be on your plate as your garden continues to develop.
A botanical bonanza awaits you in Viva Pinata as you plant seeds for trees, plants, and bushes and landscape your garden in order to attract more pinata. You can even exercise your green thumb in growing produce, such as corn or chili peppers, and then sell those to generate even more chocolate coins that you can use to spend on upgrades, supplies, or even to bring in pinata that have been residents before by paying off a hunter or visiting the local pet shop. A postal service allows you to send pinatas to friends or give them some chocolate coins. You can also send problematic pinatas away in this fashion, but whether you'll still have a friend afterwards is not guaranteed.
As you sharpen your gardening and piñata-raising skills, your tiny plot of land will eventually expand. It's a good thing that you can create multiple gardens, because even at its largest size, it can still feel cramped. There are also enemies to contend with, whether it is a Sour Pinata that leaves candy behind that can make your pinata sick, eat helpers that you've hired, or Ruffians that roll through like a barbarian horde wrecking your carefully built paradise. You'll also need to keep an eye on your pinata, as not all species are friendly with each other. Encountering a mass of candy on the ground is usually a sign that someone didn't get along.
You can play through Viva Pinata entirely with the 360's controller in combination with the keyboard, but the mouse and keyboard work just as well together, and is even better in some ways. Hotkeys make many of the options easier to access, and using the mouse to control the camera enables you to whiz around the garden as if you were in an RTS, although you're restricted to using the mouse buttons to scroll an extremely short distance from the garden and back again. It would have been nice to assign scroll functions to the wheel, but the limited options only allow you to tweak direction and speed, never mind about redefining any of the keys.
Even with the mouse and keyboard, some of the basic functions in the game can come off as too much micromanagement. This is where consolitis rears its ugly head. Forget multiple menus, tabs or whatever else you might take for granted in other sims on the PC, as Viva Pinata sticks to the console basics. It's not as bad as it might sound, but a few improvements could have added some much-needed polish to several other aspects of the experience.
Nowhere is this more obvious than with some of the button combos that should be at home in a fighting game and not while you are shopping for seeds. How many button presses does it take to do certain things in Viva Pinata? Too many. For example, if I want to heal a pinata that is sick, I have to select the pinata, call in the doctor, agree that this is the only pinata I want healed even if there aren't anymore sick pinatas about, agree to pay and finally close the dialogue and wait. I'm surprised the patient didn't die before I was able to finish. Is it too much to ask to simply select the piñata, click "heal" and let the doctor do his thing? Most every transaction is like this, and given how many of them you'll go through in the game, it can become annoying to confirm the obvious. There's also no way to select entire groups of items, which would have been helpful during harvests; instead, you're forced to click on each piece of produce that you want to sell. There isn't a time acceleration feature to help speed things along, which would have been helpful, or a feature to automate some of the drudgery, such as setting the doctor to automatically come out and cure a pinata as long as you have the coins.
One or two issues can also crop up unexpectedly. Pinatas can, on rare occasions, get stuck when they fly around or out of bounds, leaving both you and them helpless to do anything about it. Even restarting from a save won't do much to save a valuable pinata stuck somewhere outside your garden. As for stability, I've crashed to desktop once or twice, but other than the issues I've already gone over, the title was remarkably trouble free.
While Viva Pinata does have a few thorns, including its reliance on Live, something always kept me coming back in order to see what else might come slithering, running, lumbering or flying out from the brush. It's a nice distraction from the usual war-torn battlefield or in fighting the occasional apocalypse; instead of being asked to act as a deified troubleshooter, you can practice the Zen in trying to raise pinatas in a virtual garden. It might not be as grandiose a job other things that sim fans may have had experience with, but it's a unique change of pace that they may want to try out.
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