Viva Piñata

Review by Steerpike
February 2007

Journey into Steerpike's Mind

Anthropomorphization cracks me up, so you can imagine the chord struck by the idea of farming piñatas. Add funny words like "fudgehog," and I'm powerless. I'd held off on the 360 purchase for months, but this made me cave. To be clear, I didn't spend $500 just to raise piñatas (I bought Gears of War, too), but it was part of the reason, and it does, I think, provide a sort of window into my psyche. Friends, family and fellow office sheep are baffled by Viva Piñata, and they mock me. To a certain degree, I brought it on myself.

"I've never done acid," said my friend Pete, watching the game's cheery musical opening. "And now I don't have to."

Pete had some beer in him, but I've gotta say his comment is pretty accurate. Viva Piñata is bright and jovial and bizarre ... and ghoulish, and prurient, and not for everyone. Surprisingly rich, it nonetheless squanders some potential by going sandbox when it should be mission-based, by simplifying stuff that should be complex, and by entangling things best left simple. Viva Piñata tries to be all things for all people, and the result is an exceptional game from a theoretical standpoint, but not always in practice.

You'll find a lot of complaints in this review. Oddly, they mostly bubbled to the surface as I wrote it and don't seriously detract from an otherwise enjoyable game. There's much to like in Viva Piñata. It requires a lot of management and has a great sense of humor and outstanding production values. It is worth the attention of sandbox strategy fans—even those who are avoiding it because they dislike the notion of playing a "children's" game.

Because Viva Piñata is not just spun sugar. It has a very real dark side, undiscussed in much of its press. Rare, Piñata's creator, is best known for Conker and Perfect Dark; not exactly kids' games. That its psychedelic big-top atmosphere conceals some powerfully adult undercurrents is one of Viva Piñata's most charming traits.

Where the Truffleo Roam

On the lush tropical atoll of Piñata Island, feral piñatas roam free. A small human village caters to the elite Piñata Gardeners—individuals with the intestinal fortitude and horticultural knowhow to lure and tame wild piñatas. Your own muddy tract is bleakly piñata-less, nothing but a dream of piñata paradise. Essentially, Viva Piñata is a sandbox strategy game, a missionless Zoo Tycoon. You manage economics, attract, name and breed your candy-filled charges, keep them happy and healthy, stave off dangerous Sour Piñatas and other threats, maintain and improve your garden, and sell your livestock for a profit.

There are a story and recurring characters, but the true stars are the sixty unique, lovable and hilarious piñata breeds, those and the endless task of garden optimization. Titles like this are easy for strategy-minded players to get pleasantly lost in. There's lots to do and myriad ways to do it. That's the beauty of Viva Piñata.

The other beauty of Viva Piñata is that it's beautiful. We still haven't come close to seeing what the 360 is capable of, but Viva Piñata gives us a taste. The brilliantly colored flapping paper fur, gorgeous effects and adorable piñata animations are second to none. Enough has been said about the game's graphics that I need not waste much space on it; suffice to say that everything you've heard is true.

Technical irritants are limited but irksome. This game would play better with a mouse than with thumbsticks; placing and orienting objects and structures is hugely clumsy. Your garden never gets as big as it should, and the camera never provides an adequate view. The gaudy interface requires too many button pushes to perform common tasks. Overlong load times between screens and menus interfere with game flow. Given that Microsoft owns Rare, I can see why Viva Piñata was a 360 release, but it would have been better in Windows. Otherwise, it's smooth, stable and polished—in fact, it's the only 360 game I own that has never once returned the ubiquitous Disc Not Readable crash.

A friendly tutorial doles out concepts and game features one at a time. Eventually, village merchants become available, allowing you greater opportunity to improve your garden. There are literally dozens of enhancements, ranging from produce seeds to decorative rocks to bling for your piñatas. Just discovering everything takes hours, and though the game can be at times grindingly opaque, Viva Piñata is perfect for players who love to experiment. There's always something more to do, and it's easy to put in many hours at a single sitting.

The sheer number of tasks you must personally manage might overwhelm children, while adults quickly realize that they are numerous but mindlessly simple. There's the illusion of hundreds of things to do at all times, but many are repetitive drudge jobs with little impact on your garden, aside from being required. It creates a there/not there quality to the strategy element. It seems that a strategic approach would be useful, but in actual play it's not often a prerequisite for success.

Example: you can build pens to separate piñata species, organizing your garden and isolating predators. But there's no harm in going free range, letting them gyre and gimble in the wabe all day. If you do pen them, there's no reason to ever let them out. Support structures are optional, and piñatas don't really need to socialize or wander. If the piñatas had a series of structure-based daily needs they preferred to handle themselves (like your creatures in Dungeon Keeper 2), it would have been a tighter play experience, as garden management would require more precision and planning.

A Piñata in Every Port

Officially, it is a children's game—it even spawned an insipid Saturday morning cartoon. But Viva Piñata is too complex for kids and too simple for adults. In trying to reach both, it misses either. A mission-based structure would have reined it in somewhat and allowed adults and kids alike to learn at an appropriate pace; the sandbox side of the game should have been an option, not the whole of the single-player campaign. As it is, Viva Piñata is too sprawling, too open, and it becomes a game of repetition and trial and error.

For all the tutorial exposition and info in the in-game encyclopedia, core activities and concepts, like how to attract piñatas, receive limited explanation. You don't get specific instructions on how to lure each specimen until you've done it by accident. Even when you meet all of the requirements, the wild breeds sometimes refuse to move in. Then, once they're there, getting them to do what you want can be frustrating.

Take breeding. Each breed will only swap sauce when you meet certain requirements of food, prey, landscaping or whatever else puts them in a randy mood. Breeding low-level piñatas is pretty straightforward, but valuable species like Elephanillas and Chippopotomuses can be annoyingly recalcitrant. Charlie and Limelda, my Cocoadiles, never fulfilled the requirements for Cocoadile Sexytime because I couldn't attract the prey they wanted. They enjoyed an entirely platonic relationship, never even held claws, and finally died unsatisfied and alone, Limelda succumbing to a piece of tainted candy and Charlie just dropping dead one day. Issues like this give the game an unwelcome nebulous feel, like you're always missing something.

There are approximately one hojillion strategies and things to do, from fertilizing your plants to hybridizing piñatas to taming Sours. (Check it. That list doesn't even scratch the surface). Problem is, they're never explicitly defined. The manual says vaguely that you should try stuff; the encyclopedia says almost nothing and is hard to navigate anyway. I can't help but feel I missed out on some depth simply because I didn't want to spend hours experimenting with different combinations of fertilizer and plant seeds or combining random garden items to see what could be produced.

None of this seriously detracts from the game's fun, but it may impact long-term fondness for the title, especially among adults. Assuming young players can handle the enormous task list, they'll happily while away hours with Viva Piñata. Hell, I happily whiled away more than a few myself, but around the 30-hour mark I began to grow tired of the lack of variance in activities—essentially, the lack of newness or challenge. I loved the thing, but the huge concessions made to allow for very young players finally began to grate on me.

Ironically, these concessions directly contradict much of the game experience.

Hot Piñata-on-Piñata Action

And so we come to the part that's not receiving much coverage elsewhere. The truth is, Viva Piñata is loaded with dark, disquieting imagery invisible to children but traumatically evident to adults. Cannibalism, incest, bestiality, neglect and victimization of helpless creatures lie at the core of a game that is at times overtly carnal and spiced with entendre so transparent you'd be hard-pressed to imagine an interpretation that wasn't sexually charged.

The sartorial fashion of Piñata Island can best be described as Animalized Dr. Seuss Bondage Queen; because of this, you must look closely to even realize that the game's main characters are human beings, but human beings they are. There's a huge bestio-masque fetish element to this game: Eyes Wide Shut meets National Geographic. People dress as Crayola goth animal hookers and coyly fetishize even the most innocuous of activities.

We learn that Leafos, the girl who provides the tutorial and prowls your garden dispensing advice, once "tried to take a Moozipan to bed;" a difficult phrase to misconstrue. Piñata hunter Gretchen Fetchem throatily invites you to give her a call "when you get into the menagerie thing." The island's pet store is owned by two absentee parents who leave their bored teenage daughter in charge, dressed as a cat; she makes thinly veiled sexual advances and frequently suggests that maybe you like your piñatas a little too much. As for those piñatas, they are genderless and ignorant of the danger of inbreeding. You'll soon be breeding piñatas to their own mothers and overseeing GLBT multifectas.

There is also a macabre element. Deadly Sours enter your garden regularly, leaving poisoned candy in their wake (piñatas are suckers for candy)—brightly wrapped sweets that sicken and kill. Your only recourse until late in the game is to beat the Sour to death with a shovel. Your own piñatas will fight to the death at the drop of a hat, and predators like Badgesicles and Pretztails waste no time chasing down and consuming hapless piñata prey. When one dies, it bursts open, spilling candy innards across the garden. The shower of sweets ignites a frenzy among your other piñatas as they race over to gobble up the sugary viscera. And don't lose sight of the fact that you're raising these creatures so they can be sold off, bludgeoned apart and finally eaten by children.

Viva Piñata is grim, unsettling, sexually charged and, in many ways, quite grown-up. But Rare isn't trying to pull a fast one on the world's youth—I'd have no problem with very young kids playing, even by themselves, because you have to be both adult and somewhat deviant to get the subtext. I loved it.

Piñata's Posterity

Viva Piñata's duality, its failure to work equally for players young and old, hinders its march to greatness. Ironically, the game could have been ideal for both, even with all of the mature undertones, if Rare had simply missionized the game and left sandbox play as an option. Sandbox games are addictive because of the "one more turn" factor; the tradeoff is that it's easy to become lost in them unless the challenge evolves alongside the player. Viva Piñata asks little of you; there is no actual challenge. And adults will drift away once they figure that out. All this means is that it's a charming game that unfortunately won't appeal to grownups for as long as it will appeal to their offspring.

Having put in about 40 hours, I've gotten my money's worth. Only the last ten or so were unsatisfying, and even those were hardly torture. I'm disappointed because I think that as good as the game is, and it is really good, it misses many opportunities to be much better.

Rare is like Microsoft's brightly colored pet parrot. Bought in the middle of the original Xbox's life cycle, two Rare games were crucial 360 launch titles. Ironically, Perfect Dark Zero, the game everyone expected to be the 360's killer app, was dismal. Rare swooped in and trumped itself with Kameo—a game no one really expected much from at all. But the truth is that the purchase by Microsoft hasn't been very good for Rare so far, or at least they've released some disappointing games (compared to their earlier work) since they've been under Redmond's ownership. Viva Piñata, despite the complaints, is the first strong reversal of that trend.

Old or young, if you're looking for a beautiful, goofy, moderately disturbing game that encourages experimentation and guarantees many hours of fun, Viva Piñata is a safe bet. It absolutely could have been better, but it's still a triumph in its own little way, and it's proof that for all the recent five-out-of-tens, Rare still has it where it counts. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Rare
Publisher: Microsoft
Release Date: November 2006

Available for: Xbox 360

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