• It’s been a fantastic twelve months watching Rare’s Your Garden finally blossoming into what became Viva Pinata. At first, the seemingly tenuous link between brash merchandising and seemingly impossible screenshots were enough to warrant your £50 going on Gears of War or the latest Need for Speed, and a shaky frame-rate at E3 this year certainly didn’t help matters. However, something magical was sprinkled over what would become not only a great little sleeper hit for some, but for others the much needed antithesis of everything Xbox represents.

    The initial 30 minutes with Viva Pinata aren’t fun. It’s a 1-way torrent of tips, pointers and forced play paths, with mere seconds between pop-ups that interrupt the action. Essentially a micro-management game based around cute little animals, instead of gently holding you hand like (say) Harvest Moon might, Rare decided to grab you by the arm and push you along. As result of the rate of information force fed to the player, when your guide finally (and suddenly) lets go, you’ve already forgotten the key information, there’s too many buttons and you won’t have a clue what to do next.

    This is the point, of course, because there is no ultimate goal here; there are several branches you can take, all leading to rewards (and Achiements) but what you do is entirely up to you. There’s no end screen and there’s no game over either, you really are free to make use of the garden and its inhabitants in whichever way you choose.

    Viva Pinata

    However, don’t make the mistake of thinking there’s no overriding game mechanic here – you won’t make progress without the Pinata. Whilst your garden can be populated with trees, plants, fences and lamps (and 100s of other items) you’ll want to attract the roaming animals to get anywhere in the game. Monochrome Pinata hover around the outskirts of your garden until there’s enough in there to fulfill their ‘visiting’ requirements. These can be a certain number of daisies, for example, or even other Pinata.

    Once visiting, you can then Y-click on them to bring up their ‘resident’ requirements. Again, you’ll need to satisfy these checkboxes too. Manage to get two of the same species resident and you’ll have one final list of needs – ‘romance’, and it’s here where you can start to get into the groove. It’s an endless, yet highly motivating cycle – get a Pinata to visit, make himself at home and then mate with another to produce offspring. Have seven of any species in your garden at once and you’ll get an award – sell the Pinata house, the Pinata and even anything you grew to attract them in the first place, and move on to the next.

    It might sound dull, but an endless desire to see what’s next overwhelms any sense of repetition. There’s always new items, characters and even sour Pinata (the enemy) being unlocked, and it’s uniquely satisfying when you finally ‘get’ what the game is wanting you to do. Awards can be gotten in any order, and there’s a multitude of variations, combinations and hidden secrets to discover as more becomes available. Helpers can tend to your seeds or water your plants for you, Costalot is always getting new stock in her shop and there’re even a couple of humanoid visitors that aren’t telling you the whole truth.

    Visually Viva Pinata is probably the single best looking game on the machine – even up close the Pinata are a treat to behold and jam-packed with animation and character, and at distance, when the whole garden still maintains a steady 30 fps it’s a hugely impressive display of coding. Textures are always pixel sharp and apart from the menus being a little too 3D-heavy (requiring a 3 second load between everything) there are no complains here. This is the new standard for videogame graphics.

    The audio is wonderful too, rich and varied music lies under squabbling squawks and the clink-clink of Willy the Builder as he constructs your latest Pinata house. Everything has it’s own identity, with colour and warmth especially through a decent 5.1 system. Presentation is top-notch throughout, all text is spoken too and it’s especially suitable for children. You also only need a Silver Live account to enable trading with other Live players – a nice touch. Each profile can also house 6 gardens, and each share your experience points, money and unlocks. Flawless.

    So, whilst the rest of the world are fighting identikit drones in two-dimensional subterranean caverns, or racing around the same circuits as everyone else in exactly the same cars, those that took the plunge into the wonderful world of Viva Pinata are now completely hooked; finding plenty to let them shape their own game, with their own creations and own, completely non-linear route through Rare’s vivid imagination. Absolutely essential, and without a doubt my favourite title on the 360 so far.

    Score: 9/10

    About The Author