IGN Review of Viva Pinata: Pocket Paradise
The split between Nintendo and Rare wasn't a pretty one; plain and simple. Nintendo fans lost their Perfect Dark and Banjo Kazooie games, Rare lost its easy to sell to casual crowd, and all was not well in the world. As the years have progressed, however, the developer has started to branch out a bit from its traditional console roots, now delivering pocket titles to the Nintendo DS, and succeeding brilliantly. Diddy Kong Racing was a nice little addition to the system, offering a pretty basic port with included online play, and now the company releases Viva Piñata: Pocket Paradise; a true gem for both casual and hardcore gamers alike.
Viva Piñata got its start on 360, and fell victim to the same curse many games now days end up dealing with. It was loved by critics, and passed up by consumers. With both critics and the game's developers alike agreeing that the product was strong enough to deserve better, Rare and Microsoft have continued the Viva Piñata franchise on 360 with a Party Animals spin-off, and a full-on sequel with Trouble in Paradise, releasing alongside the DS game. With no Microsoft handheld, Rare went with Nintendo as its pocket platform of choice, teaming up with THQ to deliver what is -- in most respects -- a pocket conversion of the original game, now with a few added options, modes, and more piñatas to check out. It may be a bit complex for kids, and a bit lacking in some of the amazing style the game was known for on 360, but it's one heck of a pocket package as you'll see below.
Viva Piñata is a mix of something like Sim City, Harvest Moon, Animal Crossing, and the traditional virtual pet design that was all the rage back in the late 1990's. Players start with a dead, boring garden, and, using the stylus, will literally paint a landscape for wild piñatas to wander over to and inhabit. The world is entirely flat, but the style is all custom-made, so you can dig lakes, leave desert areas, cover the whole garden with green grass, or section it off zoo-style to have different habitats all in one area. The more you do with your garden, the larger variety of piñata you'll attract.
The entire experience starts off extremely simple, and can also be a bit repetitive. Since there isn't a huge amount you can do with a chunk of land and just a few tools, players will need to take a few minutes to grab the grass painter and scrub the entire chunk of land to get it ready for the soon-arriving inhabitants. Granted this is part of any sim game (in Sims, you'd be creating your player or town, Animal Crossing has you talking with Tom Nook to get started, and Harvest Moon begins with a lengthy "clean up the farm" section that can take up to a half hour to get through in any given version of the game), but if Rare wanted to speed the experience up it would have been easy to do so, adding different sized brushes into the mix so players could quickly get their garden the way they want.
Once the piñatas start rolling in though, the addiction begins, and most players will find themselves having a blast with the portable paradise. New animals are always showing up, and the game's alert system lets you know when and where these new critters arrive. A simple tap of the stylus gives you plenty of info as to what the wild piñata wants in order to move in (sometimes it's a certain percentage of the garden created to their liking, while other times it's another piñata that it needs to eat to stick around). The new encyclopedia makes things much easier all around, and, within a few hours, even a beginning Viva Piñata player should be able to have at least a few different species co-existing in their small starter garden.
The core gameplay hasn't changed much from the previous 360 game, but then again, it didn't really need to. Touch control works great, with a single tap selecting the Piñata, a double tap zooming in to see the beautiful models in action, and a few different camera controls. The D-pad or face buttons can be used to pan around the garden, a scrub on the end of the screen will pan the camera specifically, or a small on-screen D-pad can be used instead, offering the fastest option for camera manipulation. It's a shame the game didn't have a lefty mode in the options menu, which would have freed up either the D-pad or buttons (respectively) for hot keys, but the item tree in the upper right of the screen works well once you get used to the branching icon menus. There were very few times we'd use the wrong item or nail a piñata on the head with the shovel (it happened, but usually because we wanted it to), and for the most part the icons are easy to read and quick to use. Even the town visitation, which was previously a whole set of menus away from the game on 360, can now be accessed via the touch screen. Nice.
Viva Piñata: Pocket Paradise does a great job of holding players for a few hours, but like the previous game on 360, the joy of discovery will eventually wear thin. The game does a great job of keeping you busy with little challenges to complete, the ability to plant flowers and seeds and evolve them with the help of other piñatas, or even breed and make special colored piñatas through more advanced techniques, but it all does eventually start to taper off. On one side, the game has no overall goal (aside from raising your gardener level), so its simple and free form enough to be inviting to anyone. On the other hand, you can only breed, collect, and tweak for so long before you start to wonder what the point of it all is. In the end, the point of it is to have fun interacting with you critters, so once that ends, so will the game.
There are ways Pocket Paradise lengthens the experience though, and not all of them are done with options or game modes. As one of the titles greatest assets, the visual presentation is top notch, offering a unique blend of 2D environments with 3D character models, and some tricky layer and sprite work to give the impression that you're manipulating the world with every touch of the stylus. The audio presentation is incredible as well, mixing recorded VO taken directly from the TV show to accompany clips and small movie shorts during tutorials or "episodes" throughout the game, and while in the garden you'll get a great sense of immersion through random piñata noises and audio/visual weather effects such a pouring rain, or the shift between day and night with lighting effects and sounds. Piñata is all about creating a world that players will want to just jump into and enjoy, and so much of that is possible because of a unique audio/visual style.
As a new aspect to the experience -- and one this reviewer fears will be overlooked as people talk about the game's inherent difficulty -- is the new Playground mode, which is a custom, free play experience only available on the DS version of Viva Piñata. Here, younger players can hop into a pre-made, random garden, and just start adding whatever they want with no limitation on piñata type or cash flow. All animals are available from the start, as are all items, houses, seeds, and flowers. A quick trip to the fully-unlocked store allows players to grab whatever they want, and send it directly to the playground. Rather than dealing with terrain morphing, a simple icon slider takes preferences of what ground type should go where, and then auto-builds. It's the perfect Viva Piñata mode for younger players that are too young to get into the main game.
©2008-09-02, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved