Version tested: Xbox 360
If you'd asked me a year ago what I thought the first bit of Viva Piñata would be like, it's very unlikely that I would have guessed correctly that Earthraper and Soilhumper would have given birth to Conceivedinsin, and that I would then get Earthraper to have it off with Conceivedinsin to bring Incestibrate into the world, and then flog Soilhumper to a dodgy old lady so I could buy a lamp, before serving Earthraper and Incestibrate up to Flutterface and Gallantflaps so they could do the deed and produce Wingwrong.
After all, none of that makes sense. So let me translate: in the first hour that I played Viva Piñata, I got the worms I was encouraged to name and nurture to have sex multiple times, including with their own children, and then sold one of them to a hag and fed the others to sparrows because that's the only way to get them to go into their little birdhouse and pound the headboard.
This, by the way, is Microsoft's first attempt at a kids game for Xbox 360.
Of course it's all handled very tastefully - shagging is "romancing", played out as a little mini-game, and all the voice-over instructions are channelling CBeebies. Parents may need to help the sprogs out with certain things, because there's a fair bit of complexity to making a sparkling garden for all the little animals to live in, but children will probably like it anyway. They're quite good with complex systems, you know - my little brother drove my sister's car into the garage door aged 12. Also, there's a little child-safety pamphlet stuffed inside the box if you're worried about that.
But the point I'm trying to make is that adults will definitely enjoy it too. It's sort of a cross between an empire-building game like Caesar and a life management game like The Sims, and for the most part it's very well put together.
You start off with a patch of broken land with a crying woman on it. She's crying not because she has leaves growing out of her face (best not to mention it though), but because the garden's full of rubbish, so she gives you a crumbling spade - you're the new owner - and you set about smashing up the remains of skips and doghouses and beating down the hard earth until you have a soily base.
Then you get a very useful infinite-grass-seed pack, allowing you to carpet the place in greenery. By this stage some worms (sorry, whirlms - no wait, they should be sorry) will have turned up and taken an interest. Animals initially creep onto your lawn in black and white, but if their conditions for residency are met (and in this case they quickly are - the worms have low standards), they'll take on a more piñata-like colour scheme and allow you to name them and look up their stats.
Soon you're encouraged to give the worms names and build them a little house. So you do that, and they seem quite chirpy, and then they're "romancing" little Conceivedinsin to life. Obviously there aren't any restrictions on naming. Wise choice.
The initial stages of the game unfold through lots of prompts from your leaf-faced friend that introduce the mechanics. There's an alerts system that sends useful information to you - if you're busy, these items are stored in a queue at the bottom of the screen. Otherwise pretty much every control is handled by the left analogue stick and face buttons - you hit X to open your inventory, for example, and then use the analogue stick to point to the option you want (spade, watering can, etc.) and from then on it's just a case of using the A button.
To choose where things go and to get about, you direct a little circular cursor with the left stick, using the right one to point the camera so you're looking where you want to look. In this way the same tool that builds a spooky tower for bats to sleep in is the one you use to direct bunnies to consummate, and the one you use to tell the sprinkling woman she's fired because she let your tree die.
Before long the seed-man presents himself, allowing you to start growing things, which obviously need to be watered occasionally. You gain access to the village shop, where a loony woman will sell you things like lamps and fences and other seeds. There's also a builder who will help you out with your animal homes and so on. As you grow in stature as a gardener you're awarded new contacts and tools - like an advanced shovel that can dig ponds. The unifying aspect of all of this is that it's geared toward helping you attract more piñata.
For example, building a big pond attract newts, which you'll need because a badger won't take up residence until he's eaten one, whereas rabbits will only hang about if they can eat a carrot first and foxes won't unless they can eat rabbits. There's a steady stream of animals presenting themselves, but early on leaf-woman is going a bit mental with alerts and instructions, so it's possible to become a bit overwhelmed and need to slow down - I was sustained through this period by the sudden realisation that I could give things names and then make them perform unspeakable acts, obviously, but less demented gamers will just have to be tolerant of the bluster and the occasional dead periods where you waiting for things to happen or the seed chap to turn up again. The good news is that once you've got the early days out of the way, mad leaf woman shuts up for the most part and it's up to you to uncover the garden's secrets.