Version tested: Xbox 360
If you'd asked me a year ago what I thought the first bit of Viva Piņata 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 Piņata, 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 piņata-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 piņata.
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.
Sooner or later, your garden's a bit lovely. You've got all sorts of animals running free, although you might need to fence some off from each other later on - it's very disappointing to discover there's proscribed inter-species death going on that's not on your hands. And even for a black-hearted cynic like me, there's something charming and satisfying about watching your residents frolic and play with each other. They're gorgeously styled and animated and the piņata effect - the ruffly paper skin - is one of Rare's best graphical innovations since they made us fall over with excitement in Donkey Kong Country all those years ago. Reports from trade shows of horrendous frame-rates were premature too; this runs fine, only chugging occasionally when it performs an auto-save. And yes, by this stage you've also managed to carve garden paths using soily tracts so that from above (click the right stick) the whole place resembles a dodgy fascist symbol.
But Viva Piņata would be rather boring if it were just about giving things funny names and then getting them to have it off and smiling a lot and being a fascist. Fortunately Rare's wise to that, and so the game gently and subtly takes on a different theme - where the mixture of pet sim and empire builder is more finely balanced.
If you want more piņata (you do), then you need to keep levelling up by doing new and interesting things. Your relationship with the basics evolves - you're no longer doing all the watering or weeding yourself, but instead employing helpers from the nearby pub (which sells milk - aww) to do it for you, and managing their contracts. You're no longer obsessed with naming every piņata because there are so many, so you concentrate on making sure they can play nicely and acquiring new ones through careful management of the relationship between the garden layout (which by now has expanded to give you more room) and the piņatas' residency and romance requirements.
Some have pointed out that gentler gamers will be forced to make agonising choices: sacrificing piņata for the benefit of the clan, and ripping up the things you used to marvel at because the layout's become incredibly cluttered. But actually the way your relationship with the garden develops means that you won't be so precious about everything by the time these decisions matter. Your obsession becomes meeting the piņatas' requirements. Your joy stems from things like realising that the "tinker man" in the village can hollow out your pumpkin and give it a face - the nasty vampire bats will only become residents if they can eat one in that state. It's no longer just a pet sim - it's a game about disentangling the food chain so everyone's happy and flourishing, and ultimately Viva Piņata's much less reliant on Sims-style novelties as a result.
It's not just these complexities that you're up against though. You can run out of dosh, in which case you may need to take drastic steps and flog your piņata into god-knows-what. Doctors' costs are quite hefty, for example, and if you're not buying or smacking seed-man in the head for new produce to grow and sell, you won't be able to foment the accounts. Sinister players like me will discover though that you can set up a sort of production line of animals - the steady stream of worms allows easy matching of sparrows, whose offspring are quite valuable early on. But even with all these things to consider, the game never really gangs up on you the way some of its managementalist contemporaries do, and allows you to concentrate on the things that keep you interested instead.
There are some issues, sadly, but none so bothersome that I'd cut the head off the blossoming score. Xbox Live options are rather more limited than I expected - the biggest problem being your inability to invite people round to see your garden, with lesser citations for things like not being able to see what's in the gifts you're sent until you've opened them. It's also a bit annoying that you can't choose how your garden expands - you're just given bigger borders to work in on each side - and there are some interface niggles like having to open seed info pages that take you out of the garden before you've planted them, but being able to identify anything that's already in the soil at a glance. It's also worth pointing out that what narrative there is unfolds away from the action in unlockable storybook bits in your journal, and doesn't amount to much more than a dull bedtime story.
But there's so much to do before any of that starts to bother you, and by that time you'll be engaged enough to pay it no mind. You certainly don't have to be a complete psychopath to have fun with it - there's so much hidden in the earth to uncover and nurture. Piņata loan requests (the point at which you remember that these things are actually party attractions), the quirky mating ritual movies, and the wealth of ways to solve the puzzle of creating life are just a few among very many. "Converting" the evil piņata who turn up to cause trouble is very satisfying, too, and there's even a beggar who comes around - you can either pay him off with your chocolate coins, or whack him on the head with a spade.
You just need to invest yourself. If you do, you'll discover Viva Piņata to be a subtle blend of resource management and Origin of Species (albeit mad, wackily named species with cute sound effects). There is so much to unlock and achieve, and after some of Rare's recent sins this is a welcome return to form, and something into which I know I'll happily sink myself for many weekends to come.
(And I'm sorry, but I think "Horstachio" is an awesome name.)
8 / 10