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