Version tested: Xbox 360
Viva Piñata really was filled with fun, but it was a guilty pleasure for many, some of whom claimed to buy Gears of War at the same time to save face. "This? This isn't mine. I bought the one about homoerotic camaraderie in the face of exploding underground lizard aliens." Hopefully everyone's overcome that now though, because Viva Piñata: Trouble in Paradise is just as good, if not better.
More of an expanded version of the original game than a sequel, Trouble in Paradise plays in much the same way. You take control of a scruffy patch of land and use a spade and a magical grass-seed packet to carpet the soil in greenery, and then plant seeds and dig ponds to attract a range of vibrant wildlife to live within the garden's borders. All the animals - including more than 30 new additions - want different things in order to take up residence, and different things again in order to mate, and once the tutorial phase is out of the way the game settles into a madcap rhythm of watering, sculpting, buying and selling to make and keep them all happy.
The piñata animals remain the stars, with new additions introduced at various points throughout the game. There are cuddly ladybirds, beetles, geckos, yaks, vultures, crabs, penguins, gorillas and others, all of which have been brought to life in gorgeous fashion thanks to Rare's beautiful pinecone paper finish, complemented by personalised animations, emotive faces and cute sound effects. The original piñata return with tweaked behaviour and requirements to integrate their new friends, and there are a few new ways to interact with them, including the Trick Stick, which allows you to recall a couple of showpiece moves for each piñata once you've fed or coddled them into performing for the first time.
The first Viva Piñata eventually won enormous praise for its charm and compulsive gameplay, but only after it fought off the memory of a sluggish introductory period, and the steps Rare has taken to improve the start of the sequel go some way to alleviating this. The initial garden plot is already home to a few plants and one or two animals, with a fair bit of garden furniture that can be utilised or sold to give players a helping hand. There's also a three-part tutorial that introduces you to the basic concepts and a couple of new ones, including Langston, who sets out challenges that encourage you to play with your piñata to make them happy before sending them off to distant parties. The interface has also been nipped and refined in places to provide shortcuts to useful information and tools.
It's still not quite there though, and wants for a PC mouse or something akin to the excellent DS version's stylus-driven, dual-screen interface. Unable to replicate that on the Xbox 360, of course, Rare's compromise is effective once you've learned your way around it, but feels as though it could have been streamlined further. Piñata information screens are densely detailed; seeds, accessories and other commodities and services bought from the neighbouring town send you through too many menus and screens; and the X-button radial menu and d-pad shortcuts are slightly unresponsive. We could also do with more visual feedback on whether seeds are being planted too close together, in which case their growth is stunted. There are various quirks and niggles.
Persevere though and it's hard not to fall back into the old rhythm - or a new rhythm if you've never played before - and become enslaved by the urgent patterns of gardening, piñata collection and breeding, the latter now with a tougher expanded mini-game that even has its own leaderboards. New desert and arctic regions allow you to trap more exotic piñata, and unlock sand and snow bags that provide alternatives to short and long grass underfoot, Langston keeps you coming back with new challenges, and the twinkling voice of your passive guardian Leafos keeps you up to date with new additions to shops and other areas of the game as you fill the flower-petal experience bar in the top right and gradually level up, accumulating new tools and techniques and expanding the size of your garden in the process.
Not everything comes off smoothly. Four-player co-operative play is included for gardeners who want to invite their friends to join in over Xbox Live, but while this functions well and you can set access levels for guests, the absence of an in-game avatar lessens the feeling of connection with other players, and gardens - while often beautiful and filled with exotic animals - are relatively small and so show-and-tell sessions will be over in seconds. Perhaps a co-operative system where players created discrete gardens and allowed them to cross-pollinate organically, like Spore or Animal Crossing, would have been preferable.
The inclusion of local co-operative play, giving a second player limited options to interact with and entertain creatures - to lend a helping hand, effectively - is a smarter choice, and potentially gives parents a better way to play the game with children, who may find the interface and options slightly overwhelming. The Xbox Live Vision Camera can also scan specially made trading cards, one of which is included with the game, and immediately provides access to a piñata with a set name and various accessories hidden in a dotty code that runs up the side. The card included with the game is cheaply produced, but you can take your own pictures and upload them to a special website to create piñata cards, giving that feature a bit more depth for devoted players. The option to ship animals and other items to your friends is also retained.
Overall, returning fans of the first game who mined its surprisingly extensive depths for hidden variant species, growth bonuses, tinkered items, top-level tool upgrades and Achievements won't be disappointed, despite the initial feeling that this is simply the same game with more options. That may be true, but having won us over the first time by filling the game out with hundreds of beautiful animations, romance videos and hidden bonuses, Rare's decision to repopulate, extend and refine the game's inventory of the same treats replicates the effect while offering a better version of the same core experience to people whose heads weren't turned by the first game's legions of slightly disbelieving advocates.
Viva Piñata is still compromised, paralysing newcomers in places with its hyperactive progression and competing activities. If anything, the balance of the first game, which sometimes slowed to a crawl as you waited for a number of lengthy processes to complete, has shifted too far in the other direction. Elsewhere it still struggles to blossom under the weight of an interface that feels one or two layers too deep, and some of Rare's revisions are slighter than they first appear, including the trapping sub-game in desert and arctic regions, which is little more than an additional layer of mechanical obfuscation. Gardens are also flat land, with no option to change levels apart from digging ponds, and we had hoped this would change for the sequel.
But it's easy to forgive these things when the whole is deep, compelling, personal and capable of so much incidental humour and charm: your first set of twins, the first time your sparrow catches fire, the first time you realise you've mated parent and child. Rare has said it will take a break from Piñata Island for now after six years of almost constant development. We only hope it's not a permanent vacation, because there are very few series that do such a good job of infusing compelling gameplay with infectious personality. And we're really f***ing sick of underground lizard aliens.
8 / 10