Chances are most 360 owners wouldn’t have imagined ‘Co-op gardening on Xbox Live’ to ever appear as a status update on Microsoft’s shooter-infused console, but this latest instalment of Viva Piñata deserves far better than simple bemusement or disbelief. Interface tweaks and vastly expanded community elements freshen up the experience in all the right areas, whilst the core gameplay retains the compelling and thoroughly addictive collect-em-up quality that kept a select crowd of players under near-hypnosis towards the end of 2006. Be sure to keep an eye on the clock on work nights then, and don’t eat too much candy before bedtime (probably around 6am).
Virgin explorers of Piñata Island will be greeted by the same juxtaposition of relaxing garden design and hectic levelling that characterised the first few hours of the original, but with the addition of two breakout areas (the sandy Desert Dessert and glacial Piñarctic) in which to trap themed Piñata. Each garden revolves around the need to attract new species and encourage inhabitation – either to serve as bait for Piñata at a higher level in the food chain, or to simply collect and catalogue each genetic strain as a means to level up. If you’ve played Pokemon or Monster Hunter, you’ll understand the principles immediately.
Curious visitors to your garden, title upgrades, rewards and unlocked content arrive at a ferocious pace during these formative stages, leaving little time to plan your next move or even appreciate what just happened. Indeed, if ever a game could be criticised for actively including too much content, the first twenty levels of Trouble in Paradise rival any pretenders to the throne, verging on frustrating as that fifth cut-scene kicks in when all you want to do is get back to landscaping.
In fairness though, the overly-frenetic pacing stems as much from player reaction as it does from design. Although you might want to tempt that cute little Fudgehog into your garden as soon as it appears, there really isn’t any need to drop your current plans immediately – you can always come back to each Piñata at a later date and concentrate on them individually. As soon as the ‘gotta catch-em-all… NOW’ mindset is broken, Viva Piñata unfurls its considerable charm and takes on a pace dictated by the player – for better or worse.
While Trouble in Paradise contains the same core experience as the original (complete with the same cast of Piñata amongst a considerably expanded stable), Rare has wisely addressed a few of the more pressing criticisms, most notably within the interface. It’s no longer necessary to visit the store to purchase seeds, for example – a quick couple of taps on the direction pad pulls up an overlay menu for that purpose. Likewise, selecting Piñata is now a matter of scrolling through a list with the bumper buttons rather than manually searching a crowded garden – especially useful for flying Piñata like the perennially annoying Sparrowmint.
This simplification also extends to the manner in which Piñata can be captured, with the child-friendly visuals finally backed up with a suite of options that make playing the game a breeze for a younger audience. The new Piñata-vision support allows players to scan cards into the game via the Xbox camera, for example – instantly spawning whatever goodies were provided in the barcode. As a playground trading-card incentive it’s a great idea, but the benefits also extend to allowing younger players (or unscrupulous adults) to obtain the rare Piñata without having to jump through hours of gameplay hoops first. As a supposedly child-focussed game that skewed towards heavily complex gameplay, this is exactly what the original could have done with.
Perhaps more significantly, online co-operative support transforms Trouble in Paradise into a true social experience, allowing experienced gardeners to provide support for newcomers and a collaborative playground for anyone going after the myriad requirements for high-level Piñata. Earned experience points are duplicated for each participant, encouraging co-operation and the sharing of mutual goals – quite unlike most other Xbox Live titles. In keeping with that spirit, Trouble in Paradise is currently remarkably free of the online detritus that inhabits the likes of CoD4 and Halo 3 – each of the players we encountered turned out to be polite and courteous, an incredibly rare achievement in itself.
There are further improvements that could be made with the slightly unresponsive interface, and the balancing of single-player goals is still occasionally arbitrarily slow or speedy – but Trouble in Paradise represents a solid evolution of a series already founded on a uniquely entertaining premise and execution. As a diversion to the endless stream of shooters and RPGs headed our way this ‘holiday season’, I’d encourage anybody to take a vacation on Piñata Island – just beware, you might not want to take the return flight any time soon.