Review By: Andrew Joy
|# Of Players:||1-4 (2-4 online)|
|Accessories:||Xbox Live (online play), Xbox Live Vision Camera|
For someone like me, games like Viva Piñata pose a huge threat. Even more than some 50+ hour role-playing game, it is capable of sucking away the hours of my life like nothing else – in fact, in the first one, you actually earn an Achievement for forgetting what the sun looks like. The problem is, the cutesy exterior belies the incredibly nuanced and oh-so-addictive gameplay within, the kind that ranks right up there with the greats, like Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon and Pokémon. Heck, in many ways, it is almost like a cruel, cruel trick, a trap designed to lure in the younger players and then watch them squirm as they rush around to pay attention to and manage every inch of their garden. In fact, it may have worked so well that the game tricked itself right out of the market, as the first Viva Piñata is still ignored in many circles. Coming almost two years after the original, Trouble in Paradise is Microsoft and Rare’s second chance with the franchise, offering up a handful of new modes, some new piñata and some gimmicky Xbox LIVE Vision support. The question is, with a resume that now reads more like a yearly installment of an EA Sports title than a fully fleshed out sequel, does it have what it takes to succeed?
One of the first places you’re likely to notice a real difference between this game and the first is in the story. Unlike the last game, Trouble in Paradise actually has one. When it came to the first Viva Piñata, you were chucked into a strange, new world with little more than a short tutorial and introduction to it all: You reside on Piñata Island, home to the beloved, candy-filled creatures, and your job is to collect the requested species from there so they can be sent off to parties all over the world.. Oh sure, there we a few odd story elements here and there – you can learn a great deal about the island’s myriad of bizarre residents through their random conversations – but, for the most part, it was just you, a bag of tools and lots and lots of time. While that certainly has its merits, and still makes for some addictive gaming on its own (after all, the watered down Viva Piñata: Pocket Paradise for the Nintendo DS actually earned some decent marks for this), Trouble in Paradise takes a different path. Far beyond the simple animated snippets of the aforementioned portable entry, this Xbox 360 follow-up features a much closer relationship to the cartoon, including the appearance of several characters plucked right out of it, even if they do only make brief cameo appearances. In this case, the game starts out with the insufferable Professor Pester – who was before only a minor nuisance – unwittingly destroying all of the known piñata records. As the setup for the game, it is your job to restore them, which means you have to collect and send off every species, including some that you must first free from Pester and his Ruffians.
Though I mentioned Animal Crossing up there, the only other way these two games are comparable is in their customization. At its heart, Viva Piñata’s gameplay is the perfect mix of Harvest Moon and Pokémon, and now with even more of the latter, thanks to Trouble in Paradise. Really, your approach can be as varied as the piñata, so you can strategically progress or set your sites on whatever catches your eye and exhaust all your resources in pursuit of it. Either way, in order to collects the over 150 piñata that inhabit the island, you have to create an environment suitable for them, completing a separate set of requirements to make them appear, visit and move in. The requirements can be any number of bizarre things, from having the right amount of a certain type of soil to having a specific decoration, but more often than not it is by having some sort of other piñata species that they like (and usually want to eat) already in there, and attracting those base species means you’ll be doing a lot of growing. Trouble in Paradise adds something new to the mix by allowing you to trap and import some species from the games two new regions: the Piñarctic and Dessert Desert. Of course, since you’ll still have to meet residency requirements and since some of the creatures in those areas don’t appear until certain levels, you’ll still have to do a fair bit of planting, watering, landscaping and other menial tasks, so it isn’t a big change, even if it does create a bit of variety. Time consuming as it is, that isn’t much of a challenge to overcome, and so you’ll still have to tame the sour piñata and face off against Professor Pester and his Ruffians, whom you can either pay off, scare away (with a number of hard-to-obtain piñata) or watch them wreck you hard work by changing the terrain, dropping sour candies or destroy piñata and items.
An aside from the main game, you may be disheartened to hear that Just for Fun is Achievement-free (and somewhat handicapped), but, as an upshot, it gives you free reign of a garden where all the items are unlocked right from the start and you have unlimited chocolate coins (the game’s currency) with which to obtain them. It is simple, to be sure, and, while it may seem to defeat the point, it does at the very least provide the youngsters a place to just enjoy the bits most appealing to them and it gives the more dedicated players a chance to experiment with some possible garden combinations (creating the real epic themes that you’ll want to a LIVE subscription just to show off). Apart from that, even the main game has a few distractions that you can partake in. For one thing, in addition to collection every species, players can also try and log every variant (different colors or features achieved through feeding or breeding) and, in a new addition to the game, each of the two tricks every piñata can learn; some of the latter will be required to complete the challenges, so you’ll have plenty of opportunity to experiment with the new trick stick. Beyond that, this game introduces two mini-games. The beauty pageant is mostly uninvolved, letting you select one in a panel of judges who will rate your piñata by seemingly arbitrary, but pre-set preferences. And, next up is the piñata races, which have you guiding the piñata of your choice through an obstacle course of different terrains (they might travel better on some than others), picking up the occasional power-up to trip up your opponent’s piñata. Being completely offline and totally optional, there isn’t much draw to participate in these, but for those of you looking for change (or a few more Achievements), but with a particularly small game library, it should do the trick.
As you may remember, I said the first difference you notice between the games is the story, and not the graphics, as we so often hear. And that’s because, visually, Trouble in Paradise isn’t much different from the original Viva Piñata. Fortunately, this isn’t all that bad. The first Viva Piñata was bright, colorful and, in a word, perfect for its audience. Of course, while that might seem a horrible turn-off for some gamers – generally the kind who have to protect their hard-earned image of squinting into the darkness even in a fully lit room and creepily smiling when pixilated blood flies up on the screen – the more enlightened among us know that gameplay trumps graphics every time...or, at least when we look at the NPD numbers. While I can’t say whether it exactly pushes the hardware, Viva Piñata has a fair bit of detail even in that saccharine sweet eye candy, allowing you to see the individual bits of paper that cover the local wildlife like fur. The design for the new areas seems to share the same elements as the small bit of island we glimpsed in our first excursion, feeling very Dr. Seuss like with their magnificent desolation. Much like the graphics, the audio is largely unchanged from the original Viva Piñata to Trouble in Paradise. The music, though only background noise to the ambient sounds of your garden, is as soft and melodic as ever. Once again, some of the key sound effects are overly simple and often hard to distinguish, so, if you don’t have the volume set just right, you’ll either screw up your fertilizing or blow out your ear drums. That may not seem like such a tough choice to make, but a full-grown Oak can be the crown jewel of all your hard work.
While Trouble in Paradise has played host to a lot of little tweaks, one of the biggest comes to the multiplayer. Just like in the original Viva Piñata, you can still trades species, items and a variety of other treats (and traps) over Xbox LIVE – and you don’t even need to have a premium Gold account (though you’ll likely want a good forum, for networking). But, this time around, Rare has also taken the time to add proper multiplayer gardening to the mix! A large improvement over the offline, two-controllers-for-one-cursor fare of before, players can still do a bit of it offline in a helpful, if flawed mode that features two invisibly tethered shovels (there is no split screen); as the other player helps you out (by watering plants and other such chores), they can fill up a gauge that will eventually allow them to instantly max out a piñata’s candiosity, heal it, etc. The real draw, however, is going to be the up-to-four player online sessions, where each player can move around independently of each other, able to do just about anything they can in their own garden – if the host so allows it – but with benefits for everyone in attendance. Here, all that you’ve earned in your game can be accessed (so, feel free to introduce a missing piñata or plant species into the mix), and anything that happens in the garden reflects on your account (so, if a Sarsgorilla becomes a resident, you can buy it for your own when you get back to your game). Achievements are also shared in this mode, which is particularly nice since you usually have to perform some real feats this go-around (unlike last time, the game doesn’t hold your hand, awarding you what seemed like every five minutes) and others can only be achieved using the Xbox LIVE vision camera to scan in rare or famous piñata (that in particular rather irked me when I first learned of it, but it turns out nothing essential is really missed out on).
Bottom Line:As I indicated in the introduction, the first Viva Piñata was a game that not only sucked away hours of my life, but went so far as to reward it (beyond just the experience of playing it, that is). While Trouble in Paradise may not revel in it quite so much, it’s hardly that different. Unfortunately, while that may be a compliment, it is something of a backhanded one, as it hints at a much deeper problem with this follow-up: it’s not so much a full sequel as it is simply an expansion. There are changes galore to be had here, don’t get me wrong, but most of them are small and, for the most part, insignificant. On the other hand, some of the additions – like the online play, for example – certainly make Trouble in Paradise at least worth trying, but with one caveat: don’t buy this game unless you’ve never played the original Viva Piñata, or were an obsessive fan of it. It wasn’t necessarily a mistake to make it in the first place, as the added polish, depth and other new additions address many of the concerns with the original – while making some new ones (the streamlined controls have some noticeable lag) and leaving others unchanged (there are still a number of glitches, including disappearing piñata) – and it does so at something of a budget price (for Xbox 360 games, at least), but I can’t help but think it would have been better served as some sort of downloadable, like The Shivering Isles for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
Posted: 2009-03-27 12:57:42 PST