Paper Tigers

Viva Piñata is adorable -- and misleading.

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Viva Piñata

Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios

Platform: Xbox 360

Price: $49.99

ESRB Rating: E (for Everyone)

Score: 9 (out of 10)

Viva Piñata begins with you acquiring the deed to a barren patch of land on "Piñata Island," a strange place where everyone wears masks and the main form of currency is chocolate coins. Your first order of business is a little gardening, breathing some life back into your dusty plot. This not only makes it nicer to look at, but also lures in free-range roaming piñatas from the surrounding wilds.

That's right, piñatas. Little paper containers full of candy. And once you draw a few into your garden, you can keep them, sell them, or breed them.

Yes. Breed piñatas.

Maybe it's a sad piñata, and you want to cheer it up with a nice gift, like a pirate hat you bought at the local shop. Or maybe you don't want it in your garden at all, so you give it a good smack with your shovel. Such is life on Piñata Island: hours of gardening and piñata-wrangling, in the classic struggle to become a chocolate millionaire, all in the visual style of a fever dream brought on by bad guacamole.

As silly as it sounds now, just wait till you try to explain it to somebody. "Sorry dude, I can't go drinking tonight -- I'm busy mating Fudgehogs." But the game is also impossibly cute and will win over even the most cynical curmudgeon. Every piñata -- from Arocknid to Zumbug -- is as adorable as can be, and the surrounding island is a lush world of primary colors.

Because of its saccharine appearance, it's easy to assume the game is for kids. But play for a while, and you'll realize the average six-year-old would be in over his head -- the game demands expert multitasking.

Turns out this piñata's fluffy paper skin hides a belly full of jawbreakers. Piñatas get crabby, fight, and sometimes even kill and eat each other. Poisonous weeds find a foothold and spread throughout your garden, making the piñatas who eat them sick -- resulting in some nasty vet bills. Neglected plants wither and die, "sour" piñatas wander in and cause trouble, and stubborn piñatas won't mate because of unfathomable pre-nookie demands, such as requiring a supply of monkeynuts.

Eventually, you get a feel for the game's rhythm. While at first your garden resembled a papier-mâché Mortal Kombat, eventually your residents go about their lives peacefully. And someday you'll even have enough monkeynuts to choke a Chippopotamus. Congratulations: You've created your own little origami Eden.

You have to admire Viva Piñata's whimsical complexity. Players have control over every little aspect of their garden, and they're all interrelated. Something as seemingly insignificant as planting a tulip can have several unexpected results, affecting your garden's entire ecosystem. It's all very circle-of-life.

The only gripe goes to that steep learning curve. Viva overwhelms you with information early on, leaving you struggling to remember half of what the game explained. You're expected to know countless obscure details, like when to use half a dozen kinds of fertilizer and the ideal scenarios for mating Whirlms. Luckily, there's an in-game journal you can consult, but you'll still be wishing one of your piñatas was full of Ginkgo biloba.

Don't be discouraged. Just like with a real piñata, getting to the good stuff might take some effort, but it's worth it.

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