What do you get when you take the characters from an ongoing television show and previous game title of the same name, and throw them into a melting pot roiling with hackneyed ingredients? Well, a lot of answers may apply here, but Krome Studios' Viva Pinata: Party Animals for the Xbox 360 definitely fits the bill. Although the foundation of Viva Pinata is geared toward younger audiences, the lack of entertaining gameplay in this title really sets the age barrier to just above the still-drooling, speech-impaired stages of early childhood. Perhaps, as an individual way beyond such stages, my reasoning is unfair, but Krome Studios and Microsoft have a lot to make up for after letting this brutal cat out of its bag.
The gist of Party Animals is to engage players in a psychedelic-feeling world where pinatas are the sole inhabitants, and mini-games are the international pastime. Much like the Mario Party titles for past Nintendo consoles, the game allows up to four players to participate in a variety of competitive blood-sports (I use the term very loosely) such as whacking bomb-carrying blobs with sticks and avoiding an ever-growing snowball. Unfortunately, although the game boasts over 50 mini-games, this variety eventually feels like a few core elements fitted with a multitude of insincere masks. As a reward for accomplishing such harrowing (again, loosely) tasks, players are rewarded with points that increase one's "candiosity" rating. In other words, being the number one player generally rewards the most candiosity, whilst achieving a lower rank rewards less of said points. Although the basic scheme is simple in form, for some unknown reason a squirrel-looking pinata that acts like it has had a bit too much of its own innards will pop up from time to time, allocating bonus points to random players. While excellent for some, it will most likely lead to a few head scratches for those that do not receive any extra candiosity points, and the whole ordeal feels forced and ill-placed.
One good thing that can be said about the mini-games is that the required controls for each different amusement are displayed and easy to pick up on. Although this makes getting into the action fun for younger audiences, older generations may find themselves swiftly annihilating the competition. Whether jumping over a specific obstacle a number of times or repeatedly tapping buttons in a pre-determined order, this game simply lacks any reasonable level of difficulty.
Where Party Animals makes up some lost ground is its inclusion of races. Much like any other racing game on the market, these one-lap events include power-ups and funky layout designs. While lobbing a Fiesta Missile to stun a leading opponent or dropping a Smoke Bomb can be fun, there is little left to do in these races except run and jump, and awkwardly at that. Apparently, the designers at Krome Studios decided that providing the player with a view of what might be up ahead on the track was a poor idea. Instead, they have filled each sharp turn with queasy camera-angles that rival none other than those utilized throughout the Chocobo races in Final Fantasy VII. Even more unfortunate - unlike those loveable chicken-like beasts that required only a few non-directional commands to maneuver, their papier-mache counterparts require much more control and a behind-the-shoulder viewport. Simply put, the camera angles throughout the racing mini-games send a lot of pinatas careening into walls.
While Viva Pinata: Party Animals may reek of decadent gameplay, its visual style is very clean and graphically engaging. Each of the sprightly characters that call this game home are well-animated and come to life through the use of the Xbox 360's powerful graphics engine. The developers have also done an excellent job with the game's various environments, and whether the background is a swift-moving, cloud-ridden sky or a serene hilltop riddled with fences, it all feels alive and suits the characters well. Surprisingly, there is very little hint of slowdown (even during the fast-paced races) and the in-game cinematics are devoid of mismatched objects or marred polygons.
Considering the Party Animals' generous use of fiesta themes and its inclusion of enough on-screen confetti to blanket a small country, it is easy to guess that most of the soundtrack is riddled with upbeat rhythms and dance tunes. The music certainly fits the game, and although slightly annoying at times (who wants constant happiness forced through one's eardrums?) it is generally on-cue and not over-the-top. Alas, as should be expected, each of the characterized pinatas are voiced in a way that will set children at ease and send anyone else through the roof. In other words, these feisty critters are fitted with high-pitched inflections that would put a klaxon to shame. Although irritating, the voice-actors are a perfect fit for the characters they are giving life to, which brings a little more to the table.
Sure, Viva Pinata: Party Animals is geared for the younger generation of gamers, but it is a well-known fact that gameplay usually makes the game. While it shines with striking decor and beautiful backdrops, Party Animals fails at engaging its audience and providing a solid game experience. Nonetheless, anyone searching for a simple holiday gift for a toddler should pick up Viva Pinata: Party Animals in a heartbeat. Where it may lack the entertainment necessary for an older audience, the title suits the young'uns like a fitted glove. With that said, once the family has gathered 'round to see the game in action, no one should be surprised when Uncle Joe leaves the room with a sigh, and grandma grinds her fake teeth.