Here's how your average Xbox 360 game plays: you blammo a few hundred bullets around, you mash your mate in the face with the butt of your rifle, he mashes you in the face with the butt of his, there's a ruckus over who gets to the rocket launcher first, then whoever didn't get it jumps into a tank or jeep and then splatters everyone else all over the tarmac. Simple.
And here's how Viva Pinata, which is definitely not your average Xbox 360 game, plays: you soften hard soil with a spade, plant some bulbs and water them and wait for their heady scent to attract a passing bunny rabbit, who eats some carrots then decides to move into your garden forever. Then you build him a house, find him a 'friend' and wait for them to have a baby bunny. (Which admittedly you can then either feed to a passing snake or sell for cold, hard cash.) But that's all okay because these aren't real animals - they're pinatas - and you can bash them with your spade all you like, because instead of spilling blood and guts everywhere, they spill sweets to the happy sound of children cheering. Simple.
In short, and as if you hadn't realised, Viva Pinata is not your average 360 game.
So, let's begin at the, er, beginning, where you're given a (to put it politely) fairly shitty piece of land. Papier-machč animals are fussy creatures. Not quite as fussy as the local tramp, who doesn't show up until you've put down some nice garden furniture that he can shuffle in and steal, but fussy nonetheless. And a bit of digging and planting needs to be done if you want to attract anything other than a basic worm.
Cue one of the slowest starts to a game ever as a variety of creepy, colourful freaks - usually sporting odd northern accents - come bounding onto your land (If only we knew where the shotgun was kept. Oh yeah. No guns. Bugger.), offering bafflingly detailed instructions on what you might have thought was supposed to be a kids' game. You then spend half an hour flattening soil, smashing up junk and sowing grass seeds. In hindsight, once your garden is blooming - transformed from council estate dumping ground to Chelsea Flower Show contender - you might look back on this bit as being rewarding, like planting a real garden. Or you might just think it was a real pain in the petunias.
Different pinatas show up in your garden depending on what you put in it. They all have different criteria for moving in, then 'romancing' as it's called, and are, basically, like Class A divas - they even have criteria for showing up to check out your garden in the first place. A Badgsicle is nocturnal so will only show up at night, but then will only move in if you have four other types of nocturnal animals living there already. Squazzils will come to check out a hazelnut tree and will move in once your tree has matured and produced three nuts, which they've stuffed in their little faces. The Bunnycomb sniffs out carrots and moves in once it's eaten some, but only if you've got lots of grass too. Actually, it's all nicely done. Obviously it's not just a case of plonking things in your garden and waiting - you need to breed pinatas lower on the food chain to attract in bigger pinatas, and make sure you've got enough to fill everyone's dinner plate. You also have to get some money coming in - by growing and selling vegetables, flogging off surplus pinatas and, later on, getting your pinatas to make produce like wool, milk and honey.
So it's like a resource management game of sorts - you highlight pinatas and direct them to what you want them to do, plant and water, and buy and sell produce at the local shop. Treat it like a management game though and you'll be cursing the day you ever thought a game about compost heaps would be any good. Because, while games like The Sims are controlled by a quick-clicking, fast-playing interface, this most definitely isn't. Everything happens comparatively slowly and you just have to accept that cut-scenes you're forced to watch every five minutes and evil sour pinatas that take six slow bashes with a spade to destroy are part of the 'enjoyment'.