The Eye of Judgment Review

If you are reading this, you are probably a dork. You are almost certainly a video game dork, but dorky pursuits love company, so there is some chance that you are, or at one point were, a collectible card game dork as well. You know--Magic: The Gathering, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Collectible Card Game, those Pokemon cards.

If you do happen to be a gamer of both the video and card varieties, Sony would very much like you to invest in The Eye of Judgment, an unusual hybrid of video games and card games. Using scanning technology via the new EyeToy-like PlayStation Eye camera, you play the fantasy-themed Eye of Judgment using real collectible cards, but mediated through a PlayStation 3, allowing for both face-to-face play as well as online competition.

It sounds like a bulky premise--and it is--but what's more surprising is how well it works. This is a genuinely fun, and rather addictive, game. For a variety of reasons, it also gives the impression it will be able to appeal not just to that distinguished combination of video and card gamers, but to those who are just one or the other.

Overview of the Eye
At its core, The Eye of Judgment is actually a small-scale tactical game in which two players vie for control of a three-by-three playing field and attempt to be the first to control more than half of it. But let's start at the beginning. The Eye of Judgment takes a bit of effort to get going. After purchasing the game's starter set, which includes the game disc itself, the PlayStation Eye, a playing mat, a 30-card starter deck and eight-card booster pack--in the end, not bad for the slightly-more-than-standard $69.99, considering the Eye alone goes for $39.99--you must set up the mat and Eye on a level playing surface and prepare your deck.

Decks consist of 30 cards each, meaning you have a little bit of freedom to swap out some of the cards that come in the included starter deck with some of the other randomly-selected cards in the included booster. Like any CCG, cards will be sold in card game stores (though, to be sure both dorky audiences are targeted, Sony and collaborator Wizards of the Coast promise availability in video game stores as well). Once you've gotten everything assembled and decided what deck to use, you can begin.

You don't need this review to know that The Eye of Judgment demands more initial effort than most individual video games or card games--a simple glance at a product shot will allow you to make that inference. It's a good thing, then, that it's so fun and otherwise accessible.

Acessible Depth
The Eye of Judgment's core strength is that it is firmly grounded in its strategic elements. The game field is always the same size, and your goal is not to annihilate your opponent but to dominate that field. This both adds a more overtly tactical component to the game than most CCGs have, as well as provides a fairly easily comprehensible and visually identifiable core gameplay mechanic and structure. The PlayStation 3 handles all calculations and conflict resolution, leaving the players to focus on actually playing the game; when you play a card, the Eye scans it and carries out the appropriate action on-screen.

Essentially, the combination of tactics, a fairly complex ruleset, and PS3-based automation results in a brilliant fusion of genuine accessibility and genuine depth. "Why do you need the PS3 at all?" one might ask, and it is a fair question--one that still persists in the back of my mind, if only just barely--but it is one with a worthwhile answer.

The PS3 is what allows The Eye of Judgment to be such a digestible experience, one that allows you to enjoy the game without feeling mired in numbers and exceptions and sub-exceptions. After all, most of us are video gamers, not card gamers. We're used to controlling the input and getting the output, not worrying about the stuff in between. All of that stuff in between is still there, though, right on the screen and printed on the cards. You'll have to come to terms with it if you actually want to be a good player, but the impressive thing about The Eye of Judgment is how easy it is to figure everything out as you go along. You can figure things out on the fly without having a more experienced friend tirelessly reiterate clarifications.

The flip side of this is that it can be occasionally difficult to figure out how specific rules work or why certain things occur in certain situations, since it all just happens automatically, but in practical terms after you play enough games you'll figure everything out. Being able to play against the computer AI as well as against other players online is a great way to learn the rules as well as develop a good sense of strategy. With a substantial number of difficulty levels, the AI provides quite a range of challenge. I have played a great many games against the AI and find it continues to hold up in challenge and fun.

Down to Brass Tacks
For those curious about some of the deeper mechanics of The Eye of Judgment, each square of the board and nearly every summonable creature is associated with an alignment--standard fantasy fare Fire, Water, Earth, and Wood, as well as the neutral mechanical Biolith. These interact in ways you might expect; Fire creatures summoned to Fire spaces get a bonus, but are harmed when summoned to Water, for example. Certain cards flip a space's alignment, allowing you to give one of your own creatures a boost, or providing a clever way to damage an enemy that may be out of reach of physical damage.

Every card in The Eye of Judgment is either a summonable creature or a one-use spell action, which works towards the game's existing accessibility. It should also simplify deck-building to a certain extent, though the distribution of different board alignments will keep players from making simple one-alignment power decks; you'll always have to ensure your deck is versatile enough to survive if the opponent starts to flip the board's elements.

Most actions in the game cost mana, which is gained every turn as well as in certain other situaions, and tracked by the game. Summoning a creature is the last action you may peform in a turn, and immediately passes control to the other player. Because of this, and because the winner is the first player to have five creatures on the board, "check" situations where one player attempts to keep four creatures alive without his or her opponent destroying one and moving out of "check" are often the most strategically frantic parts of the game, and are where you start to wrack your brain for particularly clever strategies that you can then start applying to all parts of the game on a regular basis.

Wonderfully deep layers of strategy begin to emerge as you realize, for example, it is quite often better to leave enemy alive but low on health rather than destroy them completely. You will go through the game's overall learning curve as you fight the sometimes frustratingly competent AI, then enjoy carrying out the lessons you have learned on random online opponents.

Continue to the second page for details on the game's online mode as well as some of its presentational flaws.


Judge the World
One of The Eye of Judgment's big advantages over a regular collectible card game is that it can be played online. Theoretically, there are all kinds of problems with this related to cheating, but the game sidesteps them all with a fairly cumbersome but undoubtedly effective system. To play online, you must register your deck with the game--that is, present each of the cards in your deck to the Eye, laying duplicates out side by side so it knows precisely how your deck is composed. This part is actually much easier and more painless than it may sound.

While you are actually playing an online game, the game will choose your initial hand (though you may take a mulligan) and pick the cards you draw every turn. Rather than draw from the top of the deck, you search through the deck and find the appropriate cards, preserving the random element and disallowing players from cherry-picking their draws. This part is pretty much just as bulky as it may sound.

The first time you play online, you are likely to utterly panic. It's a frantic experience. Whoops--which card am I supposed to draw--wait, I missed it, how do I get it to tell me which card again?--no, I meant to redraw!--what button is it again?--shit shit shit, can't I stop the timer? It's a system that is inevitably going to come off as unnatural until you get used to. The SCE Studio Japan team was clearly trying to make the best of a situation necessary to prevent cheating, and I do genuinely feel that the interface could probably have been improved (post-release patches, perhaps?), but in the end, just like pretty much all the other initially unwieldy aspects of the game, you will acclimate to it much more quickly than you expect and it will simply become a easily manageable part of the game.

Ideally, you will play the game against a human opponent in person, or against a friend online with both of you equipped with voice headsets. It is a little odd to play such a typically social form of game against a random opponent who lacks voice chat (as they usually do on the PlayStation Network due to its lack of Xbox Live-like standardized headsets), but it can be fun to let your imagination fill in the blanks during a particularly dominating game. (Edit: In fact you can use the PlayStation Eye's built-in microphone for voice chat as long as both players have it set in the PS3's main voice settings. Thanks, TTPGAF)

Losing because you ran out the turn clock due to the PlayStation Eye refusing to read a card is much less amusing. This kind of error must be noted, and does crop up from time to time, but fortunately I can count only that one instance that had real gameplay consequences. For the msot part, the device is reliable.

Online currently only supports one-on-one games; there is no integrated tournament support. Sony has indicated that it hopes to add more online features lately, but there are no concrete plans.

Most of my ongoing issues with The Eye of Judgment fall, oddly enough, on its audiovisual presentation, which seems like it should be the part of the game easiest to get right given what a risk everything else was. Things on the screen feel busier than they should be. I'm sure the team wanted to make use of all the available HD resolution and fancy graphical effects that allow nicely-rendered monsters and animations and textures, but in all honesty I would greatly prefer a more cleaner, more visually stylized look.

When you are not in your own summon phase, all of the board space alignments are distinct, but for some reason when it is your turn they are overlaid with a white transparency that makes them significantly less identifiable. Furthermore, it seems as though screen real estate could have been better optimized to have some more alignment and creature status information visible at all times; currently, getting to certain information requires scrolling through a couple of status screens using either a controller or the included "action cards" that allow you to control status menus sans controller. You'll get the hang of this quickly, but an option for a graphically stripped-down look in addition to the graphically cluttered default option would have been nice.

On a less important note, Eye of Judgment's music and sound design is hilariously terrible. The long, repetitive battle animations feature a horrible Linkin Park-esque battle theme--the same one every single time anyone attacks anything--that include the sole screamed lyric, "BRING IT TO ME, BLAAARGHGH!" Fortunately you can turn the pointless animations off, and the music volume all the way down while retaining the helpful but obviously ridiculously pitch-lowered vocal cues (but only from the main menu, which means you're in for a treat your first game).

Even after turning off the long battle animations, seasoned tournament-level CCG players may feel slowed down by having to wait for the PS3 to go through its short-but-still-present battle and action animations, but this is a minor issue.

It is also worth noting that since you really need to play on a table for this to work properly, it's a little annoying that the PlayStation Eye is not a wireless device--when I play the game, the Eye cord creates a tripwire across my apartment's living room--but it's probably safe to say that if you've taken the Eye of Judgment plunge, you're not going to let minor details like that get in the way.

The Final Judgment
SCE Japan Studio has, against all odds, created a deep, accessible, and immensely playable game with The Eye of Judgment. Despite that, it faces numerous challenges--expecting card gamers who play video games casually or not at all to shell out the high asking price of a PlayStation 3 to take a change with this game is tall order, and expecting video gamers to accept a game which includes so many non-virtual components is a risky proposition as well. Certainly, both types of gamers are asked to invest more than they usually do on a per-game basis for their chosen hobbies. There are undoubtedly some who might be interested in the game's mechanics but are in the end put off by its overhead.

If Sony and Wizards of the Coast have their way, they will bridge their two audiences, causing new interest in both forms of gaming and providing a fairly large theoretical user base drawing from both camps. It's a gamble, so good thing the game itself is so fun.