When I first heard about Eye of Judgment, I was intrigued but highly skeptical. Clearly, EoJ represents an effort by Sony to push something totally unique to the market... in the wake of Nintendo's wild success with their differentiating feature: platforms with non-traditional controls, the DS and the Wii. And as past experience shows, when you go out on a limb, you either come up big or fail hard. Add to that risk the idea that Eye of Judgment is a collectible card game. So Sony expects you to dump even more money chasing boosters and rare cards. "Hi! Here's our new untested card game that requires a $70 buy-in assuming you already have a PS3! You'll want to buy lots of extra cards to have even more fun!" It's hard not to be cynical about something like that.
But after actually playing it - and yes, buying plenty of booster packs - I'm prepared to say that Eye of Judgment is not only a good game, it's a great game. And technologically speaking, it's a very clever proof-of-concept game. Here's what I thought (or what you may be thinking) about the game prior to purchase, and what I found out.
"It just looks lame."
Let's get this out of the way: "The Eye of Judgment" is a stupid name and the cards look like crap. Since the camera has to see each card played, with absolutely no confusion, the card layout has to follow some pretty bizarre rules in order for the Eye to correctly scan it. There's not a lot of room for artwork or design flourishes, and some of the info you need to see (the card faction, summoning cost, health/attack) is obnoxiously hidden on top of the artwork. The only mitigating factor to this weirdness is the PS3 itself: once you play a card, you pretty much stop looking it on the table and start looking it in on the TV, where the stats are all readily displayed.
The real ugliness to the cards is found in the punch card-esque black boxes at top and bottom and the lime green triangles along the sides. The black boxes - hilariously masked as "runes" - let the camera identify each individual card. In combination with them, the triangles tell the camera which way the card is facing.
Get past that mess, and you're one step to enjoying the card game underneath. As you might guess, this unavoidably-weak print design was a major hurdle for me.
And yeah, the Everybody's A Badass With Attitude problem is all over this game. I get that it's a game about arena combat between warring factions in a pseudo-fantasy setting, but when even the grasshopper-riding frogs are spouting hyper-aggro Alpha Male epithets, it's simply not moving the meter on the innovative character design scale. EoJ tries way too hard to be cool, and cool is defined as Generic Fantasy Card Game Backstory Circa 1998.
"It's probably a really terrible card game."
Against all possible odds, it is not. And I've been through some awful, awful card games, so I think I would know. I've been through card games that were too simplistic, too complicated, too non-intuitive, too far removed from a theme or license, and/or just plain too ugly.
Here's how the game works. The playspace is limited to a 3x3 grid... again, this is a concession to the limitations of the camera's view. Every creature you summon (using mana that regenerates at a rate of two per turn) has specific attack and counterattack grids within that 3x3. At the barest, a creature will attack the space directly in front in it, will defend itself with an automatic counterattack should an enemy attack it from that same front direction, and will be weak to an attack from its blind spot (typically the square facing the creature's backside). Naturally, complications abound, so the fun is planning out your plays with a chess-like strategy so your creatures can attack, avoid enemy counterattacks, and protect their blind spots.
It's like the common summon-monster attack/defense paradigm of a game like Magic: The Gathering was overlaid with an abstract puzzly board game. And then prettied up with largely inconsequential PS3 graphics.
(These pictures stolen from Jeffrey's flickr
, by the way.)
Added to this is a mechanic on the game field itself... each square is pre-aligned to one of the game's elemental colors. Play a creature to a square that matches it's element and it receives a +2 bonus to its life. Two pairs of elements are considered opposites - fire/water and earth/wood - so if you play a creature to its opposing alignment, it will have to weather a -2 to its life. For many of the smaller soldiers, this will be enough to kill them. The fifth element's squares, devoted to a robotic steampunk sort of affair called biolith, do not grant a +2 bonus, but they can allow you to get around the game's summoning restrictions for higher level critters.
The squares can be flipped to change the element alignment, and this can become an important strategic choice to get the board to favor your card types.
"It's too gimmicky."
Of course it is. I'm always peeved and mystified when people hold up "gimmicky" as an insult. Every successful innovation in video gaming started out as a gimmick. Shoulder buttons, dual analog sticks, rumble, motion controls, stylus+touchscreen, two screens, microphone, controllers shaped like instruments. Sure, we've had gimmicks that didn't pan out or had very limited applications (steering wheels, eReader, Virtual Boy) and we've had gimmicks that are this close to exploding into something awesome (handheld+console connectivity, EyeToy games before EoJ), but on the whole, the stuff you're enjoying the hell out of today grew from somebody's willingness to experiment and the marketplace's willingness to give it a try. I think it's perfectly OK to suffer through a Hey You Pikachu in order to get to a Karaoke Revolution.
It's difficult to quantify and impossible to predict. A few years earlier and the eReader would have been a money machine. The DS needed a year and a half before all the really good games starting appearing. The Wii, aside from Nintendo's first party product, still needs time for devs to get a handle on the control scheme, but luckily the first party stuff has been so good that the sideways ports and half-assed waggle controls of games like DBZ Tenkaichi 2 and Marvel Ultimate Alliance can't really hurt sales.
The point is, you can't just instantly dismiss gimmicks. You'd think I would have known better in Eye of Judgment's case. The gimmick here is pretty seductive: the tactile feel of a traditional card game with the stats-keeping abilities and visual supplement of a video game, plus a computer-controlled online system that lets you use your actual cards in a cheat-proof game against players across the world. (I played a hand against someone in Japan this weekend... I was sad to note his mic was turned off, because I would have liked to chat with him.)
"What a scam! You probably don't even need the PS3 to play the game."
The interaction between the cards and the PS3 is pretty important (although that didn't stop one guy from making his own PDF game board). Since the PS3 is tracking everything, you don't need damage counters or dice to note the life totals on all of your critters. It's all there on the screen.
And because it knows what all the cards do, you needn't fear overlooking one creature's enduring effect. If a guy you played eight turns ago gets a boost from a recently played Wood creature, you'll see that happen automatically. These ripple effects would require a lot of mental attention in an exclusively real world game, but the PS3 turns it into breaking sticks. I hope that future expansions introduce even more complicated interactions, because this is the real benefit of having a card game backed by a CPU.
"This is going to take too long to play."
Unless you're showing off the battle animations, you can turn them off to speed things up considerably. Jeffrey and I had a tight game that went to an hour, and we thought that was really long. I've played meatspace card games that dragged out for three hours plus. Shit, I've designed card games that can go for hours.
The EoJ team was aware that something like this really shouldn't play out for ages, especially in an online match, so right off the bat you can see where particular choices were made to keep the games moving. Your deck is only 30 cards, and if you run out of cards, you lose. You can implement a turn clock to keep methodical players from slowing things down. The game ends as soon as one player fields a fifth creature (thus controlling the majority of the grid), rather than attaching victory to personal life points that can be manipulated to infinity.
Eye of Judgment has not been well received (scoring in the 6 to 7 range on most 10-point review scales). VGChartz shows a bare 140,000 copies sold worldwide, which is pretty sad given how starved the PS3 community is for exclusive, high-quality games. I'm sure most people were scared off by investment intimated by the TCG aspect. Although even if I didn't much like the game, $70 is damn good for the package... game, starter deck, booster pack, playmat, camera stand and the PlayStation Eye camera. It's basically a stealth purchase for Sony's first party camera. As more games make use of the Eye, maybe more people will pick up EoJ, rather than reach for any old USB camera. Burnout Paradise has some cool Eye integration, and the PS3 natively uses the Eye for video chats.
So, there's my big long-winded defense of Eye of Judgment. I think it's a severely under-rated title that, due to the complexities of the card game, did not get a fair assessment in most reviews.