The Eye of Judgment: Hands-On

EOJ Box Art.jpgWhile Guitar Hero III might have been the big game advertised at this year’s DigitalLife show, the far bigger surprise was The Eye of Judgment, hitting stores on October 25 for the Playstation 3. This brilliant collaboration between Sony and Wizards of the Coast had my interest piqued right from the very first announcement back when the PS3 was announced. Now that I’ve had a chance to play it, I can say without a doubt that even if you’re not into fantasy-based card games or turn-based strategy RPGs, you’ll absolutely want to check this one out. Those of you who are into the aforementioned genres will want to rush down to whatever game emporium you frequent and reserve a copy as soon as possible. Based on the a few rounds against WOTC staff and the crowds of eager gamers lining up to get in a session all three days of the show, I’d say the game is a guaranteed smash for Sony and Wizards and yes, an absolute Game of the Year candidate.

For a paltry $69.99 you get a PlayStation Eye USB camera, a special camera stand, a deck of cards (30 Summoning, 4 Action and an 8 card Booster pack), a cloth play surface and the PS3 game disc. Next to Valve’s supreme The Orange Box, this is probably the best value in gaming, particularly once you understand just how much the game is going to seep into your every waking moment. You can play EOJ five different ways: on your PS3 in single player or two-player versus modes, letting the PS3 play matches using your constructed decks, or against another live opponent or opponents online around the world. You can also take the deck of cards and mat on the road to do battle against a non-PS3 owning friend. Of course, playing with the cards alone does lessen the visual impact significantly, as you lose the gorgeous graphics and the PlayStation Eye interactivity. Nevertheless, the core gameplay is easy to pick up, tough to master and so solid that even if you were not looking to buy a new console just yet, I’d highly recommend the card game just so you can groove on the excellently thought out tactical gameplay.

If you’re a PS3 owner, you’ll be able to bring the cards to virtual life in Profile mode by placing them in your palm and holding them under the PlayStation Eye. After recognizing a card’s code, each character will appear on your television as a gorgeously rendered 3D model that can be rotated and even poked at, whereupon it responds with a series of animated responses. A dragon rider’s scaled steed will breathe fire, a metallic blimp-like airship will swoop up in and loop around, skeleton soldiers collapse into a pack of bones and so forth and so on. This aspect obviously makes the game appeal to figurine collectors as well, but I’d imagine we may see actual EOJ figures if demand is high enough. There’s no doubt many players will spend a ton of time playing with their cards in this manner before they even get to the main game, but once they do… prepare to become addicted. How addicted? Well, imagine the World Poker Tour… but with dragons, mechs and mana to gamble with.

The rules are simple: on a 3×3 grid, players will need to fight it out for control of five of the nine spaces. Gameplay can be grasped quickly by anyone that can add and think strategically at the same time, but a simplified kid’s mode is included on the game disc. Each player starts out with half a shuffled deck, six cards in hand and two mana points. Mana is important, as placing most cards costs a different amount of mana per card and you only gain more by having special cards or passing turns without taking action. Obviously, you don’t want to sit there and end your turn constantly as your opponent wins by placing five cards in five turns, so you’ll need to plan on the fly and prepare for anything. Each turn a card is drawn from the deck and two mana are added to your pool. You can place a card on the grid to attack an enemy card, heal damaged cards or influence yours or your opponent’s placed cards with one of many effects. Like chess pieces, most cards are limited in terms of attack range, but the game also takes into account which direction you’re facing, with cards that can turn you around, exposing a weak point or other cards that automatically attack an enemy’s rear. Losing a card in battle isn’t entirely a bad thing, as you gain one mana point that is added to your stock before your next turn begins.

In addition, the nine squares are comprised of different elements, Fire, Water, Earth, Wood and Biolith, a sort of biomechanical matter that occupies the center square. With the exception of the center tile, the other eight squares can be flipped to an opposing element during play, which can turn the tide of battle if a card is affected by the alternate element. Placing an elemental card on the same elemental space adds 2 extra HP, while doing the opposite subtracts 2 points. Capturing the center Biolith square can be the key to the game, but some of the higher-numbered cards (and a few low numbered ones) can wipe a potentially winning grin off a player’s face and turn a quick match into a half hour plus duel. If this all seems complex, it’s because it’s tough to explain without seeing a game in action, yet once you start up a game, everything falls into place within a few rounds. Once gamers and non-gamers at the show got the basics down and a few extra tips, matches were fierce and very chess-like, with both sides in deep concentration. During the few times it was slow, folks who got good at the game came back for seconds or thirds. The every friendly WOTC staff were teachers for the most part that were schooled occasionally and extremely gracious in defeat.

Graphically, the game looks spectacular, with high-resolution characters and environments doing their stuff cinematically when battles, healing, or other card effects take place. Even after playing a few and watching even more matches, I seriously doubt I’ll grow tired of seeing a trio of female archers draw back bowstrings and fire, an assassin backstabbing a group of orc-like beasts or a huge ghostly head materialize from the corner of the grid, spelling doom for someone who least expected it. Place a fire-based card on a water space or vice versa, and watch as the onscreen character suffers the effects. Of course, if your card’s HP is high enough, you may take damage and still get a turn in, making that sacrifice somewhat worthwhile. On the sound front, it was tough to make out the music thanks to the continual din on the show floor, but the booming voice of the narrator was perfectly fitting for the on screen action.

As for minuses, well, I didn’t seen any at all. The PlayStation Eye support isn’t a gimmick, as you actually use it to play the movement cards and hell, the viewer mode alone is pretty amazing. Wizards of the Coast will be supporting the game heavily with additional cards hitting stores and the Playstation Network as well as tons of support on the game’s official site. Hell, the reaction to the game has been overwhelmingly positive according to all the WOTC folks I chatted with and I was witness to more than a few folks who were suddenly thinking aloud about making space in their living rooms for a new console. Bottom line: is Eye of Judgment a system seller? In my eyes, yes, simply because new potential PS3 owners will obviously want more to play before they invest in a new console and SCEA has a ton of great games coming this holiday season and beyond. The recent price drop and newer 40GB model PS3 just might be the system of choice this holiday season for those gamers looking for more than the usual FPS, driving or action experience.

Oh, and Wizards of the Coast is also rolling out some really super stuff over at, so go check out the alpha version and definitely sign up. The great-looking Maple Story collectible card game is coming in November and let’s just say it would be “Uncivilized” if you didn’t drop by to poke around the site… more on this work in progress online gem shortly. In the meantime, sharpen up your shuffling skills… you’re about to look at card battle games in a whole new way.

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