There's really nothing like Eye of Judgment: You set up a PlayStation Eye in a special stand, lay out a cloth map underneath it, and use real cards to do battle under the watchful gaze of the camera. The Eye senses the moves of both you and your opponent, and the ensuing action plays out in dramatic splendor on your television screen. It's a gutsy design move that deserves props for doing something legitimately different, and it's that streak of originality that appeals to the geeky card collector in many of us. This kind of niche presentation isn't likely to spark a gaming revolution, but it goes a long way toward keeping Eye of Judgment fresh.
Take away all the hullabaloo, and you're left with an unassuming package that features solid card mechanics. The game mat is a grid that consists of nine squares, and your goal is to take over five of them. You begin each game with five cards drawn randomly from your deck of 30, and at the beginning of every turn, you are given two mana points to use, in addition to others you may have accumulated. Summoning cards are the most common, and placing one beckons a monster or machine to the playing field. Some, such as the giant axe dwarf, are fairly standard attack units. Others, such as se hollyn fortress, strengthen surrounding allied cards. And yet others have even more complex functions, such as the ever-helpful white cubic, which can be sacrificed and replaced by any creature in your hand.
There are spell cards as well, and their uses are often subtler but no less effective. Each square on the board has an elemental affiliation, as does the underside of the square. Many of the best spells, such as fissures of goghlie, change the active element by flipping the square. This can have a devastating effect on the unit residing there, because units that share the same element as their occupied square receive a health bonus. You can also spend mana points on already-placed units by commanding them to attack or turning them 90 degrees. Like many collectible card games, Eye of Judgment is easy to learn but tough to master, considering that there are a lot of subtle elements at work. But if it looks initially intimidating, don't turn to the in-game tutorial for guidance. It's awfully boring and completely hands-off, like the videos you have to watch on your first day at a fast-food job.
Eye of Judgment is at its best when you can sit down with a buddy and geek out together, setting up the hardware and staring one another down, one card at a time. Of course, you could do this without all the hullabaloo of a PlayStation 3 and the accompanying accoutrements, but there's something to be said for the added drama of watching summoned fantasy and steampunk creatures battle onscreen with swords and cannons. Players are essentially what the terrific opening cutscene depicts: Powerful wizards with the fate of the world in their hands, sending their minions into the heat of battle. The experience can be pretty awesome thanks to the tactical nature of real card play, combined with the impressive, vivid clashes that play out onscreen.
If you don't have a friend to join you, you can still play against the computer or online, but this is where Eye of Judgment staggers. Once the game is taken out of the social element that makes it shine, it becomes just another trading-card game. You can play on your own against the artificial intelligence, and it manages to be fun for a while. However, you can only play one-off matches. There's no single-player campaign of any kind, which not only would have helped round out the package, but also could have provided a better introduction to the mechanics than the mundane tutorial. In its place is the inexplicable judgment mode, which involves placing two cards on the mat to see which is more powerful. You'd think that the judgment would be represented by a spectacular onscreen battle, but the little piece of action you get to see just fizzles. It's an essentially useless mode. And remember, you have to use the PlayStation Eye. If you feel like sitting back with a beer in one hand and a controller in the other, it isn't going to happen. The game is fine for your hardcore battle session, but not so great if you want to simply sit back and play without dealing with the whole mat-and-camera rigmarole.
Online mode is even less conducive to a relaxed session of gaming. To avoid player cheating, the computer randomly determines the cards you draw from your scanned deck, which forces you to search through your physical deck every time you need to place a card down on the mat. It didn't have to be a necessary evil, given that it could have been avoided by letting players use a registered deck without requiring them to use the actual cards. It's worth noting that you can purchase additional decks for $14.99 at retail outlets and online, and you can't use cards not included in the starter deck unless they have been scanned beforehand. However, the Eye will often accept a high-quality forgery, so it's quite possible you will find online opponents who are using cards they haven't purchased. That isn't a big deal--after all, you would find people who own those cards legitimately--but it's still a little unsettling. Apart from those inconveniences, the online mode is full-featured in that it lets you easily invite a friend, create or join a custom match, or use matchmaking to play a ranked game. When you first enter the online mode, you choose one of four fictional kingdoms to represent, and the leaderboards rank players individually, as well as the kingdoms as a whole.
During our play-testing period, we had very few hardware-related issues. Even when the mat was twisted or not perfectly lined up, the camera did a great job of reading the cards. Cards are read relatively quickly, and it's easy to build a deck by placing the cards underneath the Eye. We did encounter some problems when trying to register an online deck, but it was a small blip in an otherwise seamless endeavor. The artwork on the cards is beautifully drawn, both onscreen and on the cards themselves. Units are intricately detailed, and the cards give you all the unit information you need without being unnecessarily cluttered with text.
The sense of unfolding drama is one of Eye of Judgment's greatest achievements, thanks to terrific visuals, both when you view the gameplay grid proper and when you watch battles unfold. The game grid is presented with a beautiful mix of clean lines, gorgeous backgrounds, and sparkling particle effects. However, battle animations are the real treat, with imposing creature designs and weighty sound effects. Nevertheless, you can turn off battle animations, which is a boon for players who want a quick match without dealing with the visual drama. We're also big fans of how the avatar representing the Eye emerges from the grid whenever a spell is cast. We're not such big fans of his voice, though. There isn't a lot of voice acting, but what is there is uncomfortably overblown. The metal-heavy soundtrack sets the right tone, though it can get a little grating after a while.
If you've got someone to play with, you'll find there is nothing quite like Eye of Judgment. Spreading out your map, setting up your PlayStation Eye, and getting your cards ready is a cool addition to the usual card-battle preparations, and in that context, the game is a real winner. The terrific and subtle mechanics will keep you returning for more, and it's awesome to watch the battles unfold as you play your cards. But that's the real problem: If you want to play on your own or online, all that hardware may feel like more trouble than it's worth. Sure, the whole thing's a gimmick that's aimed at a niche market. But at a retail price of $70, it's a real steal, considering the package includes a PlayStation Eye camera. If you think that's a small price to pay for one of the weirdest games ever made, then draw your cards.