Not enough mana.
I had a recent reunion with my inner nerd. Having a chance to see the sights around my Berkeley apartment, I stumbled upon a small cult games store. No Life to be found here, Milton Bradley. Window displays dressed up with Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan, shelves lined with Player Handbooks and Monster Manuals, and display cases filled with Magic: The Gathering cards – every nook and cranny reeked nerdom. Like a giddy child, I scurried between tables, where players readily tapped land for mana, and basked in the waters of games made by Rio Grande and Wizards of the Coast. I then shuffled over to the front counter and merrily asked the busy store owner whether he had heard about Eye of Judgment.
The answer was no. Flabbergasted for a moment, I tried to jostle any loose memories. It was only after describing the game for a minute did he recall a short trailer about it, but he didn’t remember much of it at all.
This was surprising, to say the least, as Eye of Judgment is a Yu-Gi-Oh! card lover’s wet dreams come true. It’s a Magic: The Gathering meets Warhammer fanfest. It’s a creature-summoning, deck-building, mana-releasing, element-aligning, field-placing orgasm of colored cardboard on an HDTV. That’s right, it’s card porn.
Snapping the Playstation Eye into the easy-to-setup docking station, it can scan the hieroglyphic barcodes along the top and bottom of cards and project a spitting three-dimensional image of the creature on the screen. Anyone that has ever imagined a Serra Angel attack a Shivan Dragon (me’s old-school) or wanted to summon a Dark Magician with annoying gusto can now see their fantasies come to life. I mean, this stuff should be pay-per-view.
But after a half-dozen playthroughs, the digital glitz subsides to the threat of losing, a fear that is always imminent in Eye of Judgment. Winning requires intimate knowledge of the rules, which are like a mishmash of tic-tac-toe, collectible cards, and turn-based tactics. The object is to capture five squares on a three-by-three grid by summoning creatures. Like most any collectible card game, players have a hand, a discard pile, a playing field which is thankfully provided as a playing mat, and a library – a deck of thirty cards. Casting creatures and spells costs mana, which you gain regularly at the beginning of every turn in addition to special events such as the loss of a creature. Yep, even in death, they serve you - as if your ego needs any more encouragement.
The obligatory twist on the basic strategy of summoning creatures, killing off the opponent’s creatures, and making sure yours survive, involves elemental fields and character orientation. Summoning a creature onto their field type increases their hit points by two while summoning it on an opposite field type decreases their hit points by two. Jellyfish like water, not lava. Who knew? Similarly, positioning a creature in the right direction matters just as much. Every creature has a blind side which an opponent can exploit for extra damage in their rear. I told you it was going to be graphic.
With all that players have to consider before placing a card, tension is immediate and constant. Dividing the board in half, one player will have four spaces and the other will have five, so not letting the board fill completely and recklessly pushes strategic action. The rise and fall of each match generally collapses into a solid twenty minutes, which keeps online play brisk and vigorous. Searching for rivals across the wire is fairly simple, and there will usually be at least one card someone is using that you want. As expected, climbing the rankings and claiming bragging rights is near impossible without the cards to back it up.
Much of the tension, though, is forced and could have been pushed further, especially considering the number of limitations that restricts play. Beyond the standard restrictions on how many cards of a specific type that can be used in a deck, spells and character abilities can’t be activated during an opponent’s turn. If you don’t have creatures on the board, you can summon one anywhere you like, but if not, you can only summon one in a field adjacent to an occupied space. This makes confrontation certain, but some cards have magical or long-range attacks that can’t be put into full use because of it. Creatures also can’t naturally move to another field, which is exceedingly odd because they have movable feet and they’re on a field. With their grunts and wonderfully animated limbs, they look live enough, so you would think they could actually use their legs.
Additionally, it becomes extremely clear that placing characters on their matching field is essential to keeping your creatures alive. As innovative as this is, a problem arises with the official playing field, which lays each of the elemental fields evenly. This ultimately demands every deck to have creatures of different types to take advantage of the variety of fields. Creating most any themed deck – for instance, a fire element deck – is penalized by the system, unnecessarily restricting deck possibilities to a deliberate few.
Stickier is that Eye of Judgment lacks a complete solo mode, leaving little justification for converting what is essentially a multi-player tabletop card game into a video game. Though it doesn’t need a full-blown story mode (despite the dramatic intro sequence which looks like something out of “Elder Scrolls: The CCG”), an in-depth mission mode would have given the single-player experience some much needed oomph.
As a result, Eye of Judgment becomes a card game with just a digital tool, a widget from some Ph.D. project in visual interfaces and online functionality. It’s hard to ask more from a game like this, but even as an aid, it errs in many respects. For one, learning the rules through the tutorial is like sitting in a boring lecture with a boring professor with a boring video, which can’t be fast forwarded or rewound without having to repeat another boring section over again.
Deck editing also isn’t friendly and has just a general lack of attention to what players actually want in a database system for cards. There’s no concrete explanation of what character abilities such as Dodge and Quickness do. No way to see all the cards in the game, except the ones you own. No tracking of wins and losses with specific decks. No way to mark which cards are your favorite, good in combination, or just plain bad. No indicator of how many double cards you have in your collection. And the list goes on. Certainly, you could write all of this down on a piece of paper, but why not have the game take advantage of the system it’s built on? The graphics sure do.
Cheating is mostly prevented by registering your deck with the system, and unlike the single player game, the screen tells you which card you just "drew". This can be mildly frustrating, though, as it means you have to search through your cards to find the right one every single turn. You can cheat, however, just by making a color copy of any card you want - the Eye cannot tell the difference. I'm sure a pdf with scans of every rare card will be available online in 5... 4... 3...
Consequently, the only fool-proof way to prevent cheating is to have a normal one-on-one, face-to-face match, and if that’s the case, then there’s no substantial reason not to play this game with the playing mat, some field cards, a friend, and some colored beads. Definitely kinkier that way.
Eye of Judgment has the potential to undo the reputation of card-collecting spinoffs such as SNK vs. Capcom Card Fighters, Magic: The Gathering: Battlemage, and every Yu-Gi-Oh! card debacle and emerge as the new way card players, well, play. It is solidly the best card-based game on any platform, but compared to the refined mechanics of its collectible brethren and the fully-fleshed features of its digital brothers, it doesn’t fully grasp the inner nerd - neither the card nor video game player - within us all.