Adventure Gamers Awards
Diamonds in the Rough is the second game from independent Greek developer Alkis Polyrakis, and the first commercial game released by his Atropos Studios. The previous game, Other Worlds, was released for free download, and while the new game has also been made with the AGS freeware engine, the latest offering is much more ambitious. While I'm all for amateur developers profiting from their hard work, the added price tag greatly increases expectations, and this title delivers on only some of those, showing a little bit of diamond, a little bit of rough.
The game centres around the life of Jason Hart, a 20-year-old who is approached by a mysterious organisation: the eponymous Diamonds in the Rough. The group claims to be interested in people with 'unusual abilities', of which Jason apparently has one, though he's tried to convince himself otherwise. His ability is to always know the correct choice to make when presented with multiple options. Not doing much else with his life, Jason signs a five year contract with DitR, agreeing to be sequestered with a number of his fellow 'gifted' people in a small town controlled by the organisation. DitR claims to want to study people with such abilities, but their exact reasons for doing so are unknown, at least at the outset.
The story is presented through a series of flashbacks, recalled by Jason as he waits for a slow-acting poison he has consumed to do its work – a sure sign that the sailing ahead will be anything but smooth. After the incredibly (and overly) lengthy intro that establishes his recruitment, the game begins with players controlling Jason a short while after his entry into the DitR house. What begins as an ordinary day in the life of Jason, on assignment to further his training, soon becomes much more involved as he discovers the company isn't quite as benevolent as he believed after stumbling across evidence of their wrongdoing.
Once players begin to delve deeper into the company's secrets, the story becomes quite engaging, though it isn't so much a progressive plotline as it is Jason's unfolding realisation, through questioning and a bit of corporate espionage, of what his employer is really about. The history and true purpose of Diamonds in the Rough is slowly revealed throughout the game, leading up to a finale that comes as quite a surprise. It's obvious the game's creators are proud of their ending, since the game ships with a letter imploring people not to spoil the details for others. This pride is understandable, because the ending is indeed very good, although more seems to happen story-wise in the closing cutscenes at the end of the game than ever does during the actual game.
Given the nature of the contract Jason signed, naturally the game centres around a small town. There are maybe 25 distinct areas in total, including the places you'd expect to find – homes, a bar/restaurant, a library – and some you wouldn't, like the DitR headquarters and supply warehouse, most of which are available from the start. Unfortunately, there isn't really that much to do in a lot of them, as they often serve as little more than connecting screens you walk through on your way to other locations. Even with the relatively few locations relevant to the game's puzzles, you're occasionally left wandering around wondering exactly what to do next, which can get tedious. There also isn't much in the way of company. You'll find about five people with whom you can actually hold a decent conversation, and even those people don't have that much to say. The other 'special' residents of the town are all housed in the same apartment building, and their abilities, once revealed, do come into play later in the game, as Jason and others try to work out DitR's true purpose.
The interface in Diamonds in the Rough is similar to the standard Sierra point-and-click system, where right-clicking cycles through action icons and left-clicking performs the interaction. The one notable addition is a 'thoughts' panel, which serves as a kind of secondary inventory. The panel consists of a notice board with various notes pinned to it, and selecting a note will make that thought the active one. This allows you to ponder anything you click it on, including other notes. More notes are added as you find new things to consider during the course of game, with a sound playing and a little lightbulb icon appearing over Jason's head to signify the event. Although not an entirely novel concept anymore, appearing in several other games recently, the thought inventory does add another layer to the gameplay. It also helps flesh out the story, as using your thoughts on yourself and other people at various stages in the game will yield different comments and conversations.
Puzzles in the game are mostly inventory-based, and a number of them also make use of the thoughts feature. The pacing occasionally over-relies on certain interactions having been performed before other things progress without any obvious correlation. For instance, a character might not show up until you've done everything else that needs to be done. This led me to wander back and forth to locations I'd already visited until the game decided it was time to trigger a new cutscene. One time in particular, revisiting the same location – despite nothing having changed since then – was necessary to trigger an event on another screen, which understandably caused both confusion and frustration.
Visually, the game makes use of pre-rendered characters and backgrounds, as is usual in modern adventures. Although they are by no means terrible, they fall far short of the quality of most professional titles. The backgrounds are done in a fairly realistic style, but at times lack the detail you might expect, while the animations are fairly unrealistic and clumsy, and the characters' faces often come off as unnatural. The characters also stand out from the backgrounds quite a bit, as though they were designed by two different sets of people without consulting to make them appropriate to each other. Weaknesses in these areas are common in independent adventures, and certainly understandable, but will nevertheless be an issue for those used to the high standards of most commercial offerings.
The dialogues in the game are voice acted, but interaction responses are not. The acting is fairly good for the most-part, although it sometimes sounds a bit irregular, with stresses on the wrong words in sentences. The writing is also awkward in places, not flowing in a realistic way, going from overly formal to conversational inside the same few sentences. The orchestral soundtrack is quite good, with an appropriate tune for every setting and scene, taking an onimous tone in dramatic scenes while sounding calm and cheery at other times.
Overall, Diamonds in the Rough would be of a remarkably high quality if it was a free Underground offering for its production values alone. However, competing against other commercial games as it now does, it falls short of the quality of the better releases, in both length (EDIT: it can be completed in under ten hours, though as always, player mileage may vary) and enjoyment. While it handles most of its elements quite acceptably – and admirably for a small indie team – its main drawback is simply that it's often dull. The lack of people to talk to; the still, lifeless environments; and an uneven amount of aimless wandering all slowed the pacing to the point of disinterest in the experience, failing to really grip me or enthuse me despite the solid story premise underneath. And while the final payoff was worth the effort, it felt like too little too late to fully redeem the game.
Unlike Jason Hart, players don't have the luxury of making the correct choice with certainty, so if you're considering the game, it may very well depend on what's important to you. If you're a fan of Underground games and looking to support a budding indie developer, by all means check out the playable demo available at the Atropos Studios website. If you like what you see, you'll find the full game there as well. But for those who expect a little more substance in their new adventures, the initial €20 asking price might seem a bit steep for what you get. There's a decent time to be had in Diamonds in the Rough, and Atropos is clearly a promising new contributor to the genre. With a few more resources and a little extra experience, the studio's next adventure could prove to be an unqualified winner. For now, the results are decidedly more mixed, and while there's a diamond in the rough here, it doesn't quite sparkle as brightly as it could.