Review by Old Rooster
Diamonds in the Rough
Developer Atropos Studios
Publisher Atropos Studios
Released March 2008
Available for Windows
“Wow! On at least three occasions during the course of playing Diamonds in the Rough, I uttered this expletive. Really. Seriously. And you will too. That’s a promise.”
“Can You Hear Me? Can You See Me?”
Little did I realize that my first encounter with beta testing would lead me to experience one of the finest, most memorable adventure games I’ve ever played.
You play as Jason Hart, a 20-year-old high-school dropout; a young man with a particular talent, this talent recognized by a powerful and enigmatic organization—Diamonds in the Rough. You’re recruited by a Mr. Hungerton, a well-spoken, calm, reassuring father figure who knows a good deal about you and easily convinces you of the value of moving to and working at his residential complex located in an isolated area somewhere in mid-America. How can you resist? You have your own small house plus all conveniences within walking distance—a well-stocked library, a pub, and more. There are others who have also been recruited, a few of them quite attractive!
And so begins our adventure with Jason, who opens his story asking if we can see and hear him.
“We Were Nothing Before They Found Us, Nothing” —Sydelle
Diamonds in the Rough is a third-person, point-and-click, 2D adventure created using the Adventure Game Studio engine. This engine presents some limitations, particularly related to detailed graphics and movements. Soon, however, one comes to overlook the stiff, arthritic animations of the cast. Story, character development, and sometimes challenging, yet sensible, puzzles make this a game that is hard to walk away from—both during play and afterward!
Technically, DITR installed flawlessly and played beautifully on my Vista system with a 24-inch monitor—filling the screen. Even at its 800×600 resolution, the game is clear, colorful, really quite lovely. Saves are virtually unlimited (100), showing a picture and allowing labeling.
DITR is entirely mouse-controlled, with keyboard shortcuts available. A left-click performs an action; right-clicking cycles through walk, use, examine, and talk. Arrows show paths that can be taken.
Atropos Studios has crafted an unusual approach to inventory accumulation and management—the Thoughts Panel. Since progression through this compelling story is so dependent on character interaction and puzzle-solving, this facet of the game is worthy of comment.
Essentially a second inventory, the Thoughts Panel allows Jason to explore ideas, situations, even motivations of himself and others. In the form of Post-It notes on a bulletin board, these thoughts can be updated, used on other characters, employed with regular inventory objects. A chime and lit bulb occur when a new thought is added. Although this additional inventory adds some degree of complexity, it also is ingenious and very appropriate for this particular game.
Finally, DITR features a goodly number of shortcut keys, ranging from music volume to cursor use and more. Perhaps most used will be the tab key, showing exit availability from one screen to another.
“Curiosity Is Not a Crime” —Hungerton
There is considerable precision and thoughtfulness of design evident in Diamonds in the Rough. I was struck by a lack of clutter, particularly in Jason’s residence. Generally, if an object is clearly visible, it’s likely you can interact with it (examine, pick up). Further, if you can add it to inventory, it’s also likely you’ll be able to use it at some point. Of course, there are exceptions and some “red herrings.”
In this regard, the extremely well-written script offers some humorous touches. “Inanimate objects only talk in Disney movies,” may be a response you read if placing a “talk” cursor on a tree by mistake. Or when looking for something to use in inventory, you may get the message: “Using random objects is a sign of desperation.” As well as humor, the script/program will also tell you if you’ve tapped out an object you’ve previously used. “You’ve no calls to make at this point” may be the message you receive when trying to use your home phone.
Of course, more than half of your time will be spent in conversations with the residents, staff, and administrators of your isolated town. You’ll learn a good deal about personal histories, concerns, and problems. You’ll ask questions and use your Thoughts Panel often. The primary cast of characters is not very large, and you’ll be visiting some of them many times, with new question sequences opening up. There are some NPCs who, along with trees, will rudely ignore you.
How high is your score? When I first saw a point total accumulating, I was afraid it was like one of those action games where you get a score depending on your proficiency. I never do well at that. With DITR, however, the “score” is very significant. In essence, it is a progress bar telling you how far along you have come in the game. You want to get to the end, which is 400. Sometimes, with some puzzle solutions, the bar will jump a dozen or so points; other times, it may only be a few. It’s a neat approach that doesn’t leave you as much in the dark as many games do. You get a sense, for example, that you’re about halfway through when you reach 200 points.
“Why Do They Have to Be So Damn Cryptic?” —Jason
DITR is sometimes hard. Even though the puzzles are primarily conversation- and inventory/thought-driven, solutions are often subtle, oblique, not obvious. Although, I must say, that when I finally figured one out, I would usually say, “Well, of course, I should have thought of that!” I recall a particular occasion where my task was to get one of the females drunk—something I had considerable skill with some years ago. For the life of me, I went round and round with many approaches until finally the light dawned, thanks in large measure to help from a sober friend.
That friend, Len Green, has compiled a wonderful guide for the game, linked on several adventure websites. His approach is to hint, not lead you by the hand, so that you can still feel satisfaction at solving the problem by yourself (at least, almost).
As with most games, there are triggers moving you to new sections and challenges. One of the advantages of the scoring approach (0 to 400) is that you have a sense of your progress. You can wander quite freely in the small town and need to be watchful for new items, doors, sections opening for your perusal.
Acting, Music, Graphics, and More
As mentioned, although the AGS graphics engine has its limitations, I found the individual screens well-detailed, clear, attractive. Particular care has been given to faces of the cast, especially expressions and lip movements. Indeed, there are some close-ups toward the end of the game that are extremely well-done and effective, despite the engine used to make them. The several cutscenes are excellent.
Voice-acting of all characters is also excellent. Of course, it helps to have an outstanding and involving script. Jason and Mr. Hungerton are unforgettable. Large and clear subtitles are also shown, a boon to the hearing- or even vision-impaired.
Background musical scores are quite remarkable. Samples of these are available for download on the game’s website. The scores change not only with location but with the mood of the game. At times, when I wanted Jason to reflect a bit (compare Thoughts Panel items), I’d direct him to the library or pub, where relaxing rhythms were on offer. DITR’s score is as good as any I’ve ever heard in an adventure game.
“I Have to Tell You, Sir, I Respect You a Lot” —Jason to Mr. Hungerton; Old Rooster to Alkis
Wow! On at least three occasions during the course of playing Diamonds in the Rough, I uttered this expletive. Really. Seriously. And you will too. That’s a promise.
Atropos Studios has to be enthusiastically commended on its first release. Diamonds in the Rough is one of the finest adventure games of the last few years and clearly the best independently developed adventure I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing.
The underlying story is engrossing, thrilling, daring. Where many games use filler to complete the last portion, DITR saves the best for the last third. Without giving anything away, there is a substantive change in the final “chapters” involving characters, the town, even the musical score! If you reach that point while playing in the evening, plan on an all-nighter. You won’t rest until you see the outcome. Be sure to stay for the final credits as well.
Alkis Polyrakis, president of Atropos Studios and primary author/creator of Diamonds in the Rough, has penned an involving, emotional, thrilling story accompanied by an inventive game and puzzle engine. It’s a brave tale, full of surprises right to the end. You won’t soon forget this experience.
“Can you see me? Can you hear me?” Yes, Jason, we can. And, yes, Atropos Studios, we clearly hear and see the kind of superlative game you can create. What’s next? I can’t wait to find out. Congratulations!
(A final request: We’ve mentioned DITR being full of surprises and an experience you won’t soon forget. A favor, please, for the developer and me. Please don’t reveal the last third of the game (even the walkthrough doesn’t), particularly the ending. Only speak of it with those who have already finished. Thank you!)