Founded in 1988, French development studio Delphine International gained worldwide recognition through their two cinematic action games, Out of This World and Flashback. Prior to these successes, they had developed a trilogy of adventure games using their Cinematique engine - Future Wars, Operation Stealth, and Cruise for a Corpse. While these met with some degree of success in Europe, they went largely unnoticed in North America. They are clunky and difficult to play in the modern age, and they suffer from questionable English translations. However, they remain interesting for fans of their more popular games, as they developed by many of the same staff, and some influences can be traced back to them.
Future Wars begins innocuously enough. As a lowly window washer, your mundane existence soon becomes substantially more exciting as you stumble upon a device that mysteriously transports you back to medieval times. Further exploration reveals some bizarre anachronisms, such as an order of monks who seem to have access to technology which has no place in the middle ages. You soon stumble upon Lear and his beautiful daughter Lo'Ann, who reveal themselves as time travellers from the distant future. In the year 4315, humanity is at war with alien invaders known as the Crughons. Their fight is at a standstill, however, so the Crughons travel back in time to plant bombs and alter the course of human history. With no real way home - and nothing better to do, anyway - you accompany Lo'Ann and aid the human resistance in the fight for the future.
From a technical standpoint, Cinematique is at a mid-point between Sierra's SCI0 and SCI1 systems. It supports 256 color graphics, although the visual depth isn't quite on the level of Sierra's scanned artwork. And while the interface is completely mouse driven, the pathfinding is extremely basic. It also takes the absolute worst design aspects of Sierra's older games, and somehow exacerbates them.
Unlike some other games that share the theme, the time traveling is merely a plot device - there are no puzzles that actually require using it, and progression is quite linear. A good chunk of the puzzles boil down to this - did you happen to grab that one nearly invisible item from three screens back? No? You can't go back and get it, so time to reload. Not only are vital items nearly impossible to see, but trying to interact with them causes extraordinary amounts of headaches. You often need to be within a few pixels before your character can do something otherwise the game will tell you to move closer. Such taunts are maddening when dealing with dangerous monsters that you need to use an item on. "Go a little closer." "Go a little closer". Oops, too close. There are also a few screens, including a climatic dash through a maze, that require precise or quick movements of your character, and it's too sketchy to ever work properly.
The puzzles that are there are pretty dumb too. Right at the beginning, you're yelled at by your boss. You go through the window and enter a lobby, with two doors. One door is the boss' office, the other door you're supposed to enter, but the game won't let you. Instead, you're supposed to pull a prank on your superior by filling your paint bucket with water, then stick it above the boss' door. When he comes out angry, you'll automatically run to the other door, and thus into the chamber which holds the time travel device. It's an terrible opening puzzle, because you're not given any suggestions at all that you're supposed to be exacting some kind of juvenile vengeance.
Most of the story is dealt out in chunks during a handful of relatively lengthy cutscenes, although character interaction outside of these segments is minimal. The writing is adequate, with some bits of amusingly awkward humor. Your character repeatedly mishears "Crughons" as "Croutons". One character wishes you good luck with a Star Wars reference. As a plot point, you're subjected to a mind implantation which subconsciously gives you necessary information as needed. Right before an arcade sequence, this impromptu education kicks in and acts as a brief tutorial, breaking the forth wall and telling you to use your mouse to shoot enemies, something which Metal Gear auteur Hideo Kojima would be quite proud of. Overall, the plot is serviceable, even though the basic set up is a bit too close to The Terminator.
Regardless of its many issues, Future Wars is still interesting in a historical context. The visuals were done by Eric Chahi, who also masterminded Out of This World. You can see some similarities in the artwork, such as the way the projectile blasts disintegrate their targets, or the gloomy, war-ravaged landscapes. Paul Cuisset also designed most of Delphine's other games, including Flashback. There are some thematic elements which bear some vague resemblance, like the futuristic train station, or the hibernetic sleep device in one of the spaceships. But otherwise, the fiddly interface has resulted in a game that has aged extremely poorly.
Interplay also published the IBM PC version of Future Wars on CD-ROM. While the disk versions were almost entirely silent, the CD version has redbook audio playing throughout the adventure. It's cheap early 90s synth, and not in that awesome power rock PC Engine kind of way. As such, it adds nothing of value.
A top secret jet fighter known as the Stealth has been captured by a mysterious enemy. Intelligence points to its last known location in the (fictional) Latin American country of Santa Paragua. The only one who can save the world is secret agent Bond, James Bond... or John Glames, depending on which version you're playing.
Operation Stealth is a weird game, in that it was developed to be a huge Bond rip-off (or homage, depending on your level of cynicism). However, when it was released in America, the publisher Interplay acquired the actual 007 license, and thus changed the game ever-so-slightly. Some of the dialogue has been amended to fit a little better, mostly to add in familiar names. But otherwise both Operation Stealth and James Bond 007: The Stealth Affair are essentially the same game. Oh, and kindly disregard the Max Headroom look-a-like on the cover of Operation Stealth - in game, it's clear who the hero is meant to be.
It's definitely got all of the major proponents of a Bond film - the technological gadgets, the exotic locations, the femme fatale, the arch villain with his own island and army of goons. But it definitely all feels like more a parody than anything else. The lady pal, Julia, walks with an absurdly exaggerated swagger. The dialogue, while not particularly well written, has an air of cheekiness around it. The nemesis is named Doctor Why. It's not exactly a comedy, but it's not really played straight either. This actually comes off better when you're the Bond clone Glames. As a part of the official 007 canon, it doesn't quite fit. (Then again, the same could be said of the some of the movies.)
But it does beg the question - is James Bond even an appropriate license for an adventure game? He gets to use cool gadgets but doesn't actually do much brainwork, and he's much more of an action hero than a detective. As such, most of the puzzles are heavily contrived. The very first task involves checking the coin slot of a vending machine, then using that money to purchase something. This event was directly lifted from Future Wars, and the narration text even makes vague reference to it, but is this kind of thing James Bond does - rummage for change?
The rest of the opening segment, which takes place in an airport as you falsify passports and steal various bits of luggage, is remarkably mundane. (And also ridiculous - if you give the customs official the wrong passport, you're immediately jailed.) The rest of the early parts are spent doing exhilarating things like exchanging currency (twice!) and buying flowers. When you take your elevator to the top floor of a hotel, your path is blocked by a housekeeper who just refuses to move. Instead, you need to take the elevator to the floor below, walk up the steps and saunter around her.
Eventually Operation Stealth realizes that Bond movies are really all about action. And that, unfortunately, is where it stumbles even more. Action sequences in adventure games are usually terrible, and this game does nothing to disprove that rule. The first involves swimming through a series of dangerous rock formations, while your air meter precariously drops. Two others are overhead maze sequences - one dodging guards in the back stage of a theatre, another swimming to avoid dangerous piranhas. And there's a 3D chase sequence aboard jet skis. None of them control well, and all of them are intensely frustrating.
Operation Stealth was designed using the same Cinematique technology as Future Wars. It has been slightly improved so Bond/Glames will walk to an object if they're not close enough. And there are less pixel hunting issues, although it's still quite possible (and probable) to get stuck in dead ends. In one particularly frustrating bit, you get captured and get to listen to your enemy prattle on, like any good old Bond foe. You're supposed to activate something in your inventory (if you found it prior, anyway), but there's no indication you can access any of your items, as it appears to be a standard noninteractive cutscene.
The Amiga version of Operation Stealth has an interesting feature. If the user has enough RAM and the proper operating system, it can use the computer's speech synthesis libraries to read all of the lines aloud. Given how basic the technology was in 1990, it's all done in the same monotone Stephen Hawking voice, and it constantly (and humorously) mispronounces words, because the writing was not redone to account for its defects. It's also extremely buggy and is liable to crash the system. Points for effort, though.
Delphine's third and final adventure game is a murder mystery, one heavily inspired by the works of Agatha Christie. The wealthy businessman Niklos Karaboudjan is hosting a party on his luxurious cruise liner. He is brutally murdered, but luckily enough for him, he happened to invite French inspector Raoul Dusentier, who takes it upon himself to investigate the killing.
Cruise for a Corpse is so very desperately patterned after Sierra's The Colonel's Bequest. Not only does it draw from the same sources, but it borrows the exact same structure. You've got free run of the boat, but the game is divided into gtime blocksh, causing the clock to pass whenever certain actions are taken. At each time block, characters change locations, and are potentially willing to talk about new subjects.
But The Colonel's Bequest was designed to be a relatively easy game for non-adventure gamers - you could aimlessly wander around and accidentally move the plot forward without having any idea what you were doing, and at the same time not really worry about solving any puzzles. Cruise for a Corpse feels like an antidote to that, as it's clearly meant for gamers who actually like to investigate. It's much more deliberate, requiring that you talk to a specific person about a specific subject, or find one particular piece of evidence, before the game moves forward. In some ways, it works pretty well, because you never need to worry about missing any part of the story. But it's also poorly implemented, as there's absolutely no rhyme or reason behind the triggers beyond the game's internal logic, nor any real guidance. Every time you move the clock forward, you know you've done something right, but where to take the next step is never clear. The only recourse is to investigate every room and talk to every person again and again, or re-examine rooms for clues. Necessary items will magically appear between time blocks without any reason or suggestion that they were put there. It's all quite maddening.
Just the very act of investigation induces headaches. As a trained member of the police force, Raoul Dusentier is an absolutely terrible inspector. He categorically refuses to search when he thinks it isn't relevant, to the point where his arrogance grows tiresome. You don't think that drawer is useful, Inspector, but at least give the player the courtesy of looking in it instead of shooting down every single suggestion the player gives you. Of course, this being developed by Delphine, whose Future Wars practically redefined the frustration of pixel hunting, most of the important items are tiny and blend in with the scenery. Furthermore, as you progress through the mystery, you eventually gain a long list of conversation topics. It never highlights the one's you've already discussed though, making it difficult to pick out new lines of inquiry without just barreling through the whole list until you find the topic that'll progress the time.
It's just as well, because there aren't too many items to find, nor very many puzzles to solve. Instead, most of the investigation is simply spent interrogating the rest of the boat's guests. There's nothing actually wrong with this in concept, but in execution it falls completely on its face because the writing just isn't very good. There are nearly a dozen characters, each with their own backgrounds, quirks and motivations, but outside of the strange butler who looks like a circus muscleman, none of them have any real personality. Perhaps this was the result of a poor translation, evidence of which can even be seen in title. Maybe the original French title, Croisiere pour un cadaver, sounds alright, but Cruise for a Corpse sounds patently ridiculous in English, and conjures a sense of cheesiness which isn't actually found within the game itself. It is, however, absolutely filled with lines of dialogue which just don't sound right.
One character, when questioned about his background, casually implies that he may have raped someone. ("Oh, nothing serious Inspector. Youth's foolishness. I was seeing a young waitress, she lead me on. I was young and hot headed. The long lady had to be hospitalized and I was sent to prison.") Another makes a reference to Donald Trump, apparently forgetting that the story is set in 1927 and the noted billionaire wouldn't be born for another twenty years. When the improbably named Dick Shmock is inquired about the illness of another female guest, he simply responds "huh??? Maybe menopause?" (The grammatical issues have been preserved to stress its sloppiness.) Technically, the translation isn't any worse than Delphine's other games, but those weren't nearly so reliant on text either.
Which is a shame, because there's actually a pretty decent story behind the poor writing. It's got all of the ingredients of a classic thriller, complete with numerous intertwining dramas - arranged marriages, illegitimate children, substance addictions, illicit affairs, inheritance disputes, secret identities. It's nothing innovative, but it's classically done, and the climax is certainly much more compelling than The Colonel's Bequest.
Digging through the mess to get to that story isn't really worth it, though. Beyond that, Cruise for a Corpse is really only known for its rotoscoped character graphics, the kind which would Delphine would reuse for Out of This World and Flashback. The sprites are large and the animation is extremely smooth, sometimes distractingly so. There are only a couple of scenes where the backgrounds are set to take advantage of it, though. Certain backgrounds are positioned so Dusentier walks directly towards or away from the camera, which looks impressive, except when his crotch ends up walking right in the center of the monitor. The close-ups during dialogue are done with standard bitmaps, since they are much more detailed and are barely animated. The only time it really takes advantage of the technology is with the ending, which, cinematically, is very similar to the intro of Out of This World. (Without the particle accelerator and alien world, obviously.) Like the rest of Delphine's output, it's cool to see the influence upon their later, better titles, but as a standalone product there isn't a whole lot worthwhile about Cruise for a Corpse.