All Walls Must Fall leaves early access today, and recently Matt Wales took a look for us. This article was originally published on 10th August 2017.
It’s easy to misunderstand All Walls Must Fall. It’s so full of high concept ideas — from its time-meddling tactical set-up to its all-pervasive rhythmic tics — that it can, at the outset, feel more like a game of flashy gimmicks than one of fascinating strategic depth.
The game’s most immediately arresting elements, its pulsating light show and beat-by-beat rhythmic progression, are primarily stylistic flourishes. There’s no real mechanical reason that every in-game action unfolds in time with the omnipresent techno beat. But in terms of pure mood setting and tension building, All Walls Must Fall’s surface sheen is mesmerising, working a hypnotic magic to draw you into this grimy nighttime world.
The constant tick of the snare drum creates a sense of inescapable momentum, keeping you always moving and always thinking. And as your missions reach their inevitable, violent crescendos, each gunshot and ricocheting bullet adds another percussive layer to the incessant, utterly consuming, soundscape.
All Walls Must Fall unfolds in an alternate-timeline version of future Berlin, caught in an endless temporal loop of nocturnal Cold War espionage and bohemian dance floor decadence. It’s a time-shifting tactical shooter with a fascinating core premise that, despite surface similarities to other titles, is quite unlike anything I’ve played in recent times.
The obvious touch points are Rez (in its synesthetic pulse), modern-day X-Com in the basic flow of its core strategic action, and Superhot in its bullet-dodging time-tinkering combat. Yet All Walls Must Fall still feels very much its own.
The newly-released Steam early access build offers roughly one-third of the final game — a series of procedurally-generated espionage missions set inside the shadowy, labyrinthine gay clubs of east Berlin. Two more updates toward the end of the year will expand the action to West Berlin and beyond. In its present state there’s plenty to do, but there’s still a definite sense that this a but a slender part of a larger whole. There are hints of deeper narrative machinations but, for now, the focus is firmly on the fascinating temporal strategy at the heart of the game, split between exploratory subterfuge and all-out combat.
Missions in All Walls Must Fall always follow a loosely similar framework: enter a club, find some stuff, shoot some stuff, get out. But the procedural generation system that seems to govern nearly every aspect of the game — map layouts, mission objectives, goal locations, enemy placements, even the conversations you’re able to have with certain NPCs — adds the kind of diversity and alternate strategic possibilities that makes you want to play a mission again.
If you look closely you can see the building blocks that make up each mission, but the reconfiguration is so thorough that repetition doesn’t feel like an issue. In one playthrough I was tasked with prowling heaving nightclub corridors, rifling through ashtrays in search of secret information: in the next, I was scouting an entirely new space, finding and eliminating traitorous ne’er-do-wells.
There’s clear differentiation between objectives with every procedural refresh, but more pertinent is the impact it has on the choices available to you. Each new configuration seems to suggest different strategic possibilities, and this lies at the heart of the game. If you want to whip out your weapon and cause a ruckus on the dance floor, you can, or you can take a quieter approach, hacking security systems, and flirting your way past guards.
Crucially, every action has risk and reward baked into it thanks to the ever-present mission points tally that ebbs and flows with each action you take. It rises as you discover a new area or sweet-talk a guard, and rapidly plunges toward zero if you dally around too long. The rule is always that the more points you have, the better — they’re the key to everything else you can do.
Including something at the core of All Walls Must Fall: the ability to rewind time, which adds another layer to all those interesting decisions. Everything you do during a mission can be undone one step at time — a ‘step’ equating to one thump of the pounding techno beat. You can wind back a mistake during combat, or reverse a disastrous attempt at flirtation: you can even undo your own death if you choose. But every reversal costs a chunk of your mission points and, should you die once they’re depleted, it’s game over. For good — given that All Walls Must Fall is yet another game that seeks to add tension and weight to your choices through permadeath.
Mission points, then, are your most precious commodity and you’re constantly forced to assess whether the benefits of a particular approach are worth the cost. Stealthy activities (like hacking doors or drones) deplete your points by a decent amount, but the upside can be immense, helping you avoid tricky confrontations for just that little bit longer. And with indecision causing points to tick down more rapidly, you’re constantly encouraged to keep moving, to keep thinking — with the resulting knife’s edge tension underscored by that incessant, driving beat.
All Walls Must Fall's most interesting choices come during combat. Once a fight begins, the game’s usual steady rhythmic tick stops dead. In battle, time will only progress when you let it. First, you set your move — whether that be to fire a shot, to relocate, or to dive for cover — and, once you confirm it, time resumes, ticking through the beats until the action is complete. Then it stops once more. Enemies respond to your actions in real-time, but only as time is unfurling.
It’s a system that doesn’t entirely make sense at first, feeling more like a fiddly gimmick than an integral foundation for interesting tactical decision making. But once you unlock the Rewind and Trace Back abilities the underlying strategic richness is revealed. It’s possible, for instance, to zigzag between bullets (which hang in the air whenever the world is paused). Or you can allow time to progress, then undo it in order to preemptively respond to your opponent’s ‘next’ move.
Rewind takes things further still, reversing everything in the world apart from you. You can force a particularly stubborn opponent back and back and back until they’re no longer in the safety of cover. The trade-off though, is that everything is undone as you rewind time — enemy health is restored, bullets that you previously dodged pop back into existence, and even the dead are revived. The Trace Back ability inverts this, winding back your own status while the world keeps going forward. This lets you, say, regain health or reload your weapon, but could also leave you in a worse spot.
All Walls Must Fall offers great temporal toolkit, rich with tactical potential. And even at this early stage, the choices the game presents are interesting enough to suggest that the team is well on the way to realising this ambitious and idiosyncratic vision. There are a few things I’m not sold on quite yet — the restrictive, claustrophobic viewpoint, for one, and the rather unnecessary finality of permadeath — but I’m less bothered by those than I am impressed by the game’s style, and the hypnotic lure of its relentless, rhythmic tension.
Early doors, All Walls Must Fall is strategically rewarding, distinct, enthralling, and a lot of fun. I can’t wait to see how this shadowy, hedonistic world is fleshed out as the evenings go by.
All Walls Must Fall is available on Steam.