I can only imagine the boardroom at inbetweengames (a studio made up of 3 former YAGER veterans) during the development of All Walls Must Fall. I can see them with an enormous fish bowl full of what looks like tickets sitting in the middle of a plain white room while they draw straws for who goes first. Then, one by one, each of them pulls a slip of paper from the enormous fishbowl and unfolds it, reading it aloud.
“Bisexual Cyborg Santa Claus”
“I guess that’s our next game, guys.”
While I’m sure that didn’t happen (it totally did), the basic parts of All Walls Must Fall don’t appear to make sense. You know what all those words mean, of course, but you’re not sure how they can fit together in any shape or form. In this instance, they fit together perfectly. In the relatively near future of 2089, the Cold War never ended, and Berlin is still split by a wall. In this film noir-style setting, you play Kai, an old, bearded, tough, and charming character with the unique ability to manipulate time. This is, of course, marred by him being stuck in an eternal time loop ten hours before a nuclear bomb wipes out the city. Every time the bomb goes off, he’s reset and must attempt to save the city one more time using his wits, his guns, and his ability to seduce every single person he meets.
That explains two of those slips of paper in the hypothetical board room for All Walls Must Fall, but how does the club music tie in? So far, all the missions take place in a series of clubs in East Berlin in no particular order. While this might seem confusing, it actually lends itself to the randomness with which your character is experiencing time. You appear outside an isometric club with a sense of deja vu and a mysterious masked person giving you commands. The goal of your first mission in every run is simply to kill someone inside the club. This is is further complicated by, in the next mission, finding and interrogating the person you just killed.
The masked man tells you that this is for a reason, and what choice do you have but to dance like a puppet who can see the strings? In each mission, you meet characters that remember you; faces in the crowd you seduced before, but you’re certain you’ve never actually met them. This sense of surreal confusion is heightened by the club setting where flashing lights blind you as you maneuver through crowds of shirtless dancing guys.
Each mission appears to be procedurally generated, though the methods of the map are determined by the mission you’re playing. For example, hunting someone in order to assassinate them might mean a map with many locked doors that you either must force yourself through or hack. After that, you might gain access to a room full of what might be your target or what might be seven guys in suits wondering why Santa Clause just burst through a door like the Kool-Aid Man. Maps where you must find a dead drop in an ashtray appear to include significantly more hallways, with plenty of drones rambling around scanning the crowd (and you) for weapons. You wander around the field, moving with each beat of the club music you can feel in your speakers, and time freezes between each decision on where you go next.
If you screw up and get scanned, this is where it gets interesting. You can, of course, pull out your pistol, shotgun, or power fist and start smashing your way through a club to the pumping sound of bass, or you could hit a button and instantly rewind. That’s right: if you make a mistake, any mistake at all, you can simply rewind time a little bit and try again. This isn’t just for movement, either, because when you’re in the middle of a conversation where you’re trying to seduce or intimidate your way past a guard and he calls your bluff, you can rewind and try a different tactic. This rewinding ability is not infinite, as it relies on you discovering new rooms. Each time you hack a computer or unlock a new section of the map, your ability to mess with time is replenished.
If you do decide to forego the use of stealth and just start shooting, the battle starts with everything paused. You don’t have to move at all, but your reserves for rewinding or your special time abilities will start to slowly dwindle. It doesn’t drain fast enough for it to truly matter, but it certainly gives you a sense of urgency. Each shot and movement let time go back to normal again for a short duration, where you can follow the trail of bullets and map your progress around the various forms of cover. You can dash behind a pillar, fire a shot, dash to another, and fire again, dodging the bullets with each flash forward. After a few missions, you can purchase the ability to make time reverse around you while you remain in the present, which can make you appear to teleport to new locations. If this is difficult for you to wrap your mind around, imagine how it feels for the enemy agents when you suddenly teleport next to them and punch them through a wall. In one mission, I actually punched my way through a wall, then reversed time around me so that it appeared as if I teleported through it, punching someone’s lights out and then blasting away another agent as he stepped around a corner. For those moments, I felt like Nightcrawler mixed with John Wick, and it felt amazing.
To top off this incredibly fun and unique action sequence, once you’ve defeated all the agents and drones set against you in combat, time instantly rewinds to the moment you were detected and you get to watch the battle play out in real time. Each moment you get to watch yourself flash around a battlefield firing into the heads of unsuspecting enemies is a glory to behold. No matter the frustrations present in the other portions of the game, these moments are where All Walls Must Fall truly shines.
That being said, there are definitely frustrations. While it might be fun to seduce your way past the coat check while toting a hidden shotgun, it feels like a system that’s largely tacked on. The guard responses appear to be mostly random, only sometimes lining up with the dialogue you’re returning. The dialogue you can choose from is supposed to reflect at least three factors that will change in the person you’re speaking to. These are fear, flirtiness, and respect. All of these values have negative versions as well, and the choices you make will influence them one way or another to cover those values. Often, your dialogue choices easily tell you which choice reflects each value. Asking a bartender if he wants your number is obviously intended to influence the level of flirtiness he displays. Threatening to beat the heck out of a coat checker will make them scared. Sometimes, the choices are not very clear in what they’ll actually do. This is easily fixed by simply rewinding time a little bit and choosing something else, but often it feels like you could have avoided the problem by clearly knowing what the sentence actually meant. This could potentially be an issue with translation, but I suspect it’s because of a lack of attention to the dialogue details this early in development.
The comparison to “Braid meets XCOM” is common, but I feel like this is more of a Crypt of the NecroDancer meets Rez, with Deus Ex‘s conversation system tacked on, in a setting based on what would happen in Atomic Blonde and Groundhog Day got stuck in the washing machine together. If this still sounds awesome, that’s because it is.
As is, the content is extremely light. There’s only one character, one side of Berlin, and a smattering of missions that only serve to up the intrigue about the plot. One of the most limiting factors I found in trying to complete All Walls Must Fall was the number of chances you get. You can only get hit by a bullet three times throughout an entire mission. In a chapter where you could be going up against ten agents in a single room, this puts a frustrating limit on your options. It’s possible this will be tweaked as more areas of the game are unlocked in development, but it’s currently a test of attrition. You lose the entire game and get dumped back to the main menu if you take three bullets and have no way to reverse time. This leeches away at your desire to take risks, since knowing you have to make it to the end with such a limited measure of life means that you’ll want to just flash back and forth between two pillars, firing at people when you reach one or the other. When you see the replay of these battles, they can be downright boring. With some balance or some ability to spend your accrued cash on increasing health, you might be more willing to test out some really crazy abilities. Speaking of the cash, I can’t tell if you get more or less by killing more agents. There’s a timer, number of casualties, and the number of times you’re hit, and I’ve managed to get incredibly varying amounts of cash from staying and fighting or simply running to my car and getting away. The algorithms for deciding on your rewards appear to be either so nuanced I can’t make sense of it or another randomly generated element.
Right now, there’s only one character, who’s meant to represent the past. Eventually, there will be a second and third, each representing the present and future. Each also comes with varying abilities, such as creating clones that do what you did seconds ago but on a loop. The design of the main character, Kai, fits in well with the maps and design, and often it feels like a moving game board with how the images interact. It’s like playing a game of Clue in the middle of an underground club, except Colonel Mustard controls time and keeps eloping with the owner.
The game is a fascinating concept, but as it stands now, it’s just a really good tech demo held together by spit and duct tape. There are some amazing, smooth, and ultimately fun ideas at play here, but it’ll need a lot more than simple polish to make it a great game. The dialogue is clunky and a fairly simple, repetitive, and often boring obstacle that drains the time manipulation resources you could be using to kill stuff in combat. The map designs are interesting and surprising, but after the fifth time attacking the same club after taking three bullets, it can start to feel like the deja vu isn’t so much your character’s, but your own. The confusing story is intriguing, but with the developer pedigree previously involving Spec Ops: The Line, this is one of the aspects of All Walls Must Fall that I’m fully confident will turn out to be genuinely polished. In its current state, I cannot give this a gold star, but I’ll definitely be keeping my eye on its development.
Our All Walls Must Fall Early Access preview was conducted on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the developer.