A new strategy game set in futuristic German nightclubs, All Walls Must Fall offers a thrillingly fresh take on turn-based tactics that could still use a few more tuneups.
It’s Berlin and the year is 2089. In an alternate future where the Cold War has been waging for 150 years time travel is now the preferred means of committing espionage. A nuclear strike at the beginning of the game sets in motion a series of missions that range from the mundane to the bizarre, but somehow always seem to end the same way: with a mind-bending shootout. This is the joy of All Walls Must Fall but also its Achilles heel. While the game’s underlying systems offer lots of interesting abilities and approaches to play around with, their results are never as interesting and, after several hours, quite repetitive.
A PC grid-based tactics game from some ex-Yager Development designers (the studio which brought us Spec OpsL The Line), All Walls Must Fall came out of its months long Early Access period on Steam last Friday after inbetweengames Kickstarted it a couple years ago. Imagine XCOM-style combat except that you can rewind time using a limited resource whenever something happens and you don’t like the outcome. Whether it’s getting spotted out by an enemy drone or shot in the face by a bouncer sporting an Uzi, you can take turns back as long as you have enough points. This resource is also used to hack computer systems and employ special abilities like hyper dashing to dodge bullets. It can only be increased as you explore new rooms on a given level and slowly depletes over time. The result is an interesting hybrid of traditional turn-based combat and something more real-time feeling that forces you to proceed quickly so you’re not caught limping back to your escape car at the end of a level with no more time manipulation at your disposal.
Thanks to its time in Early Access the game certainly feels more polished than when I played it last August. The interface is somewhat less inscrutable and I didn’t run into any bugs or other issues during my time most recent playthroughs. At the same time it still feels like there’s a lot more room to add greater variation and more interesting enemy encounters.
Take conversations for instance. Negotiation is a big part of the game. As you infiltrate one of any number of futuristic techno clubs searching for clues about a bombing or some target to assassinate, you’ll run into guards (almost all of whom look exactly the same) who will interrogate you about what you’re doing. Cybernetic implants let you get a read on their emotions as you choose how to respond in three successive rounds. If at the end of these conversations they have too many negative feelings, they’ll bust you and combat will be initiated. If not, you’ll fall into their good graces and coast on through. If you succeed in flirting them, they’ll even start following you around and have your back if fighting breaks out.
In practice though, the dialogue always seems to come down to a few re-occurring strategies that don’t appear anchored to any deeper logic. Usually you’ll either try to bully someone into letting you pass or win them over with sexual advances. I haven’t yet run into a circumstance where telling someone they didn’t have enough guns or backup and I was going to bust their head open didn’t work. It’s not like you’re learning stuff in background research or over the course of a particular level that clues you into how to manipulate particular guards. Instead it’s just the same small bag of tricks plundered over and over again. The only time this isn’t the case is when people ask you for names and you fumble through all of the possibilities using the time reversal mechanic until one of them elicits the desired emotional responses. In the few cases when that name never arises, you fail the encounter and everything goes frustratingly to shit, often prompting a level reset in the hopes that the dialogue RNG will be more kind the next time around.
And then there’s the combat. All Walls Must Fall is at its best when you’re whizzing through bars and dance floors while armed thugs and time-enhanced “specters” are gunning for you. Seemingly impossible scenarios slowly become manageable as you hold onto your cool and start picking enemies off while dodging bullets and searching for good vantage points from which to defend. Environments are destructible in the game, so shootouts feel both chaotic and impactful. Sitting behind a bar spending precious turns to reload a gun while bullets tear out the back of it feels great, and captures a certain kind of dramatic tension that traditional tactics games often forgo as a result of their more static structure. By far the best moment I had with the game was when I prematurely took out my target and then had to contend with a warehouse full of his cronies, yet found myself able to methodical thin out their ranks and eventually survive by knowing when to attack and when to retreat and being diligent about how I used my do-overs to optimize how it all played out.
The next time something like this happened, it was somewhat less spectacular, and all the times after that it made it feel even less special. Like the game’s conversation mechanic, these combat scenarios also feel somewhat less imaginative than the game deserves. There are shotguns and sub-machine guns, but a pair of pistols serve just fine in most instances. Likewise, there are opportunities to upgrade your health and the efficiency of your various time-costing abilities, but at the end of the day it’s really just a matter of dashing in and out of cover and picking enemies off one-by-one. While the game gestures in the direction of being something like a spiritual Deus Ex Tactics, the avenues it provides for solving various problems don’t feel fleshed out enough yet to make that analogy quite work.
That said, the game does an expert job of nailing the look and feel European Cold War espionage recreated with elements of angsty cyberpunk and noirish nihilism. It’s sort of like 12 Monkeys if Bruce Willis was looking for who set off a nuclear bomb at the Berlin Wall instead of Brad Pitt. The music and sound design are especially well implemented, pulsing in-sync with the degradation of your time travel points and the shots ringing out across nightclubs full of gangsters and dancing gay men wearing only loin cloths. All of which is to say that the presentation (the art is at times reminiscent of Archer) and narrative angling of All Walls Must Fall feels ultra compelling and entirely original. Given that, I’m still looking forward to seeing how the game continues to develop and what future updates might bring in the way of more choices and levels that don’t always play out as predictably.