From the street outside one of Berlin’s infamous all-night dance clubs, you can already hear the thumping bass and the excited shrieks of the crowd. It’s the middle of the night; the street is empty except for a bouncer standing between you and a night of debauchery. He looks cute so you try to flirt your way in. It seems to be working until one wrong word gets him angry. Your best bet now is to try to intimidate him into stepping aside. This guy is tougher than he looks. He takes offense and there’s no way he’s letting you in now. In moments like this, we’ve all wished we could turn back time just enough to preempt a mistake or two. In All Walls Must Fall, that option is always on the table.
Developed by Berlin-based inbetweengames, All Walls Must Fall is a neo-noir cyberpunk alternate-history Cold-War time-travel techno thriller. Wait, let me try that again. All Walls Must Fall is a turn-based strategy game with procedurally generated levels set in 2089, in an imagined universe where the Soviet Union never fell. Or maybe it did fall and then someone went back to make sure it didn’t. You play as Kai, an operative sent into Berlin’s underground club scene by the state’s time-traveling investigation bureau, STASIS, to prevent a nuclear bomb from going off. Or rather, a bomb has already gone off, and you’re sent back in time to make sure it will never have been there in the first place.
Look, time travel complicates a lot of things, from police work to grammar. Your biggest advantage in All Walls Must Fall is being able to make sure that things are complicated in your favor. In practical terms, that means manipulating the timeline as you move through cramped night clubs packed with identical partiers, avoiding or annihilating enemies on the way to your mission’s objective. You do so aided by the ability to undo your last action, or to send either Kai or his enemies a few seconds back in time. This can be used to reverse damage you’ve taken, for instance, or to rush through a room full of guards then reset them to a time before they knew you were there.
The clubs you explore are full of weapon scanners, security cameras, and locked doors, which you can hack to remain in the shadows or just barrel through to attract the attention of guards. Hacking uses up your Time Resource, a bluntly named commodity that’s also consumed when you use your time-twisting powers. By default, Time Resource also constantly depletes as you play, adding a sense of urgency, though this option can be turned off if you’d prefer more of a saunter through Berlin’s seedy underbelly. Time Resource is gained by winning fights and by exploring the level.
As is sometimes the case with procedurally generated levels, the clubs in All Walls Must Fall have no individual character. Taken out of context, the rooms often do a good job of portraying the grungy but euphoric atmosphere of an after-hours club, or at least what one might look like in 2089. But each club repeats the same few rooms in a different order, often packing in plenty of dead ends and improbable numbers of storage closets. As a result, you never feel like you’re moving through a real place. Adding to the persistent dissociation, NPCs share just a few basic designs. This is partially explained in-game by bringing up the idea that many of them are clones, but that doesn’t make it any more interesting to look at.
At least the music suits the game, though it too is repetitive. Most of the game is underscored by a simple pulsing beat, which helps sell the club environments more than any other element. At the end of each successful combat, you watch a replay of the action timed to music. It’s stylish and fun to watch, but it’s the only time this syncing of music and visuals occurs.
You can sneak your way through entire missions without firing a shot, and even if you’re spotted, potential enemies are generally willing to hear you out as long as you haven’t done anything aggressive. The point of All Walls Must Fall’s conversation minigame is to get your way by either threatening people, flirting with them, or just convincing them that you’re important enough to listen to. Kai is equipped with implants that allow him to see a person’s exact emotional state, so you’ll know which emotions your statements are triggering.
The idea of using your time manipulation powers to erase faux pas and get information from your enemies is interesting in theory, but lacking in practice. Kai is given four random options for each of his responses, chosen from a tiny pool of potential lines. The same goes for his adversaries, so it often feels like you’re having the same conversation over and over. Your dialogue options are so clearly calibrated toward one emotional response or another that you can reliably use the same lines on just about every enemy and get a predictable result. The only wrinkle comes when you’re speaking to critical NPCs to complete mission objectives. They have their own dialogue options and personalities, and they show off just how satisfying this system could be if your enemies were more than cardboard cutouts.
If you’re not in the mood to chat, violence is always an option, which plays out in typical fashion for turn-based strategy. You’ll alternate between trading shots with your foes and heading for cover, using your time manipulation powers to negate damage and instantly reposition yourself on the battlefield. Since you only have Kai to control and enemies all take their turns at the same time, fights move at a rapid pace.
I found the combat exciting at first, but it quickly became as stale as the game’s conversations and environments. With only a handful of powers and weapons at your disposal, your strategic options are limited, and the game’s procedurally generated rooms don’t always lend themselves to clever positioning. Most of the time you can get away with staying behind cover and firing your default pistol wildly at enemies, rewinding time to heal your wounds whenever you get hit. Low-level enemies are identical, and though foes with time-shifting abilities of their own appear after the first few missions, their powers just let them teleport closer to you and grant them immunity to being stunned.
All Walls Must Fall is built on a lot of interesting ideas, but that doesn’t make it an interesting game. Though it has plenty of style, it’s severely lacking in substance to back it up. Between the looping music, the indistinguishable levels, and the repetitive combat, I spent most of the game feeling like I was experiencing deja vu. It’s almost as if every element of the game were a metacommentary of its theme of recursive time travel, albeit an extremely boring one.