All Walls Must Fall is a new strategy game—creatively billed as a “Tech-Noir Tactics” title—from an indie outfit comprised of former members of Spec Ops: The Line developer YAGER. The game imagines an alternate future in which the Cold War never ended, the Berlin Wall never came down, and Communism never faded to little more than the memory of a failed ideology. Despite the premise, the game sidelines political commentary, only offering vague references to never-ending international hostilities and the existence of a rogue actor that has detonated a nuclear device in a TV tower in an attempt to end the stalemate.
The science-fiction trappings of the game emerge immediately, with the player cast in the role of a burly time-travelling secret agent named Kai. His quest to prevent the pre-ordained explosion begins with an assassination ten hours before detonation.
OnlySP recently had the chance to go hands-on with a pre-alpha version of the first third of the game, alongside a brief interview with Jan David Hassel, one of the co-founders of developer inbetweengames and designer on the title.
Mission Structure, Narrative, and Failing Better
Like a growing number of indie titles, All Walls Must Fall is, in some respects, a delightful retro throwback, immediately bringing to mind classic strategy games such as X-COM. As one might expect, this heritage brings with it a number of familiar elements, including an isometric perspective, a wide range of options to deal with any given situation, and a rather archaic mission structure.
Beginning with the assassination that kicks off the game, Kai bends to the will of a shadowy organisation that sends him into nightclubs on a series of assignments, each with a unique objective, in order to maintain the unsteady peace between the two sides. Although this structure allows for a wide array of objectives that allow the player to test the various mechanics of the game (including collecting dead drops, squeezing bartenders, and defusing bombs) the narrative links between these activities remain obscure. With the lack of narrative clarity comes a certain distance—an inability to fully engage with Kai’s quest, stemming from an inherent failure to understand the reasons behind his actions.
For the time being, the narrative of All Walls Must Fall is little more than a framework upon which to hang the action, and Hassel explains that “narration is probably one of the things that [the team is] going to put some more work in next.” Until quite recently, the focal point of development has been “the clarity of the underlying systems and the control interface players interact with,” but with recent playtests, “narration seems to come more into the forefront of the feedback, which is great because it means players are actually able to play and understand the game.” Hassel sees this move of criticism away from gameplay towards story content as a positive, saying that the team is now “failing at a slightly higher level than before and. . . actually improving.”
Four Dimensions of Play
Shifting the focus of development away from the core gameplay is a well-deserved freedom for the team as, even in its early state, All Walls Must Fall is a tight, invigorating experience with fantastic music backing the action. The moment-to-moment gameplay blends turn-based tactics with real-time action, in a manner similar to one of 2016’s breakout hits, Superhot. Although players have an unlimited amount of time to settle on a move, enemy actions have the potential to upset even the most carefully laid plans. Adding a wrinkle to this otherwise straightforward synchronous turn-based combat system is the inclusion of time manipulation abilities. As well as using guns to fell enemies, Kai is able to make use of additional skills, including undoing an action and rewinding the world state.
Given that Kai is able to sustain only three hits before dying, these abilities are essential to victory in any combat encounter. However, they also serve the dual purpose of allowing players to approach the game non-violently. The current iteration of All Walls Must Fall seems to contravene this idea, with enemies that attack on sight after an objective is fulfilled, but Hassel outlines some of the ways that the manipulation of time can help players to avoid enemies:
“Even if new enemies appear and attack when they see you, you can just rewind the world to a previous time point when they weren’t even there. Or you can move through their line of sight as they start shooting and only rewind time enough to let you pass without them ever seeing you. These kind of possibilities are currently in the game already, but since the game doesn’t enforce you having to use them are easily missed.”
Hassel also attributes this tendency for players to overlook their options due to an inherent unfamiliarity with thinking in the fourth dimension (that being time). He goes on to emphasise that the team “will probably introduce a few more missions to help bring in obstacles that can’t be completed without time travel, so players become more aware of their powers.”
Avoiding Conflict Through Talk and Time
Paths for non-violence emerge from more than just manipulation of time, however, and can be accessed by engaging in dialogue or hacking the weapons scanners and locked doors that otherwise bar access to certain areas. Both of these options are simplistic in the current build of the game, but the developers are planning to increase their complexity. Of the two, the dialogue is the more problematic at present. Players can engage a number of NPCs in conversation, including bouncers, bodyguards, and bartenders, and, as in many other games, are limited to a small number of replies that will affect the NPC’s emotional state in various ways.
Despite the success of similar systems in other games, All Walls Must Fall’s current iteration is clunky and too easily rigged to be truly successful. These issues, according to Hassel, stem, in part, from the recent removal of two emotional variables from the dialogue system in an effort to simplify it. Nevertheless, he remains upbeat about the design of the system and positive about the possibility of improving upon it for future iterations:
“Being able to learn which lines will produce a result given the current state of emotion of the NPCs is, I think, part of the potential fun of being able to use time travel in dialogues. Right now the dialogues are repeating quickly because we don’t really have that many, especially if you chose to have the same dialogue multiple times. That’s easy to address by simply adding more and better dialogues though.”
Similarly, hacking is a simplistic affair, carried out by clicking on the hackable object in order to disable it. Although Hassel does not go into detail about how this aspect of the game will be built upon, saying only that the team wants to “extend the possibilities that hacking . . . give[s] you,” the recent announcement of the ‘Drone Warfare’ content update suggests that players may have the option to take control of such mechanical enemies, but that has not been confirmed.
“Other Worlds Than These”: The Future of All Walls Must Fall
Whatever those mechanical expansions entail, certain Kickstarter backers will be able to test them out sometime after the closed alpha begins in May, but before the open alpha, currently scheduled to begin in September. The most notable planned expansion, however, will only be added if the game earns more than €75,000 before its crowdfunding campaign ends on April 19. That expansion is the inclusion of a second playable character, and the second act of the game, which will take place in West Berlin, as opposed to the East Berlin of the first act.
As one should expect, such additions will represent a major shift in aesthetics and gameplay. Although Hassel would not provide details on how the visuals of West Berlin would differ from the almost monochromatic aesthetic of the East, he did say that the team “definitely want[s] to make the differences between East and West Berlin readily apparent. Otherwise what would be the point[?]”
Any such shift would also help to overcome one of the more annoying flaws of the current build of the game. All Walls Must Fall’s vision of East Berlin is one bleached of colour, dominated by shades of grey and blue. The colour scheme speaks to the real-world history and architecture of the German Democratic Republic, but it causes issues in easy identification of pathways and targets, which can leave players feeling lost in the nightclubs of each mission. Again, the team at inbetweengames is aware of these concerns, and is considering methods to better signpost each mission.
Hassel says the team “will probably add more obvious objective markers and possibly eventually also a minimap to the game to help out with these concerns,” however doing so effectively requires a balancing act between clarity and agency. “[I]f you give players too much information the objective becomes too obvious and players don’t have that many interesting decisions left to make for themselves. But you don’t want anyone to become truly lost either. So we have to balance information scarcity with clear communication through the user interface by playtesting. The current feedback is pretty consistent though, so we know what to do next, which is good.”
While the team will undoubtedly implement those improvements throughout the entire game, the second playable character, it seems, will only be present for the second act. Like Kai, Alev will also be sent on missions by a shadowy organisation, but will be a native of West Berlin with a distinct set of time manipulation powers. The key difference between the two lies in the theme of their abilities, with Kai focused on the past and Alev on the present.
Hassel expands on this by explaining the skills that Alev will possess. The team “plan[s] to allow Alev to ‘Freeze’ time for the world while still being able to move herself and add the ability to ‘Split’ into multiple potential versions of herself by going back in time and then branching off the path previously taken. So while players will still only control one agent at a time this should give players somewhat of a squad to manage.”
A third playable character, Glenn, and another undisclosed region will be added to the game alongside its third act, but given the long development process ahead, Hassel was not prepared to discuss either of these additions in further detail. He was, however, able to outline some of the ideas that the team has to change up the gameplay even more than the different time-based abilities allow:
“Enemies that have their own time abilities will be a big one I think. My brain hurts just thinking about it . . . Different enemy types working together in groups to synergetic effects is one of my favourite things so I hope we can push that aspect more. Like having heavy, sniper and melee enemies work together as a team. Also since our turns happen simultaneously we can support a lot more active agents than traditional turn-based games can. If you have to wait for everyone to resolve their turn sequentially, it just becomes very boring when there are a lot of enemy units moving. . . But we don’t have that problem since all actions are resolved simultaneously. So, I hope that we might introduce more friendly allied combatants to the game, where you as an agent are just part of something much, much bigger that is going on around you.”
Although several elements of All Walls Must Fall are clunky or unintuitive in the early build that OnlySP had access to, the foundations of a great gameplay experience are firmly in place. The graphics and user interface need more work, the story could do with a greater degree of clarity, and the dialogue system requires expansion, but all of those are relatively minor gripes in the face of the achievements of the project. The tactical demands of combat are invigorating, the time-based abilities offer a shake-up to non-violent gameplay through puzzle solving, and the electronic music that underscores every moment is more than enough to keep the blood pumping. All Walls Must Fall is an exciting game made by a team that is clearly passionate about the project, and we here at OnlySP are looking forward to seeing how it shapes up.
All Walls Must Fall is currently on Kickstarter, set to enter open beta in September.