Effectively implementing time travel into a story is tricky. Even within mediums where the participant is passive, such as a book or movie, the concept of time travel is paradoxical. The act of temporal hopping should never be necessary, because (by the nature of time travel) the problem should have already been solved by the protagonist’s future self (eliminating the need to travel through time in the first place). To bypass this paradox, storytellers have had to create ironclad laws about how the concept works within their universes.
Believable time travel is even harder to pull off in a video game. In a medium where the audience dictates the action, the concept of time travel makes less sense. Convoluted rules need to be set for why the player cannot travel through time whenever they please. All Walls Must Fall attempts to rectify this problem by giving the player the freedom to travel whenever they want. However, centering an entire game’s worth of mechanics around time travel makes for an experience that is far too easy to exploit.
The game has a well thought-out premise. Set in Berlin during a future where the Cold War never ended and the Berlin Wall was never torn down, the game puts players in a city on the brink of destruction. Time traveling agents try to out-maneuver each other, and the game begins with these shady machinations causing a rogue nuclear strike. The player’s agent is tasked with traveling back to the night before the blast to end the threat before it happens. The plot is not very original (similar narrative setups have been seen in franchises such as Terminator), but the setting is intriguing enough.
The game’s levels are played as top-down isometric tactics missions (similar to X-Com or Crypt of the Necrodancer). Levels are procedurally generated to force the player to react to the same environments in a variety of ways. To up the stakes, agents from the opposing side populate each level. More and more enemy agents appear as the mission, and the night, drags on, placing equal amounts of importance on speed and strategy.
The player has two options for completing their mission: violence or dialogue. This choice is where the game begins to fall apart. On their own, the mechanics for combat and conversation are sound. However, both sets of mechanics can be gamed through the use of time travel. The player can travel back in time during shootouts or after conversations, and they can do so enough times that most actions lose all consequence.
Combat suffers less from rampant use of time manipulation than conversations. In fact, most battles play out like a turn-based variation of TimeShift, a game that handled time travel very well. Similarly to TimeShift, All Walls Must Fall allows the player to reverse the flow of time during a fight. Doing so causes wounds to heal, bullets to return to their chambers, and all combatants to return to their starting positions. Though watching how a guard will react, rewinding, setting a trap, and watching the fight go off without a hitch is pretty satisfying, the whole process eventually ends up becoming a crutch. By the time the game introduces enemies immune to time travel (referred to as Nemeses), the player has access to weapons so powerful that Nemeses do not matter anyway.
With combat so easy, All Walls Must Fall should have relied on conversations to provide variety and challenge. However, once again, the gameplay suffers from the inclusion of time travel. The dialogue portions usually have the player trying to talk their way past enemies. On its own, this aspect of the game is rich with strategic elements. Carefully picking the right choice while enemies are closing in is stressful, and weighing the pros and cons of humor, intimidation, pity, and camaraderie is no easy task. However, because of time travel, any wrong choice can be instantly undone. Exploring every possible conversation thread before going back and choosing the correct path can be done with no consequence. Of course, doing so removes any semblance of stress from the game’s conversations.
All Walls Must Fall is not ruined by time travel. The game is ruined because none of the mechanics create consequence for using time travel. Enemies do not react in new ways or have different conversations based on the repeated trips through time, and the player is not punished for excessively traveling through time. This four-hour game is a breeze.
Praise for the game’s artistic value is not easy to find either. Admittedly, having the environment and music evolve and change based on the player’s actions is a nice touch. For example, the pace of the music speeds up during a firefight, but slows with every second a bullet is not fired. However, only so many variations can be made to something that is an integral part of the setting. The player can definitely see and hear the differences, but they are minor alterations of the same theme. Bringing on six composers to do the soundtrack also was not a good move, as not all the tracks are pleasant to hear. Grabbing one talented musician and getting them to do the whole soundtrack would have been much more effective. After the successes of indie games such as Battle Chef Brigade and Celeste in perfectly capturing the tone of their story through their music, the bar for indie game soundtracks has risen. All Walls Must Fall does not meet that bar.
All Walls Must Fall should have had everything going for it. Both the combat and dialogue mechanics are solid. The game has a premise that is ripe for character interaction and analysis of human choice in the face of time travel. Had it established at the outset that time traveling was a one-and-done deal and restricted the player from using the power at all, All Walls Must Fall could have had something. As is, the title provides a few hours of decent enjoyment that is too easy to truly enjoy.