Long read: Who is qualified to make a world?

In search of the magic of maps.

If you click on a link and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. Read our editorial policy.

All Walls Must Fall is always running out of time


The nuke is always less than 10 hours away. The debut release from inbetweengames, a studio made up of Yager veterans, All Walls Must Fall transforms the concept of the Doomsday Clock into a grid-based tactical action experience with procedurally generated missions and a focus on time travel - a techno medley of Syndicate, XCOM and Crypt of the Necrodancer. It unfolds in 2089, following an alternate 1980s in which Germany's Peaceful Revolution never occurred and the East and West remain violently polarised. Somebody, somewhere in Berlin is about to set off an atomic bomb, and your task, as one of several cyborg agents, is to comb nightclubs for clues about the culprit while undertaking various missions, using a combination of persuasion, hacking, brutality and good old-fashioned temporal manipulation to work your way into the city's criminal underground.

I've never really enjoyed clubbing, so as far as I'm concerned gunning down the coat checkers is a pleasant reprieve.

One of the game's early masterstrokes is to invest that countdown to apocalypse with the urgency of a pulsing bassline. Every move your agent makes - kicking a door down, wooing a guard in conversation, firing a pistol - is synched to the level's background track, part of a steady onward beat towards the triggering of the bomb. If the apocalypse is always imminent, however, it never quite arrives: die or fail and your mysterious radio contact will simply reset the clock. The idea of starting a campaign over isn't, of course, all that exotic in itself, but it's characterised here by a grinding despair. I'm still working out how far this aspect of the writing goes, but your agent appears to retain some memory of previous attempts each time you restart. You might recognise a bouncer at an entrance, a bouncer you've sweet-talked, evaded and/or slaughtered a dozen times over. You might beg the man to attack you rather than lulling his suspicions, weary of the whole charade.

The horror of All Walls Must Fall isn't, in other words, that of seeing the world end, but of striving perpetually to avert it - of living forever in the shadow of the bomb. One inspiration is Francis Fukuyama's essay "The End of History?", written the year the Berlin Wall fell, which is quoted during the intro - in brief, he argues that Western liberal democracy represents the final form of human civilisation, inaugurating a strange afterlife in which time has effectively ceased, because the concept of history as an on-going story no longer has meaning. It's a sentiment captured by All Walls Must Fall's oppressive aesthetic, busy with milling bodies yet peculiarly, profoundly dead. The palette is electric, gloomy, exhausting - flaring orange projectiles, starkly lit brutalist lobby sculptures, a HUD painted vector-monitor green. Clubbers shiver ethereally in the light cast by a DJ's display, coalescing and flowing into the shadows like shoals of deep sea fish.

If the game's ambience and core concepts are arresting, its small-scale gunfights and infiltration variables have yet to grab me. Besides running for cover, hacking things like drones and choosing between shots that do more damage and shots that stun targets, you can deploy a brace of 4D powers to rewind one action, freeze everybody in place for a few turns, and freeze yourself in place while rewinding everybody else (e.g. to return a security checkpoint goon to an unaware state after setting off the metal detector), amongst other feats. There are some intriguing possibilities here but with only one character to control, I'm doubtful that All Walls Must Fall will reach the same fiendish heights of tactical ingenuity as XCOM or Syndicate. Still, I'm basing that on a mere couple of hours with the recently launched Early Access build, and the game's procedural mission design has already thrown up some unusual setups. At one point I propositioned a dancer in the toilets to gain access to a person of interest. Syndicate never let you do that, did it?

You can get through dialogue using graphs of the other character's emotional reactions, but it's more fun to just work with the script, which appears to be partly randomised.

All Walls Must Fall has timed its arrival on Steam Early Access rather nicely. Earlier this week, Donald Trump (also quoted during one of the game's intro segments) threatened to rain "fire and fury" on North Korea over its ICBM programme, jolting the topic of nuclear Armageddon back to page 1. It's a reminder that while the Cold War may have formally "ended", those weapons of mass destruction continue to exist, as do the ideologies that created them. We are still living in the shadow of the bomb. Though set in the distant future, All Walls Must Fall is one among many attempts to make sense of this predicament, to navigate the tensions of our era while we can.