Sit back, relax and immerse yourself in the narrative. Martha is Dead is an outstanding game that’s as hard to put down as a great book.
- Developer: LKA
- Publisher: Wired Productions
- Release date: 24th February 2022
- Genre: Mystery, Psychological horror, Adventure
- Platforms: PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One/Series X|S, Microsoft Windows
- Reviewed on: Xbox Series X
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
Martha Is Dead
First things first, this is not a typical horror game filled with jump scares and monsters; Martha is Dead is better described as a walking simulator, with far more in common with What Remains of Edith Finch than something like Silent Hill. There is some gore and unsettling imagery, but it is all contextual, and despite how early media hype portrayed it, it doesn’t feel gratuitous. Martha is Dead is not scary, but it can be very unsettling, especially further into the emotional and captivating story.
Without descending into spoiler territory, the titular Martha is indeed dead. The opening scene sees Giulia, her twin sister, retrieving Martha’s lifeless body from a lake. The twins’ mother, Irene, hates Giulia, so when Irene mistakes Giulia for Martha, she plays along, assuming Martha’s identity as she tries to discover who or what killed her sister.
Played from a first-person perspective, the semi-open world environment is free to explore at your own pace, but it has limited bounds. Although this is a mostly linear experience, it doesn’t hold your hand all the way through. The mystery is the driving force behind Martha is Dead, and it is presented in a mature and thought-provoking way. We find out early on that Martha was deaf, so interactions with her parents and others are at first more like eavesdropping than direct conversations. Throughout the many revelations and reveals, there’s a real sense of discovery. In a guided narrative like this it can often feel like you are just along for the ride, but in Martha is Dead you are left to piece together the story for yourself, which makes the discoveries all the more impactful.
In the early parts of the story, it doesn’t feel like a horror game – the setting, mood and ambience is far more poignant in its delivery. As alluded to earlier, Martha is Dead is not so much scary as it is unsettling – nothing bad happens at first but I couldn’t shake the feeling of unease, which only intensified as the story progressed.
Giulia is wrought with grief, but also guilt, and this is beautifully expressed via Giulia’s internal monologue. The voice acting is superb, both in the native Italian as well as the English voiceover. I made two playthroughs, once in each language, but the original Italian is definitely the best way to play if you don’t mind reading subtitles. In English, the main characters are well-acted, but some of the ancillary characters come across as almost caricature, with distinct regional British accents. In Italian, the voice acting is smooth and natural, encapsulating genuine emotion and authenticity.
This authenticity is a key focus of Martha is Dead, and alongside the gorgeous visuals, picturesque setting and excellent voice acting, there’s an outstanding score of both period-accurate music playing over the radio and sombre, moving incidental music that accompanies the gameplay perfectly. Complementing this are minimal but effective audio cues, such as birds tweeting as you explore the grounds of your countryside home and the foliage crunching underfoot.
Although the game is set during the Second World War, this is an intensely personal story about a family and how they come to terms with the death of Giulia (Martha), and the fragile mental health of the main character. The characters are developed gradually, and they have surprising depth: Giulia’s father, a German army General, was deeply fond of Giulia, teaching her photography and collecting butterflies with her. Her mother, conversely, is a stern woman, with a deep-seated hatred of Giulia. This hatred is part of why Giulia doesn’t correct her mother when she believes that she is Martha, but in doing so she begins to experience nightmares and anxiety, manifested in dream sequences which is where much of the game’s most gory imagery is presented.
“If you’re tired of media that panders to the lowest common denominator, the tightly woven and evocative storytelling is a breath of fresh air.”
There’s so much I’d love to write about the story, but it’s almost impossible to do so without ruining the mystery. Just when you think you’ve pieced it all together, another shocking moment turns everything you thought you knew on its head. Martha is Dead is a true masterclass in storytelling; If you’re tired of media that panders to the lowest common denominator, the tightly woven and evocative storytelling is a breath of fresh air.
At one point you must make a decision on whether or not to betray your father. Morally, it should have been an easy choice – her father is a German General during WW2 – but after earlier interactions where you see he is a loving, grieving father, disillusioned with the war, I felt an unexpected loyalty towards him. I won’t say which choice I made, but you do get closure in the latter stages of the game. It doesn’t affect the outcome as such, but it certainly made me reflect on my choice.
Objectives are presented to you at a steady pace, revealed as you interact with objects and people in your environment, with a few tasks available to complete at any time. Some of these are optional, but they add depth, detail, character development and backstory, so I found myself going out of my way to interact with everything. The more things you interact with, the more of the mystery you unravel. There are issues with object interactions that can draw you out of the experience somewhat, though. Mostly they work smoothly, but there are some occasions where you must awkwardly shuffle your character from side to side before you can highlight and collect or view an item. A bit more flexibility in the positioning would have been appreciated.
It is also possible to move the story on too far to be able to complete some of the side content, which I discovered when I spent nearly an hour trying to reach a location that, unbeknownst to me, was no longer accessible; It would have been good if the developers had indicated when this happened to save the frustration of trawling back and forth fruitlessly. I’d highly recommend completing every available task as soon as you can before moving on – The task I missed led to a large secret area that I completely missed on my first playthrough.
There are no weapons or combat in Marth is Dead. Instead, Giulia carries her camera with her, which can capture important scenes or reveal hidden secrets. Collectable camera skins and various film types, lenses and accessories are either presented to you or can be found – it’s like getting an education on early 20th photography, covering things like ISO values, exposure lengths and filter types. You also have to develop the film, which thankfully, in terms of gameplay, they’ve simplified. There’s also a very useful option to skip waiting for the image to develop, so it doesn’t become tedious, especially if you’ve been snapping numerous pictures of the glorious Tuscan landscapes or local wildlife.
There are a couple of arbitrary gameplay decisions that let Martha is Dead down – there’s nothing worse than discovering an item you know you’ll need but not be allowed to collect it, only to have to come back moments later to pick it up. I had a similar issue with invisible walls, of which there are many throughout the forests surrounding your house. You will need to stick to the paths, and although the area you can explore is absolutely stunning, you don’t have the freedom to go exploring as much as I’d have liked. This is a very minor complaint, of course, as the photorealistic environments are by necessity limited in their scope.
It’s not hyperbole when I say photorealistic, either. I played through Martha is Dead on an Xbox Series X, and it’s one of the most incredibly detailed games I’ve ever seen. Trees and bushes are modelled right down to each individual leaf, rusted containers are coated with a lifelike patina, and the wooden beams on outbuildings all have a unique grain, with notching and weathering. It is truly remarkable that everything you see looks bespoke, with no evidence of cut and pasted assets.
There is a performance mode on Series X, but it’s actually listed as resolution, changing from 2160p to 1080p. As Giulia’s walking pace is quite slow, the 30fps 2160p mode is very playable. The level of detail is so impressive that I would happily forgo higher frame rates in place of stunning visuals. Switching to 1080p bumps the frame rate up to a smooth 60fps, and although you lose a lot of the fine detail, the overall aesthetic is so appealing it’s just as playable in this mode. It’s a personal preference if you want to prioritise frame rate, but this is one of the few games where I’d choose resolution over smoothness.
As a final aside, I’m so glad I messed up a mission and had to replay the game again, as going into the second playthrough I knew more of the story, and picked up on things I hadn’t the first time through. It’s rare I’ll play a game through twice, let alone straight away – that I played Martha is Dead in its entirety back to back speaks volumes. I’m still not convinced I’ve fully interpreted the story correctly, but that’s what makes it so good, and I’m fully prepared to make a final playthrough to mop up the remaining achievements I may have missed.
My combined time for both playthroughs was around sixteen hours, including stopping to snap lots of pictures. If you run from objective to objective, though, a single playthrough could take as little as four or five hours. The achievement list was offline during my time with the game, but I gained 810/1000 gamerscore without having to go too far out of my way.
Martha is Dead is one of the shorter games I’ve played recently, but it’s the kind of game that stays with you far beyond when you put your controller down. Much like a great novel, the masterful storytelling is impactful on a deep level. It won’t be for everyone, though. The narrative is slowly paced, thoughtful and reflective, playing out as a psychological drama rather than a visceral thrill ride. It’s definitely one of the most memorable games I’ve played, however, and it can be favourably compared with the equally evocative “What Remains of Edith Finch”. Sit back, relax and immerse yourself in the narrative, because Martha is Dead is an outstanding game that’s as hard to put down as a great book.