Okay, so before I get into the nitty gritty of this review for Martha Is Dead, allow me to give you some disclaimers and reasons as a veteran horror gamer who has more adrenaline pumping through his body than any other chemical on why you shouldn’t play this game.
Firstly, this is an incredibly slow-burn experience of a game. And it’s going to command you to be fully immersed in the world of Martha Is Dead in order to comprehend some of the recurring themes in the plot. If you’re going to pick up this game and hope for a jump scare happening every 12 seconds to keep your heart hammering, then you should probably look at another horror game or maybe an Amnesia: A Dark Descent custom story to fulfill that experience for you.
The second reason, obviously, is the graphic and controversial imagery, content, and raw description of events that the game takes place in. Gore really isn’t a new thing in horror games, but it’s presented in a way where it’s raw, uncut, and legitimately gruesome that had an editor who was watching over me turn away in disgust to puke. There are some sections, especially towards the end, where the game straight up tells you that this particular section is brutal and gives you the choice to skip it.
This game covers incredibly sensitive and deep topics that reflect on the mental health and wellbeing of people today. And if you ever need any help, please approach your loved ones and friends to talk about it or reach out to other resources to help you through the worst of times.
And without further ado, let me usher you, young grasshopper, to the review of Martha Is Dead!
In a horror game, there are two main ways that the developer can approach to make the experience a scary, if not memorable one to the player.
On one hand, you can have an entity that is an active threat to the player and tirelessly pursue after them with an insatiable bloodlust and everlasting intent to kill. And there is an abundance of game releases throughout the years of gaming that execute this concept flawlessly, with some fabled names such as Outlast, Dead Space, The Evil Within, Darkwood, and even the time-honored Amnesia series of games.
And on the other hand, you have a branching category of horror games where instead of having a big bad monster chasing you down the hallways, the entity is one that you can easily defeat. However, it always comes back and continues to haunt you for as long as you live. Or in other words, psychological horror that really gets into your head and messes you up mentally. Silent Hill is the best-known example of doing this damn near perfectly, and so does Detention, Alan Wake, F.E.A.R., Visage, and hell, even Doki Doki Literature Club somehow manages to make me feel mildly uncomfortable at times.
But never has there been a horror game that has been assigned to me after the end of Season 1 of the NYX Game Awards did my editor forwarded me a PC copy of Martha Is Dead, and some parts being so darn disturbing that I needed to actually stand up and take a breather from what I have just witnessed.
And you know what? Martha Is Dead is a horror game that successfully did its job and making those who play it feel extremely uncomfortable. So much so that the people over at Sony demanded that Martha Is Dead should be censored. If a horror game does not make you react negatively to it, then what’s the point of feeling scared and having a good time? And I love the folks over at Wired Productions and LKA for sticking it to them and doubled down, from one horror game connoisseur to another!
The story opens up with the bedroom of a young girl, with the camera panning over the usual items that you may see in a typical child’s room. Books, drawings, and toys strewn across the floor and other childish decorations covering all facets of the room.
We hear two voices speaking, one is Giulia as a young girl, and the other the nanny who is her caretaker. The both of them talk and the nanny lulls her to sleep with an old wives’ tale that you can also read along and move your characters head to observe other details. The nanny reads her the tale of The White Lady, a legend of an adulterous lady who was murdered by her soulmate in cold blood and her body was never found again. At certain parts of the story, you can interject with Giulia’s childlike innocence and questions to unlock some new dialogue during the story time session before your nanny ushers you to go to sleep.
Fast forward years later in the year of 1944, mere moments before the end of the bloodiest global conflict in history, World War II, we see Giulia all grown up and pursuing her hobby of playing around with her camera to get some pictures of the lake near her family estate. With some hope of actually trying to catch the mythical The White Lady.
But just as Giulia looks through the lens of her camera, she discovers a drowned corpse within the horizon of the lake and quickly rushes down the hillside and jumped into the waters to save them. Only to discover that the drowned body is Martha, her twin sister, and dragged her to shore to find out that she is wearing her clothes.
Soon after, Irene, their mother rushes down to check out the aftermath of the incident and immediately asks Giulia is she is okay, mistaking her for Martha instead. And in the heat of the moment, Giulia pretends to be Martha and starts to adopt her mannerisms, habits, and daily lifestyle to sell the idea that Giulia is dead instead of Martha. All the while she has to dig deeper and find out the true reason why Martha died.
Further down the plot, you also encounter a skirmish between the Italian resistance militia and German Nazi soldiers in the forest on Martha’s family estate and getting severely injured in the middle of the crossfire. Shortly after that tragic event of losing her partner, she is told to contact a member of the resistance as instructed by her boyfriend in his dying note and is recruited to assist the resistance to fight back the Axis forces. And it is from here where you choose to help the resistance to sabotage and provide information and resources to bolster their fighting force and prowess, or relay this information to your father who is the commander of the Nazi army, but who also abhors the war.
Throughout the entire game as you go through the sub-plots and side stories, you start to see themes that are highly sensitive and not brought up in most forms of media in unflinching detail today. Such as the abuse of animal and children and the devastating tolls that the mental health of the individual that is too much to bear, to even more messed up moments such as pregnancy, abortion, miscarriage, and general self-harm.
Of course, the game makes it known to you that you can always disable these scenes and play the censored version instead. And I highly recommend that you may want to turn this option on in the settings menu if you are easily triggered by the imagery or topics I mentioned above, the content warning at the very beginning is not a suggestion at all and is an actual warning.
I’ll lead this part of the article with this: The visuals of Martha Is Dead is drop-dead gorgeous, and it definitely helped augmented the more disturbing moments of the game and make them even more horrifying they should have been.
Everything looks extremely photorealistic with amazing attention to detail to the environment and objects that you interact and observe, even down the tiniest assets like maps, newspapers, paintings and family pictures and portraits that the developers and graphic designers took the time and effort to draw and going as far as to match the style similar to that time period.
Lighting effects during the daytime sections of the game look absolutely gorgeous that encapsulates the true beauty of the Italian countryside and gives off a vibe of warmth and comfort, which makes it perfect for you to stop what you are doing and just take in the environment and even whip your camera out for a quick photo op.
At night time, however, that changes completely. Even with the lack of raytracing, the dark sections in the game are actually pretty damn dark and all of the sudden, the household that you are so used to being safe in suddenly becomes claustrophobic and feeling as if the walls can close in on you any minutes while you use your lighter to navigate around.
Other sources of illumination such as lamps and candles also do a solid job at dispersing light rays to light up an entire room as accurately as best they can despite having no raytracing. Some of my favorite areas where the lighting is done absolutely perfectly would have to be in the family crypt where Martha’s body is being kept and the entire room being lit up by numerous candles and the dark room where you develop your photographs with your only source of light are the red bulbs that are crucial to the process of developing your photos. Making the room feel as if the primary colors that are used are only red and black.
“Oh boy, it’s another one of those games, isn’t it?” I laughed to myself as soon I read the disclaimer when after I launched the game from my PC. After all, I’ve played enough horror games that try way too hard to be shock me with gore just for the sake of shock factor.
Boy was I wrong.
LKA definitely did not shy away from showing the best and (equally-good) worst parts of the game at its rawest and most detailed directly in front of your face. Being on PC with the graphics set at its absolute max, Martha Is Dead basically strong-armed me into carrying out these gory actions towards the very end and making my face flinch and contort in several different ways in disgust. These actions are multiplied ten-fold thanks to the slow-build nature of the game, and LKA has done a fantastic job in building tension from beginning to end.
And if the horrendous scenes weren’t bad enough for me, it got worst. As soon as I entered the final part of the game, I was greeted by yet another content trigger warning telling me that there are more disturbing and graphic content coming up and if I wanted to view the censored version instead. However, being knee-deep in this 4-hour horror ride, I stupidly clicked ‘No’ and got bombarded by an incredibly uncomfortable and detailed narration of Giulia’s time in the mental asylum. All the while vividly detailing her state of depression and self-harm to her body, which really made me think just how much better we have it today when it comes to dealing with matters relating to our own mental health whereas Giulia was just tossed into the loony bin without a second thought.
Clear depictions of depression and self-harm aside, the plot is one that is well done and also incredibly rooted in reality with the events of World War II being used as the backdrop and setting for Martha Is Dead. As I have mentioned in the very beginning of this review, Martha Is Dead is an incredibly slow-burn game that essentially encourages to inspect every minor element around your surroundings to truly appreciate the darker subjects deep within.
Every now and then, you’ll come across some interesting side quests that expands your playtime and put aside the main story mission to pursue other minor branching story plots. One such side quest involves you taking over the duties of your deceased partner to support and perform actions for the Italian resistance to fight against Nazi forces by sabotaging their communications and providing them weapons via liaising with them through your father’s telegraph device to send messages and decoding their messages.
Another aspect of what you can do to extend your play time even more is through taking pictures. Very early on, you unlock an arsenal of different camera lenses, tripod, and camera flash with each component having its own use case in different scenarios and teaches you how to operate vintage devices like these and how the process of developing pictures work. It even goes down to the finest details like adjusting the settings on your camera like exposure, aperture, and focus. Furthermore, you will also encounter some highlighted areas of interest that unlocks some additional dialogue and other pieces of the plot.
Throughout the game, you also get to perform one divination per day with your tarot cards. You shuffle the cards and pick 3 cards at random and get a vague glimpse into the future that spell your fate. Whether you want to fulfill that vision is entirely up to you towards the end of the game. Each and every card has its own unique line of dialogue spoken by Giulia, which also adds to the replayability factor to get to know what each card means.
Nearing the end of the game, you are put through a puppet theater as a means for Giulia to discover the true events that led up to the death of Martha as well as the abuse that Giulia has suffered as a child directed from her mother. You are required to select the appropriate pieces of dialogue and actions to proceed to the next scene, but you can also select other pieces dialogue and actions to create your own scenario.
Alright, with all that said and done. Do I recommend Martha Is Dead?
Unfortunately, as much as I thoroughly enjoyed my 5-hour cinema-esque experience that I have ever seen in a horror, I would have to give this one a hard ‘No’.
Once again, as I have stated in the disclaimers earlier, this game covers some seriously heavy topics told in great detail by Giulia that is bound to make anyone incredibly uncomfortable. Not to mention some of the most gruesome sections that the game has to essentially strong-arm you into carrying out to its entirety. However, if you are on PlayStation, you are excluded from performing these actions as well as having one of them being censored.
However, if you have nerves of titanium like me and are confident enough to play through the entire game and still remain sane at the end of it, then ‘Yes’: Martha Is Dead is one hell of a haunting experience that will suck you in with an engaging story that will keep you moving forward to discover the true events of the Martha’s death.
LKA and Wired Productions truly did something special here in the horror games genre and carried on the legacy of their previous horror titles, and further beyond than What Remains of Edith Finch and The Town of Light are capable of. Coupled together with amazing Italian voice acting, great soundtrack and other pieces of sound design, Martha Is Dead is one psychological and atmospheric horror game that you should experience. If you dare, of course!