Game Review: Martha Is Dead

The walking sim/ horror, a genre of game that I often find to be very hit and miss. In terms of game mechanics, there is usually little to do other than walk around a lot, occasionally interact with an item and watch very predictable jump scares. They are also everywhere these days and rarely offer anything new. Martha is Dead, from developer LKA Games and publisher Wired Productions, is another walking sim/horror title. But does it give the player anything new?

Martha Is Dead is a dark first-person psychological thriller, set in 1944 Italy, that blurs the lines between reality, superstition and the tragedy of war.

As conflict intensifies between German and Allied forces, the desecrated body of a woman is found drowned… Martha!

Martha is dead, and her twin sister Giulia, the young daughter of a German soldier, must alone deal with the acute trauma of loss and the fallout from her murder. The hunt for the truth is shrouded by mysterious folklore and the extreme horror of war that draws ever closer.”

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Whenever a game opens up with a warning screen, I often roll my eyes because the warning rarely fits the content of the game and seems more like a lazy attempt at adding hype. Martha is Dead has such a screen (see above) due to its depictions of certain themes. You even have to pass an age check just to get to the Steam page. So this has to be pretty disturbing, right? Very possibly…

See, the ugly head of censorship has been reared as the PlayStation version of the game has been cut. ‘Censored’ is how this is being labelled but I guess it depends on just how you look at it. I’m not 100% sure what has been cut from the PS version of the game as both developer and publisher are staying diplomatically tight-lipped. However, I believe that in terms of visuals, blood and gore, etc, the PS version has everything intact. What has changed is that certain scenes in Martha is Dead are interactive and it is that interactivity that has been removed. So what are interactive scenes in the other versions of the game are just cutscenes in the PS version.

Don’t quote me on that though because, as I say, it has not been officially revealed how and why the PS version is different (I personally feel that Sony should be the ones to make a statement on exactly what has been changed as they are the ones who ordered the changes). I’ll leave it up to you just how much this ‘censorship’ affects your decision on buying the game. For me, I am against censorship of any kind.

For this review, I played the full-fat Xbox version, so I got to experience Martha is Dead how the devs intended. It is an adult game and is rated accordingly for adults to play. I believe that adults should be allowed to choose if and how they enjoy their entertainment themselves. I don’t agree with what Sony has forced on the developers for this game. I just wanted to get this bit of the review out of the way first so you, the reader, could decide for yourselves which version of the game to get… if it is worth getting at all that is. Speaking of which, on with the review.

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So, what is Martha is Dead all about? As I’m not going to do spoilers here (I’m even avoiding picture spoilers), I can’t really get into the story with any real detail. Set in 1944, Italy and during World War II. You play as Giulia, the identical twin sister of the titular Martha. Anyway, Martha is Dead (cue title) as the game starts, she drowned in the lake near your home where you live with your parents. Playing as Giulia, you explore your home and its surrounding area to discover just how and why Martha is Dead. There’s a lot of walking, a lot of interacting with items and all the usual gubbins you get with this genre. Right off the bat, if the walking sim/horror game is not your cup of tea, I’m not sure if Martha is Dead is going change your mind… but perhaps it could.

Aside from all the walking and stuff, Martha is Dead does throw a bit of variation along the way. You’ll be sending and receiving messages via Morse Code, using Tarot cards to read your fortune. There’s also a photography mechanic where you use an old 1940s camera. Unlike these new-fangled digital cameras that the kids use these days, the old-timey camera is a bit more intriguing to use. There are different filters that you can apply… literal filters too that fit over the lense. Different films produce different effects and suit various weather conditions and more. Then, you have to develop the photos by hand in a darkroom too. You’ll need to line up the image with the photo paper, ensure everything is in focus. You then ‘burn’ the image onto the paper, which you then need to pass through developing fluid for the photo to emerge. This is all done via an extended mini-game and while the photo developing process has been simplified over real-life, it’s still very interesting and exciting to see your photo appear before your eyes.

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The photography mechanic is used in two ways too. You can just go around and take photos of anything you like. Use the various filters and other additions to take some really great pictures. Then there are specific story progression photos, one’s that you have to take as the story plays out. I honestly really enjoyed this element of Martha is Dead and it helped to break up the huge amount of walking around that the game has. You can even find new cosmetic skins for your camera if you wanted to change up its look.

In terms of the horror here, depending on what gets under your skin, you’re going to find that this is where the game really will split opinions I feel. For me, I’ve become desensitised to pretty much anything the horror genre throws at me, film or games. I think I have seen pretty much any and everything the genre has to offer and it just does not affect me anymore. I mean, I think that A Serbian Film is a really good comedy, I’m not joking either. When it does come to the horror elements of Martha is Dead, and if we are talking about sheer blood and gore, then there really is very little here. I think I need to clarify this. There are only two or three scenes of genuine gore here and while they may be few, they really are graphic. Let me put it this way, if Lars Von Trier were to make games, he would probably make something like Martha is Dead.

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The scenes in question (that I’m not going to spoil) managed to make me wince… me, the guy that thinks A Serbian Film is a really good comedy. As I said, I really am desensitised to horror but this game had an effect on me that I can’t seem to explain. I don’t know what it did or how, I just know it did something and made me feel uneasy over what I had witnessed. You know the eye scene in Dead Space 2? Well, that is nothing compared to Martha is Dead. I think it is this element that Sony had an issue with and why they changed these interactive scenes into non-interactive ones because carrying out certain acts in the game did feel different compared to if I had just watched them. While I don’t agree with Sony’s decision, I do kind of understand it, now that I have played the game for myself and experienced those scenes in the context they were meant to be experienced. I’m waiting for 100% confirmation on just what Sony has ordered to be changed, I may have more to say on this matter in another article in the near future.

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Anyway, while the bloody gore of Martha is Dead is infrequent, it is deeply effective and detailed. But really, that’s about it. The majority of the game is far less intense and focuses more on the narrative of Giulia trying to get to the bottom of how and why her twin sister is dead. The game plays more like a family drama than a horror title. In this regard, Martha is Dead is pretty damn great. The story and how it is told offers quite a lot of uniqueness, including the telling of some huge chunks of backstory via the use of an interactive puppet show. This bit even has its own level of disturbing horror, just not blood and gore, more cerebral and psychological.

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Of course, another staple of the horror game is the dreaded jump scare. I really am not a fan at all, I think jump scares are a lazy and predictable way to force a reaction from the player. A game filled with jump scares just proves to me that the team behind the title were not confident in the narrative. As I sit here writing this review, I can only think of one jump scare in Martha is Dead. I’m not going to say if it was a good one or even if it worked. All I will say is that the lack of jump scares is a big bonus in my book and only helps to strengthen the story and how it is told.

I have played a lot of these walking sim/horror titles and I never feel that they stand out in any meaningful way, they all seem to merge into each other. But Martha is Dead is different, it may be not wholly unique but it is definitely different. The narrative is excellent and the infrequent use of bloody horror is seriously disturbing. Oh, and before I move on, the game comes with a good variety of language settings. I suggest sticking with the default Italian spoken language and using English subtitles, unless you can speak Italian. The English voice acting is great but sticking with Italian adds a real layer of authenticity to the narrative. It certainly helped to immerse me into the game.

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Graphically, Martha is Dead is really impressive when setting a tone and atmosphere for the story. The lake in the game looks both stunningly beautiful and seriously foreboding, dripping in dread at the same time as looking gorgeous. Then there are areas which are bathed in glorious sun that look like something from a holiday postcard of the Italian countryside. There’s a wonderful juxtaposition between the stark dark and bleakness of the game, several of its locales and scenes, to the sheer prepossessing and enchanting sunkissed depictions of 1944 rural Italy. There’s some excellent use of musical cues too, especially during the aforementioned interactive horrific scenes. Music that really helped to hammer home the grotesque nature of exactly what you are doing.

I just need to do some very, very, very light spoilers here. I’m going to mention the ending but not go into details of what happens. So, this bit is safe to read as I’m not going to spoil the ending, I just wanted you to know that I am going to mention something regarding the ending though. Feel free to skip this paragraph if you want. So anyway, at the end of the game you are asked a series of questions and have to answer them via multiple choice. The thing is that it doesn’t seem to matter what you pick, the ending is always the same. This would be a bit of a cop-out in other games and I would normally be chastising the point of having the answer multiple-choice questions if it doesn’t affect the end in any way. However, I think the idea is that the multiple-choice questions and how you answer them are actually supposed to reflect on you the player and not the game. I think how you respond to those questions says a lot about how you felt about and perceived certain elements of the story. If this was the intent, then Martha is Dead could have one of the most clever and most cerebral endings I have experienced in recent years.

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Around £25 is how much you are going to have to pay for Martha is Dead, which is about normal for this genre and my playtime came in at a little over five hours, though I did play through the game twice as I enjoyed it so much. The second time I took a bit longer as I wanted to explore the game more. I really am not much of a fan of this genre and yet, this title has impacted me like no other titles in this genre ever has. The story is truly fantastic, it is told really damn well tool with a level of gravitas that plays on your mind, even after the credits have rolled. The use of blood and gore is infrequent but massively effective. The real horror of the game comes from much more subtle elements and some wonderfully nuanced storytelling.

This could be one of the best horror games I have played in a long time. Martha is Dead is worth taking a look at and if you are a big horror game fan, this will probably be the best you’ll play this year. If you’re not into the genre (like me), it still could surprise you with how great it is.

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For me, I’d suggest getting the Xbox or PC version though as they are the purest versions of the game. Left untouched for you to experience just how the developer wanted. The PlayStation version has been changed, to what extent, I’m not 100% sure yet. But it is quite clear that the team at LKA Games didn’t want their game to be altered, otherwise, all the versions would be the same wouldn’t they?

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