Martha is Dead Review
Martha is Dead is a first-person horror game from Wired Productions and developer RKA, and the subject of some controversy lately due to Sony censoring a key scene because of its depiction of brutality. Despite this, the game holds an interesting premise, and I’ve been interested in this title because it’s quite similar to the feel of The Medium with a dash of atmospheric mystery to the tune of What Remains of Edith Finch.
Martha is Dead tells the grim tale of Giulia, a youth during the end of World War II in Italy where she discovers the dead body of her twin sister Martha. Through supernatural elements and her own powers of deduction, Giulia believes that Martha has been murdered and spends her days solving the mystery. What follows is a deep dive into her deteriorating subconscious and the interference of her family.
Will Martha is Dead deliver that groundbreaking horror fans have been hoping for since P.T. or at the very least, Amnesia?
It’s all in your head
Martha is Dead succeeds the most in being an atmospheric horror game. Developers RKA has released a similar game previously, In The Rays of Light, that highlights this. The setting of idyllic Tuscany elicits two distinct feelings – the unassuming warmth that disarms the audience in its relaxing nature contrasting with its claustrophobic mist and darkness, and the feeling of being isolated and imprisoned whether in your own mind or the dire situation at hand.
What the atmospheric nature of the game evokes is an intriguing setup and the broadening of the mystery at hand. The first few hours of the game really make you question the whole affair, whether there’s something more sinister going on or is it all just happening in Giulia’s mind. A plethora of supernatural imagery, the horrors of war, and just the suffocating nature of being locked down in one location is the main motivational factor to the mostly meditative pace of this piece.
The voice acting also adds to the overall feel of the game and I strongly suggest playing the original Italian dialogue for the duration of Martha is Dead because it sets up the emotional and mental state of Giulia, bringing the game to life by being an effective unreliable narrator. The mood also gives Martha Is Dead that giallo murder mystery feel seen in Italian classics such as Deep Red and Bay of Blood.
However, when the actual visceral shock of its horror takes place, it somehow falls flat considering how the atmosphere of Martha Is Dead was building up to it. Even the controversial scene that pushed Sony to censor the game without context is mainly a cheap scene meant for shock value. If you really knew what the context behind that scene really was, thematically, it makes sense but it really doesn’t bring forth that level of shocking horror that was expected of it.
A sluggish walking simulator
Titles such as What Remains of Edith Finch and to a degree, Gone Home, succeed because of their mostly linear nature. The mystery broadens the deeper you go into the house, where the puzzle-like nature of the game unravels deep family secrets the narrator wants to hide from the audience. Martha is Dead could’ve used the same linear format but we get a sandbox walking simulator that has its pros and cons.
At least in the first few hours of Martha Is Dead, the sandbox worked to create and magnify the atmosphere I’ve spoken about, but as the mystery broadens, it reaches a point where it becomes cumbersome and repetitive. Distances between the main house and various landmarks around the villa vary, so it doesn’t help that the walking speed of Giulia is mostly sluggish.
There are other modes of transportation in Martha Is Dead such as the bike and the motorboat, but they are nigh-uncontrollable that I actually prefer walking even if it isn’t the best option. Both in its patched and Day 0 versions, there are various glitches and bugs that make traversal an unpleasant experience.
One thing that could have been improved in Martha is Dead are the objectives of the game, giving you activities and some semblance of quests. The game actually stops you from completing a quest because it actually stops progression altogether if done in the wrong sequence, which seems counterproductive.
What this does is to further confuse the player as the objectives menu doesn’t really organize it well enough to remind you where to go next. I had to use the Log feature to backtrack on previous story beats to figure out where to go next grinding momentum to a halt.
Making the most of 1944 Tuscany
The whole experience can range from 4-6 hours depending on how much you’d like to explore and make the most of your stay in 1944 Tuscany.
Mini-games abound, starting with taking photos and developing them. You’ll collect different filters, camera skins and gadgets through your journey and experimenting with them is something that kept me interested throughout the duration of the game. There’s also this side quest where you’d have to learn some basic Morse code to complete, which was a weird concept but fun in itself.
There are also side quests that you can only activate at specific moments, but the fact that the concept of time in the sandbox is a suggestion at best, it could’ve worked better if it was a linear experience to really push both the escalating horror and mystery promised in the first few hours.
It’s a shame because there is an glaring imbalance of activities and mystery elements that worked versus the elements and creative choices that didn’t. For every mechanic that I enjoyed, another detriment would present itself and overall, it makes the experience frustrating more than anything.
What We Liked:
- Atmospheric setting that evokes mystery and horror.
- Idyllic Tuscan setting can be a relaxing walking simulator or a stressful isolated prison.
- Italian voice dub adds to the atmosphere and drama.
- Mini-games add to the enjoyment.
What We Didn’t Like:
- Sluggish movement by foot and vehicle controls are atrocious.
- Could’ve benefited from linear storytelling rather than a confusing sandbox.
- Horror elements are actually weak and either relies on jump scares and shock factor.
- Overall performance is still sub-par with glitches and bugs.
Verdict: Wait For It
Controversy and shock value aside, Martha is Dead is stronger in its set up rather than the pay off. It starts off intimidating, with the audience drawn to its unassuming idyllic setting concealing a harrowing mystery within. However, as we progress through the story, it devolves into an obtuse walking simulator that distracts us with mini-games and shock value to convey a more meandering personal story.
Like The Medium before it, Martha is Dead oversells a psychological drama as intense horror. Its horrors are more cerebral and mundane in nature contrasting its promised visceral and nightmarish imagery that prompted the controversial censoring. At its core is a charming mystery that could still grab audiences of more discerning tastes, but mainstream horror fans could be left disappointed with its meditative pace.
*Martha is Dead was reviewed on an Xbox Series X with a review code from the publisher.