Martha Is Dead is a dark psychological thriller set in 1944 Italy that blurs the lines between reality, superstition and the tragedy of war. That’s the official description of the game and it does indeed match what I was able to experience, at least there was a lot of blurring. I was mainly expecting a horror experience and after the first hour that was certainly still true, but the atmosphere of the game and what was really happening with the main character and what was going on in her head, became more and more unclear chapter by chapter.
WARNING: This game, and consequently the review, contains some sensitive scenes that can be quite shocking.
Martha is Dead is set in Italy during World War II. You play Giulia, the daughter of a German soldier and at the start of the story you find your dead twin sister, Martha, in the lake near your parents’ home. How she died is not entirely clear and so Giulia goes to investigate. She chooses a rather absurd method for this because she pretends to be her deceased sister, who was also deaf and dumb, and thus exchanges roles.
This is also the first gruesome scene of the game, as this face-swapping is depicted quite vividly. There is a scene where Giulia removes her dead sister’s face, just like in Silence of The Lambs, and puts it on herself. Fortunately, this takes place in her imagination, but the lines between real and fantasy are often blurred in this game.
Her father is mainly busy with the war and with she doesn’t have a good relationship with her mother. Every parent had a favourite and thus she’ll have to solve everything herself. Or maybe not?
At the same time as this personal drama, there are also supernatural forces at work, for that same lake is home to a spirit that lures young girls to the water to take their lives. Giulia has had a great fascination with the ghost story since childhood and makes the rather strange decision to ask the spirit for help.
The game masquerades as a horror title. But those “creepy” scenes are all in the first hour: when I walked alone through the dark woods (at 1AM in the real world) and saw the ghost hiding behind a tree left and right, I must confess that I was sitting behind the screen with goosebumps.
The doubt whether everything you are experiencing is really happening, or if it’s all happening in Giulia’s head often reared its head. At the same time, this also removed any effect of fear because it isn’t clear if you’re ever in any real danger.
Just before the release of Martha is Dead, there was quite a bit of a fuss on social media. It turned out that the PlayStation version had to be censored at Sony’s request. You have to perform some pretty gruesome actions like peeling off your sister’s face and later you have to cut into her belly. So for the sensitive players, this can leave quite an impression.
On PC and Xbox you can play the uncensored version, but even there I was given the choice at the end of the game to censor an upcoming scene. Though I don’t always understand why that choice was present here and not in the examples above.
Authentic gameplay elements
What I found particularly charming about Martha is Dead are the authentic gameplay elements that really give you the feeling of living in 1944. These include small details like manually dialling a phone number, but also the recurring things like taking pictures and then having to develop them yourself in a dark room.
You will have to repeat these actions several times during the game, but there are always plenty of on-screen hints to guide you and tell you what to do. You will also find many extras for your camera in your parents’ house and some of these will be necessary to continue the story. No problem in itself, but finding crucial items is often a problem in this game.
Even more authentic, is a sidequest (it felt optional after all) that gets Giulia involved in the ongoing war. You can decide after finding a letter whether to help the Italian rebels and thus betray your father, or you can take his side and help set them up. Whichever option you choose, you will have to send and translate messages, in Morse code.
I have known the principle of Morse code for a long time, but this was the first time I had to effectively translate and send messages in a game. In terms of empathy, this certainly counts, although I had to sit close to my television screen and use my finger to follow the dashes and dots on the diagram. For something that was optional, this exchange of codes went on for quite a long time, spanning several in-game days.
As a final fun extra, a certain mission also required you to find a pack of Tarot cards, and you could even read your future every day. Nice touch, even if the choice was just an illusion.
Playing with puppets
Also crucial in telling the story, is a kind of puppetry that helps Giulia understand the past. This allows her to process difficult things better and protects her sanity. As a player, you have to perform all the actions yourself, but if you don’t do the exact sequence correctly, it quickly becomes frustrating to keep staging the same scenes.
Visually it’s extremely well-executed, especially with the mechanical speech bubbles that appear, but it still felt a bit awkward to move those puppets, select the right character or complete a specific action at the right location. Also, the puppet show was brought in at the strangest moments and I found it rather odd that it only started playing such an important role at the end.
Help, I’m lost!
Hints are often given in the pause screen as to what you should do next, but this can still create some confusion as it is not always clear which “mission” continues the story or which location on the map is important for which task.
The house has four floors and the surrounding area is fairly large, without too many invisible walls to stop you from tracking in the wrong direction. So if you walk the wrong way and realize it too late, you will have to walk all the way back. The optional bike you can unlock hardly helps here, as most of the time you’ll have to go over stairs or through forests.
Add to that the fact that it’s particularly dark in the evening or night scenes and I had to rely on my lighter more than once, just to look at my feet, follow the barely visible path for 5 meters and then have to consult my map again to see if it was 5 meters in the right direction. Pretty frustrating!
You can push R3 at any time, though, and it will display a small triangle above any object you can interact with. That helps, but is not sufficient to find your way in the dark. There was one part where I had to swim in the lake, and I spent at least 10 minutes there looking for the object that would get the story moving again.
That interaction button itself can also be frustrating at times, because if you click on a letter a second time, you’ll have to listen to Giulia’s entire narration again and there’s no option to skip it.
Bugs & issues
Martha is Dead gave me a heart attack several times, but it wasn’t because of the scary scenes. Up to three times, the game caused my Xbox Series X to crash. I checked with other reviewers who also played the game and they had the same problem. Hopefully, these problems will be fixed soon with a patch.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only problem I encountered. For example, I had to listen to a phone call a second time on another phone, just to make the ringing stop and then that phone started floating. There was also the occasional object that didn’t load correctly or I could just go walking along the bottom of the lake if I felt like it. Nothing too big of an issue (other than those crashes), but it did add up quickly.
Visuals & Audio
Graphically, it may not be the most beautiful game, but it is certainly believable. A lot of attention was paid to small visual details in the world that really make you feel like you’re in 1944. There are also scenes with beautiful lighting or supernatural splendour. I often felt the temptation to get out my old camera to take a picture, only to realize that this is not a real photo mode and the result would just be a black & white image.
The puppetry itself is also very cleverly rendered, and especially the image of the Grim Reaper sharpening his scythe while the sisters try to trick him is one that has stuck with me.
In terms of audio, the game was also quite pleasing, although I must confess that the English voice-acting made me quickly switch the default setting back to Italian with great disgust. Do me a favour if you play this game, and keep those Italian settings. It helps with immersion, and the performance is also much more believable.
The background music is always appropriately chosen for the scenes, and even though I’m not one for classical music or opera singing, it still provided a goosebump moment here and there.
How long to beat & complete?
Martha is Dead is not a long game, but it can feel that way because of the heavy topics it touches on. Basically, you can finish the main story in about 4 hours, but if you also take the time to explore the surroundings and do some optional tasks, you’re more likely to spend 6 hours with it.
Most achievements are also unlocked simply by playing through the story, but there are some that will take you a bit longer. For 100% completion, I guess you will need 7-8 hours, especially because you can load previous chapters and won’t have to go through the whole game again if you overlooked something.
Martha is Dead was a tough title to review. The game does a lot of things really well and feels extremely authentic, and it also makes good use of the next-gen hardware to conjure up beautiful visuals on the screen. But at the same time, there are plenty of bugs that pull you out of the immersion and make you realize, once again, that you are playing a game.
The story is certainly intriguing, but at times I felt as if the developers themselves didn’t quite know what direction they wanted to make, and opted to leave the choice entirely to the player. Sometimes I even doubted my own mental health myself and wondered if I had remembered scenes correctly.