From the Italian game studio LKA comes their second first-person psychological thriller set in mid-20th century Italy, Martha is Dead. Martha is Dead builds on both the graphical fidelity of their previous game, The Town of Light, as well as the gameplay, seeking to create a more dynamic, engaging experience that explores new themes and gameplay mechanics, though it at times feels a little lost in all of its new ideas.
The game opens with a young Italian woman named Guilia, the daughter of a high-ranking German official in Italy during World War II. While trying to set up a camera to take pictures of a lake near her house, she sees a woman’s corpse floating in the lake. She rushes to help the woman, only to discover that it is her twin sister, Martha, who, as the title suggests, has died. Guilia’s parents quickly come to the lake as well, and mistake Martha’s corpse for Guilia and Guilia for Martha, incorrectly assuming that Guilia has died. Instead of correcting them, Guilia assumes Martha’s identity and the player plays through the game as Guilia pretending to be Martha.
Throughout the game, Guilia tries to solve the mystery of Martha’s death, using her photography, but also more mystical and spiritual means, such as tarot readings and interacting with spirits. While all this happens, Martha seems to haunt Guilia, as Guilia’s nightmares seem to blend into reality, and the player must play through both the real-world detective work as well as the surreal, body-horror-ridden nightmares that mar Guilia’s life after her twin’s death.
As you might expect from my description or the countless warnings that you’ll find on both the game’s store pages as well as within the game itself, Martha is Dead contains some pretty intense, gorry, and simply unsettling imagery. Much of it simply involves corpses, blood, but there are some scenes where the game really pushes acceptable boundaries. While these scenes clearly explore the guilt that Guilia feels for taking on Martha’s identity, as well as her fear that grows as the game progresses, they often don’t feel fully deserved. Much of the time the scenes seem more as though they’re checking off boxes on a list of “psychological horror” elements instead of actually meaningfully adding to the game’s ambiance and theming. I should also note that it appears some of these scenes have actually been censored on the PlayStation release of the game. I played the game on PC so I can’t speak to the PlayStation experience, but you should be aware that the game will be slightly different if you play it on PlayStation.
While the body horror might not feel deserved, I can’t say that it doesn’t look good. In fact, arguably the primary selling point of Martha is Dead might be its graphics. The game, made in the Unreal Engine, simply does look fantastic. Most of the game takes place in Guilia’s family’s house and the woods and farm that surround it, and every element of this environment looks absolutely incredible. From the lighting, textures, foliage, miscellaneous objects, it’s all top-tier and does really comprise the majority of the game’s appeal. If it didn’t look this good it would be much harder to get through.
Unfortunately, the game does have some pretty major performance issues. I didn’t run into many actual glitches in the game, but the entire game runs disappointingly poorly. Suffice it to say, I have a pretty hefty gaming rig and even I could rarely run this game at an acceptable framerate. More than the actual steady framerate though, whenever the game needs to load in a new part of the game, especially when you’re moving quickly, the game completely comes to a halt, and the framerate can dip into the single digits or even completely freeze for a couple of seconds. For as good as the graphics are, the performance somewhat sours the experience, as you can’t help but feel that the graphics are holding down the actual gameplay.
Oops. If you haven’t noticed, we’re about 700 words into this review and I still haven’t mentioned the gameplay. See, the gameplay of Martha is Dead is, well, strange. The game is, at its core, a walking sim, which isn’t a bad thing. I actually quite like walking sims, but the game really wants you to think it’s something other than a walking sim. The game has a quest log and an open world, presumably to implement more adventure game mechanics, but these do nothing to make the game less linear and they feel more like a formality than actual mechanics.
The game also has things like a photography mechanic where you actually take a picture, adjusting the exposure and focus, and then develop the film in a darkroom, and a telegraph mechanic, where you have to send and receive telegram messages. These mechanics though, while neat on the surface, do nothing beyond taking up space and time. It’s essentially impossible to actually mess these up, and instead, they just elongate the game, forcing you to do more running back and forth or spend twenty minutes deciphering telegram messages when the game could just as easily tell you the message. The game also has a bicycle and a boat you can ride, but the physics on these are so bad that they’re really more comical than anything else.
The gameplay in Martha is Dead feels more like a collection of half-baked prototypes that could be used to make an interesting game. In general, Martha is Dead is a game that wants to be a movie. Or maybe even the other way around. Either way, the game clearly concerns itself with its appearance and writing above all else, and with the gorgeous graphics and fantastic Italian voice acting, those elements do work well. But as I mentioned before, the plot itself (along with the horror elements) feels more like a checklist of what a horror story should be, not a story with an actual purpose or vision. Pair that with a collection of iffy-at-best gameplay mechanics and Martha is Dead is a game that is by no means bad, but just hard to recommend. I didn’t dislike the game, and quite honestly the game gets pretty engaging in the latter part, but I felt so unimpressed by the game’s complete package. If you really like the walking sim and horror genres, you may find some enjoyment in this game, but I really can’t recommend it to many other people.
Score: 6 out of 10
Reviewed on PC