Developed by Lka and published by Wired Productions, Martha is Dead is a much more interesting journey into terror than may first be hinted at by the coverage. Indie Horror has made a name for itself, and has managed to tell some of the more complex stories over the past decade, From Amnesia: The Dark Descent, to Layers of Fear and the new Blair Witch game, the indie horror game genre pushes the limits on what games can be. Even the latest Resident Evil games have taken notes from the experiences. Martha is Dead follows this trend, bringing a personal, troubled and deeply disturbing experience to consoles and PC. It is only sad that technical issues hold it back from really pushing the boundaries of the genre.
Martha Is Dead takes players back to the final months of World War II. Set in the Tuscany region of Italy in 1944, the game follows Giulia who is dealing with the trauma of her twin sister Martha’s death. With the world she knew slowly breaking down, and the tragedy of the death coinciding with the slow downfall of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, things only go downhill for young Giulia as she tries to sort through her feelings, struggles and guilt.
From the eyes of Giulia, Martha is Dead uses the first person camera perspective to thrust you into the mindset of the young woman. This gives a first-hand take on all the struggles of losing her twin sister, the demons and guilt from that, and the abuse and stress that comes with being a survivor. To complicate things, with Martha now dead, Giulia chooses to take over her life, adopting her identity and the love that comes with that life.
Martha is Dead, like many other games before, it makes you question what is real, pushing the limits on sanity and the physical world. Horror games have the power to make the players question everything they see, thrusting the impossible as real, slowly making the events and perspective as a narrative tool that can be altered to tell a more complex and interesting story. Martha is Dead blurs the concept of reality, and even what is happening to an extent, you will be questioning everything up to the very last scene.
“Martha is Dead, like many other games before, it makes you question what is real, pushing the limits on sanity and the physical world”
While the game does offer complex themes, story beats all set against a real world changing time in history, it also does have its fare share of violence, extreme horror moments, ghosts, and gore. Martha is Dead is a very mature story, that has resulted in the game being censored on PlayStation, and I can see why. The themes it tackles can be hard for some, and people that are struggling may have a hard time with many of the elements the game dives into. Even the question of the main character’s sanity and mental health could be hard to tackle, especially as the events come to a head near the end of the experience.
The psychological thriller elements of Martha is Dead do a great job at setting the tone for the experience, painting a dreamlike and constantly uneasy sense of dread to everything the game shows. Even scenes that are meant to be happy or joyful have a sense of wrongness, making it hard to push forward even as you near the end. I had to turn the game off in a few parts just to get a breather from the heavy segments that keep hammering home the brutal hopelessness the main character is struggling against.
There are plenty of mature scenes that horror fans have come to expect from the genre. This goes well beyond what you would find in Resident Evil, using the heavy moments to show how far this horror title will go. Even early on, you will find yourself cutting off your sister’s face in a dream, along with waking up to blood and seeing the dismembered body of your lover. I commend the developers for not shying away from the real world horrors seen by people at this point in history, but it can get intense, especially when considering this is all viewed from the eyes of a young girl.
Even the use of colour and setting are masterfully done. Set in Italy, the landscape is stunning, painting a picture of the wealth of this family, even as the town nearby is slowly burning due to the war waging around them. I love how red the darkroom is made, giving an almost Giallo feeling to the horror as you develop your film, slowly unravelling the mystery. The extremes between the light of the day and the haunting desolation of the night makes for a great contrast to how troubled things truly are compared to what they may seem on the surface.
While dismembered human bodies, and brutal violence are all part of the genre, I feel Martha is Dead goes above the typical tropes to try and deliver something more personal. But while I love the complexity and drive to deliver something new, the technical issues do hold the game back, making it feel like a buggy mess at times.
I am forgiving of a smaller studio, knowing that it can be hard to crush every problem up to release, but some of the problems I faced are well above this level of the norm. I frequently would find myself falling though the world, or simply taking a wrong turn to walk into a white void with no way to recover without a reload. Playing on an Xbox Series X, I should not feel like the game is hitting a wall at times, and these bugs just take the player out of an otherwise excellent experience.
Some of the games more tedious elements also took me out of the experience. I love the concept of using a camera as one of the core concepts of the game, and even love how that objective can lead to terror well beyond the typical jump scares seen in many horror titles, but the way Martha is Dead is implemented, it can feel frustrating at times, with it feeling like busy work rather than the important story beats it is meant to help build.
One of the more frustrating puzzles involving a telegraph system also felt very much like busy work, typing out each message, even translating the Morse code to English, to keep the scene moving forward. Other aspects, like the tarot cards, never feel fully fleshed out enough to make them integral to the overall experience. I loved the cards and the design they bring to the game, but I never really understood why they were there.
But even with these issues, the human story at the centre of the potential paranormal scares and odd objectives are what kept me pushing through the game. There are some moments in Martha is Dead that had me questioning choices, loyalty and even my own sense of right and wrong. The game manages to thrust you into the mindset of this young girl, and it made me care as she slowly begins to lose her grip on her sanity, her life and everything she holds dear.
“While not a perfect experience, Martha is Dead does enough to stand out from the crowd.”
I love that more game developers are making games for adult audiences that are more than just gore fests, giving attention to the human condition, struggles and trauma. Yes, Martha is Dead does have desecrated bodies, suffering, ghosts, and even violence, but it does it in a way that feels true to the subject.
While not a perfect experience, Martha is Dead does enough to stand out from the crowed to make it worth the time of horror and thriller fans. This is a game that dives into subjects I did not expect, and the more I played, the more I appreciated the attention to the story the developers were trying to tell. This is not a story for everyone, but if you feel you can step into the trauma- filled life of Giulia, you will find a narrative well worth exploring.