Martha Is Dead is exceedingly difficult to review because it gets so much right, up until the moment it doesn’t.
Everything about this psychological thriller from The Town of Light developer LKA is deeply challenging. To clarify, that’s not meant in the sense of its literal difficulty curve (as far as I can tell there is no fail state here and it’s impossible to die) but rather in terms of its uncomfortable themes, its lack of narrative spoon-feeding and the way that its story ends with such ballsy ambiguity that it almost feels like the whole thing was just an elaborate practical joke. Regardless of if you like those qualities, you have to at the very least respect them.
In the official press notes, writer-director Luca Dalco states that he wanted to deliberately court controversy with his game and provoke a range of extreme reactions (a la Lars von Trier). He says: “The only feedback I hope to never see is indifference. ‘Martha Is Dead? Just another game’ would hurt me so much! I like strong feelings.”
Well, if the best way of judging art is to evaluate whether it achieves what it sets out to, then you can only interpret Martha Is Dead as a rousing success. After all, this is not a title that is likely to elicit too many “meh” responses from players. In fact, I found myself flipping between loving and hating it, often in the space of a single loading screen.
Before we get into any specifics, it’s worth establishing what kind of game this is because you really do need to go in with the appropriate expectations. While it would be reductive to brand it as a “walking simulator”, that’s probably the most efficient way of describing what’s in store.
Granted, it is a more interactive example of that genre, with optional side-quests, elaborate puzzles, a surprisingly involved photography mechanic, and even a couple of chase sequences where you are (ostensibly) in danger. If you think of something like the original Layers of Fear or maybe Amnesia: Rebirth, then you’re in the right ballpark.
As for the narrative, it’s a mystery thriller with a hint of psychological horror. Dalco (who is not a particularly avid gamer) has mentioned a lot of cinematic touchstones when speaking about his inspirations for Martha Is Dead. Namely, he has pointed to the likes of Goodnight Mommy, The Witch and Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs, all of which have had a tangible influence on the game’s disturbing tone and brutal imagery. With that said, if you liked any of those movies, then there’s a good chance you’ll be on board with this as well.
Set on the rural outskirts of a Tuscan village (circa 1944), the game revolves around the adolescent Giulia. As the daughter of a high-ranking official in the occupying German army, she appears to be incredibly privileged to any outsiders looking in. Her family wants neither for food nor resources, they are treated with the utmost respect, and they reside within a gorgeous house in the middle of a picturesque vineyard.
Yet things aren’t quite as peachy as they first appear. For a start, Giulia has a very prickly relationship with her domineering mother (who seemingly blames her for any and all of life’s misfortunes). She also has conflicting allegiances when it comes to the war, given that her father serves the Axis powers while her best friend is a prominent figure in the underground resistance.
Then there’s her twin sister Martha, from whose shadow Giulia has never managed to escape. Since birth, Martha has always been the more popular sibling and there is an undercurrent of jealousy there, even if it is mostly beneath the surface.
It is this pent-up envy that prompts Giulia to adopt Martha’s identity after discovering her lifeless body floating in a nearby lake one morning. She then has to maintain this ruse in her interactions with everybody at all times — an undertaking which includes pretending to be deaf as well — while she sneaks around the region to get to the bottom of exactly how her sister died.
During this investigation, she must continually allay her mother’s suspicions, navigate the everyday perils of WW2, and investigate a local urban legend about the White Lady (a revenant that supposedly dwells in the nearby woods). Not to mention, Giulia is also plagued by vivid nightmares that become increasingly hard to distinguish from reality, as her mental state gradually deteriorates due to all these mounting stresses.
Throughout the game, you will constantly be doubting everything that you see, and information is often recontextualized as you learn more about what’s going on. That’s because Giulia is a textbook case of an unreliable narrator. Her version of events is highly inconsistent and riddled with gaps. For instance, vital plot points are regularly summarised through voice-over, in what could feasibly be a cost-saving tactic from the developers or a genuine artistic choice.
Truthfully, it can all get a little frustrating at times, as you feel like you’re a couple of steps behind not only Dalco but your own avatar too. You’re not always sure who key figures in the story are or how they interrelate, and towards the climax it starts throwing in twist reveals so frequently that they often contradict each other within minutes.
Of course, this is sort of the point. You’re meant to be in Giulia’s frazzled mindset, with no clear grasp on what’s real and what’s simply in your head. If that sounds like something you’ll enjoy, then Martha Is Dead will be right up your street. Just be prepared for the ending to offer little in the way of clear-cut resolution or answers.
There’s certainly a lot going on here. The psychological introspection, period drama, and supernatural elements all weave together quite nicely at first, but it’s the war aspect that lands best.
This historical backdrop has been meticulously researched and brought to life with a startling level of accuracy. The developers at LKA rummaged through Italian archives to find real-life materials that they could incorporate into Martha Is Dead and it makes a huge difference to your immersion. For example, you get to scan actual newspaper headlines from the era and listen to radio broadcasts that have been faithfully recreated using their original transcripts.
Quite frankly, these true records are scarier than anything in the main ghost story. At one point early on, you hear a public service broadcast instructing residents to stay indoors and warning them that if, they so much as peek their heads out the window, they may be shot dead by German troops. The impassive delivery of the announcer here is utterly bone-chilling and it lingers in your mind whenever you must leave the house to complete a quest.
Giulia occupies such a staggeringly hostile world, with death lurking around every corner. You can be taking a quiet stroll through the countryside and stumble across the grisly sight of a resistance fighter who has been blown clean in half. The war doesn’t care that it’s a beautiful summer’s day in one of the most idyllic places on earth. It’s blunt and that’s the kind of imagery that sticks with you.
The more interesting gameplay sections connect to the period setting as well. One such highlight is a branching path that forces you to pick a side between your own family and the rebels. Should you choose the blatantly obvious path here (defending the status quo is hardly fun, especially when it’s a Nazi regime) then you get to participate in a clandestine spy mission. You’ll be deciphering morse code, sending messages over a telegraph, and recovering intel from right under your father’s nose. It’s terrific stuff.
The staggering attention to detail extends beyond the depiction of war. In general, it’s amazing how much polish the 10 person-development team managed to apply to this game, producing environments that look near-photoreal.
Surfaces are covered in microscopic specs of dust; finger smudges have been left on the window glazing, the ceramic floor tiles are believably chipped, and every object holds up to intense scrutiny. Plus, the lighting is always phenomenal, particularly when you are outside wandering the vineyards.
Speaking of which, this is an abnormally pleasant setting for a horror title. It could not be further from the destitute wings of Mount Massive Asylum or the grotty corridors of the Baker plantation. Indeed, 90% of Martha Is Dead takes place in broad daylight, with you cycling down paradisal country lanes listening to the sounds of rippling streams and being serenaded by a chorus of cicadas.
If you can ignore all the misery and killing, then exploring this game world can be an oddly meditative experience. It does not take long to get from one end of the vineyard to the other (especially if you do the side quest that unlocks a bicycle) but there’s a decent amount for you to discover if you choose to stray from the beaten path. There are lovely orchards, peaceful creeks, and beautiful chapels for you to take in, giving you ample opportunity to indulge your inner-shutterbug.
On that note, the photography simulation here is ridiculously thorough and emerges as the star of the whole show. You see, Giulia has access to an era-appropriate camera that you’re meant to use to document clues about Martha’s death and to record any major story beats. However, you’re also free to snap away to your heart’s content and you can get quite artistic with it.
While other horror games, like Fatal Frame and Dead Rising, have flirted with photography mechanics in the past, this is considerably more fleshed out. At first, you’ll be limited to playing around with the aperture and exposure rings, but you’ll gradually amass new lenses, film rolls of differing sensitivities and other accessories. If you go out of your way to assemble the whole set, then you’ll be equipped to capture some really nice images.
It’s a shockingly addictive simulator and you’re likely to forget all about your quest for justice, as you while away the hours building up a nice portfolio for yourself. It gets even better when you venture into Giulia’s darkroom to finally develop your masterpieces. There, you’ll learn how to use the enlarger for creating prints, how to then immerse them in developer fluid for the perfect amount of time, and how to use the stop bath.
While this darkroom process has been streamlined when compared to the real deal, it’s surprisingly exhaustive and it could spark an interest in vintage photography that you never knew you had. There’s just something deeply fulfilling about having a shot turn out exactly as you intended and then getting to proudly display it on the hanger.
In a weird way, a lot of the best parts of Martha Is Dead are completely disconnected from its central murder mystery. The wartime side quests are by far the most engaging aspects of the narrative and fiddling around with the camera is arguably the highlight of the entire thing. It’s at its best when it forgets that it’s supposed to be a horror game and commits to being an interactive museum exhibit instead, transporting you back to 1940s Tuscany.
LKA has managed to perfectly capture a unique sense of time and place here, with everything from the period music to the set dressing. The dialogue audio even defaults to the original Italian, so that you’re getting a properly authentic experience. Incidentally, the English language dub is serviceable if accessibility issues make it difficult for you to read endless reams of text.
Although horror isn’t its strongest suit, Martha Is Dead does know how to get under your skin when the need arises. The aforementioned White Lady has an unsettling backstory and a few of Giulia’s nightmares are surreally disturbing.
As the game progresses, these sequences get increasingly gruesome, to the point where some players might feel like a line has been crossed. Most notably, there’s a scene around the 5-hour mark that asks you to do something unspeakably vile and I was damn near certain that it must have been the reason for the title’s censoring on PlayStation consoles.
As it turns out, that’s not the case at all and the actual offending content is dropped right at the very end. It’s prefaced with an explicit warning beforehand, even if you’re playing on Xbox or PC, and you are given an option to skip it altogether (similar to “No Russian” in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2). If the thorny subject matter is not something you want to be confronted with, rest assured that you won’t be missing out on anything revelatory and that the scene in question is quite brief anyway.
While there will surely be debate over whether that shock moment ought to have been trimmed from every version of the game, I can’t help but wish that the entire last hour was summarily cut instead.
I honestly can’t remember the last time that my opinion on a piece of art soured as fast as it did here. For the first 5 or 6 hours, Martha Is Dead is compelling, daring and unsettling in all the right ways and then it just goes off the fucking rails.
Given the murder-mystery nature of the game, it’s almost impossible to articulate what goes wrong without venturing into extreme spoiler territory. Suffice it to say, Dalco takes some admirable big swings, but they are unfortunately big misses too.
The more of Guilia’s backstory that we learn, the more the game starts to indelicately handle some very delicate subject matter. At best, it comes across unintentionally funny and it worst it’s outright tasteless.
As was the case with last year’s The Medium, the problem here isn’t that video games aren’t equipped to deal with serious issues but that they need to be extra careful about how they approach them. Otherwise, the result just feels crass.
Then there is also the dissatisfying way that Dalco chooses to resolve his narrative. Ambiguous storytelling can be an immensely powerful thing and can often leave a stronger impression than something that serves you all the answers wrapped up with a nice little bow. The first Last of Us and Silent Hill 2 are good examples of this, as they leave things open-ended enough so that you come away with your own interpretations.
Martha Is Dead takes this idea to such a ludicrous extreme that it’s almost like the developers are trolling you. There are approximately 900 nonsensical fake-out twists by the time the credits roll and none of them add up when you think about them for more than a nanosecond.
Then, just as the story is ramping up for a dramatic climax (that promises to make sense of everything) it feebly shrugs its shoulders and cuts to black. Again, it’s hard to go into any detail without giving too much away, but it’s a deeply unfulfilling place to leave you hanging.
An argument can be made that this is all deliberate, and that Dalco is aiming to frustrate, but when you’re crafting a whodunnit the audience does expect a certain amount of clarity. Maybe it will settle in time, and I’ll come to appreciate what it was going for.
Still, no matter how you explain the conclusion to yourself, it feels like a lot of your time is wasted pursuing dead ends and none of the possible interpretations are especially satisfying,
That being said, I have been dwelling on this game for a solid week now, so I was definitely invested. In today’s media climate —where new TV shows and movies are being served up each day — it’s easy for things to go in one ear and out the other. If nothing else, I cannot say the same for Martha Is Dead, which has been confounding me ever since I finished it.
I guess that means Dalco accomplished his mission. For better or worse.
Martha Is Dead review code provided by the developer.
Martha is Dead is out now on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Series X/S, and PC.