Xbox One, PS4, PC, PS5, Xbox Series X|S
February 24, 2022
Martha is Dead is a foreboding new horror title from the developers at LKA that’s a grim tale of trauma and murder, taking place in 1944 Italy, with the events of World War 2 happening around the game’s story. With a title as defiant as that, one has to wonder what it will unfold to be, but alas Martha is Dead might be the only mercy the game provides.
It plays very similar to the likes of Outlast and the story feels eerily inspired by Resident Evil, though there’s no T-virus here. Martha Is Dead is a mystery game at it’s heart, the goal being to solve your sister’s murder… though nothing is as it seems in this picture-perfect estate on the Italian countryside. For most of the game players are stuck on the property with a large forest and a lake on it’s border as well as the central house and church building. There’s also a cemetery and a nearby town that each appear once.
It’s a game that tries to mix a lot of varying elements, though in its efforts to make a horror experience it sacrifices the soul of the storyline under muddy, half-realised mechanics and pacing that can’t quite find consistency. In truth, it’s a game unsure of what it’s aiming to give the player past some jaw-dropping moments that feel excessive and mishandled.
For those who might’ve missed the commotion, earlier this year the PlayStation versions of the game were censored by the platform while Xbox and PC versions were left as is. I was “lucky” enough to review the game on Xbox One, before a patch that added a skip button to the particularly awful bits. I would like to preface the rest of this review by saying that I will mention the content in these scenes though delicately so as to not spoil the story of Martha is Dead. I am also appreciative of the content warnings put in place in the game.
“…it teases the player with a story of murder, being told to a child by a nanny as a sort of spooky fable.”
Despite a promising mysterious premise, the game doesn’t do enough interesting with the narrative pieces of the puzzle it wants you to put together. In fact, it feels desperate to do more. Martha is Dead feels like one of those books you see on a bestseller list that you think might be a good summer read, but it’s not a summer I’d be likely to remember. The setup is quite elaborate in that it teases the player with a story of murder, being told to a child by a nanny as a sort of spooky fable. This whole sequence feels quite disjointed from the rest of the game; it’s interesting enough, but all it’s doing is padding the lore with details that aren’t really memorable past broad strokes. While it does attempt to invest you in this narrative, it feels like there is a lot missing when it comes to being cohesive from start to finish.
One thing I did love was how the voice acting is in Italian. As an element in the game beyond the locale, it helps situate the game in Italy though it does take away from the tension in the game having to read the subtitles. While I’d like to say the game’s setting does feel like a character in the story, past the house, cemetery, and other buildings it feels unconcerned with how to encapsulate the Italian landscape. The language allows it to sink into the setting cozily, though it’s a small diamond in the rough.
Martha is Dead also presents photo-taking as an activity which, while time-consuming, is quite rewarding and fun in moderation. It even encourages players to take their own photos separate from the main story reasons to do so, though there really isn’t much around that isn’t the gorgeous landscape. Eventually you’re even supplied with different lenses to further customise your images on the iconic 40’s camera. Where it becomes time-consuming is when you must click through the developing sets before actually having to do a kind of mini-game to prepare the photo in solution. As a whole it’s well presented, but with repetition its easy to grow annoyed at the process.
I do honestly see so many half-realised things within this game. On one occasion you’re given access to bike which honestly isn’t needed considering the size of the gameplay area. Once you have it working and you go to ride it, the controls are oozy and left me almost feeling nauseous at how the camera sits, and that’s before mentioning the clipping as you ride down a hill. On another occasion, players are given access to the boat and it functions very similar to the bike sadly. There’s also the running puzzle sections that required more luck than anything, as you were really at the mercy of the game seeing as there was only one proper solution for each run, yet somehow there are multiple options that suit the narrative in each instance.
Towards the end of the story when warplanes fly overhead, it’s a moment that attempts to bring you more into the war narrative, can only add so much to the game. All that matters is what’s happening on this small farmlet at the edge of the forest – but even then, everything that does happen feels isolated from you. The game could be set anywhere and it would still accomplish the same awkward outcome. It doesn’t shy away from that historical context of the war. You find out early on that your father is a German General and there are Swastikas present throughout. I appreciate that there has been care taken to approach this time and setting but it feels useless to the story. I’d argue that its presence in the game is just as gratuitous as the gore; only there for effect. To shock and surprise the player at the sight of that symbol.
“As a player, It’s like I’m mourning all that this game could have been if it was more focused and included fewer mechanics.”
The game pads itself out with a lot of different gameplay mechanics. One moment it’s a photography game where you’re taking photos, so you can develop them in a dark room and can find clues. Then, you are caught running through the forest doing a word puzzle in some endless runner hell. I wish I was kidding. No, this isn’t some high-stakes Wordle. It’s a grim, somber game that while touching on loss and grief, refuses to do anything meaningful except try a whole lot of different mechanics on for size. As a player, It’s like I’m mourning all that this game could have been if it was more focused and included fewer distractions. The story would benefit from having more room to fill the adventure without becoming crowded. I think as a horror game, it doesn’t really know what it wants to achieve, and as such it loses focus fast. Playing it is a difficult dance between understanding what the game actually wants from you and then figuring out how you can do that.
I find it hilarious that there is a bike in the game you can ride, mainly because of how difficult controlling it was. On the other hand, there’s a whole side narrative involving Morse code that legit has you tapping out messages. Now that was a nice change of pace at least, though quite an adjustment for my brain and yet again – this game did not need this! There’s just too many things distracting from the game and the story. It’s no wonder the pacing can’t find it’s footing under the weight of all this variation.
Navigating between objectives is beyond tedious. Even simple tasks are clouded when you have to actually find your way there without any sort of waypoint and this further took away from the game. The forest area away from the house for example, is ridiculous. I can understand capitalising on this area as a place to build tension, but all it built in me was hatred. Moving through the forest during day or night was so annoying because of how hard to follow the track was through it. Sure, if you are going to include a forest, why not twist the pathway to add to the feel of the thing, but I’m at a loss for words in terms of just how tedious walking that forest was. There are some cool areas hidden in there such as a broken-down house and an old graveyard, but from a game design perspective finding them happened by chance and there’s no element of “whats that over there?”. I’d have hoped that this section would at least feel as though it was created with some more player discovery in mind.
As far as “horror” in the game goes, Martha is Dead chooses gratuitous gore over any real tension building. It almost feels like it intentionally wants to shock you in the hopes that will build that psychological horror but it is very uncommitted to the methods it pursues. One minute it wants me to walk through the forest in the dark and the next minute I’m cutting someone’s face-off. I hate to say it but as far as psychological horror goes, the thought and meaning in these scenes is half-baked at best. At the end of the game it’s actually so over the top that one could be forgiven for seeing it as comical. It’s a sad observation to make considering right after this is when the main character is depicted self-harming. It just feels, again, added for shock value more than anything else.
Across the board, Martha is Dead sadly misses the mark. It arrives stiff and isn’t going give you much more than some (very) fleeting thrills. The photo mechanic is the shining star in the game so it’s a shame that Martha is Dead doesn’t rely on weaving it into the narrative in a more interesting way. If all the noise was cut out and more attention was paid to creating a defined horror experience that isn’t just bloody for effect this could have been a success, but alas it’s not even close. Rest in peace Martha.
- Italian voice-acting really places the narrative in the setting
- Camera and darkroom are fun and felt realistic
- The story pacing suffers under a overflow of gameplay mechanics
- Gratuitous gore for shock value leaves you numb
- Mystery narrative needs some tightening
- Too many mechanics weigh down the gameplay
Martha is Dead isn’t for the faint-hearted, though sadly that’s not for the right reasons. There are too many moving parts in this game that weigh the already poorly-paced story down. If this was a spooky investigative adventure that required you to take photos to unlock the brooding mystery hidden within, I’d be all for it, because that’s one part that actually works. But alas it’s instead left as an over-exerted mess that is more focused on a couple of key shock-value moments than anything substantial. This game needs a swift autopsy to dissect out the crimes before a merciful cremation.