You’re probably already familiar with Martha Is Dead thanks to the recent media frenzy surrounding Sony’s censorship of a certain scene on the PlayStation consoles. Having played the whole game for this review, I can say that it’s certainly not the most controversial element – in fact, there were a few times where I audibly gasped at what the game was asking me to do.
You might argue, however, that having no less than three trigger warnings (with an option to turn a censored mode on) before the game even begins seems fair warning. While there’s definitely an interesting debate to be had, that’s a whole article in itself.
What I can say, though, is that while some of the content may divide opinion, there’s no denying that Martha Is Dead conjures an incredibly rich, detailed world, with bags of atmosphere and a compelling story.
Martha Is Dead Review
In Martha Is Dead, players take control of Giulia, a 15 year-old girl living in Tuscany in 1944. One morning, Giulia finds her twin sister, Martha’s body in the Lake by their Villa. As her parents approach the Lake, Giulia’s mother mistakes her for Martha. Giulia decides to play along, as her mother always favoured Martha over her.
As you roam the Villa and its surrounding area, you begin gathering clues to discover who really killed Martha. Pressing R3 highlights objects in the world that you can interact with; R2 interacts with them. You can add some items to your backpack that may come in handy later. Aside from key objects that are crucial to the story, there are a plethora of fascinating period items that add depth and flavour – from telegrams and newspaper articles to war correspondence and radio transmissions. The game is alive with detail, and fully immerses you in such a bleak yet fascinating period in history.
One of the most important item at your disposal is your father’s gorgeous 120mm film camera which you use to collect and document key evidence. It’s perhaps the most realistic and comprehensive photo mechanic that I’ve come across in a game. You can collect and add different lenses, change film types, adjust exposure and focus and then develop them in the darkroom in the Villa’s basement. While it’s a real pleasure to take snaps of the lush Tuscan countryside, the photo mechanic also plays a part in some of the puzzles. For example, switching out to infrared film reveals clues that are hidden to the naked eye. It’s thrilling to watch your photos as they develop, as ghostly figures take form on paper.
The road not taken
As each day passes, and the preparations for the funeral begin, Giulia experiences a series of visions. These usually consist of you running through the woods and choosing which path to go down based on the word floating above each junction. For example, in an early vision you spell out ‘Martha has lost her soul’. It’s pretty on-the-nose and is by far the weakest aspect of the game. It’s not particularly fun to play either, as you’re simply guiding Giulia down a path with the analogue sticks. Similarly, there are a couple of QTE sequences where you’re fleeing through the woods. These fare a little better in that they build a lot of tension, but as with a lot of QTEs, they take away control from the player.
Aside from some seriously gory sequences, Martha Is Dead takes a subtle approach to horror by cleverly weaving supernatural elements with the psychological horror of War. While you’re walking through the woods at night for example, your gas lamp suddenly goes out. As you struggle to relight it, the sound of twigs breaking underfoot echo through the air. When the lamp fires up again, a shadowy figure moves just out of sight. It’s a classic jump-scare tactic which works really well, not least because you’re left wondering whether it’s a ghost or a soldier.
As well as your main quest to determine the cause of Martha’s death, Martha Is Dead has some excellent side missions. In particular, there are a series of tasks that see you become embroiled in the Italian Civil War. A quick history lesson – your father is of German/Italian descent and is a General in the Italian Royalist army that are allied with the Nazis. Because of this, he’s obviously a great target for the anti-fascist Partisans who seek to liberate Italy. Starting with a mysterious note, you make secret phone calls, sabotage communication lines and learn how to use a coded telegraph machine. Admittedly, it’s tricky at first to decipher the coded messages, but once you crack the puzzle, it’s completely exhilarating. I could’ve happily played a whole game based on this alone.
On the whole, the game is very well written. The dialogue is thoughtful with the occasional poetic lilt. Giulia, in particular, is a smart, headstrong protagonist with depth and nuance. Unfortunately, the final twist is disappointing and the ending is underwhelming.
It’s also worth noting the ways in which the game tells stories. In the beginning, you’re turning the pages of a fairy story while your Nanny reads aloud to you. Later, you control marionettes in Giulia’s childhood puppet theatre as a means of recreating her lost memories. It reminds me a little of Guillermo Del Toro’s 2006 film, Pan’s Labyrinth, in the way that it uses magical realism and supernatural imagery as a means of both processing and representing the psychological horrors of War from a child’s perspective.
By default, Martha Is Dead is in Italian audio with English subtitles. This can be changed in the settings, although I’d recommend giving Italian a try as it adds to the game’s authenticity and sense of immersion. Not to mention, it’s a beautiful sounding language!
On PS5, the game’s photorealistic graphics look fantastic. Walking around the Villa, you can see each crease in the leather arm chairs, feel the light bounce off the smooth marble wash basins and marvel at the rich mahogany furniture. The lighting is excellent, too. Every room is bathed in the sultry orange glow of flickering candles and gas lamps, creating an incredibly realistic, moody atmosphere. While it runs smooth for the most part, I did notice a few framerate drops, particularly in busier scenes. The developers have promised a Day One patch, though, so hopefully this will tighten things up.
As I said, Martha Is Dead is all about the detail. It layers subtle sound effects to create a truly immersive soundscape. Whether it’s crows cawing, crickets chirping at night or even reeling the film on your camera, everything feels just right. The implementation of 3D Audio on the PS5 is exquisite, too, and really places you right in the moment. When you’re standing over Martha’s open coffin in the living room, take a few moments to soak in the ticking wall clock, the creaking floorboards and the joyful crackling of the radio interspersed with grave war announcements.
Martha Is Dead may divide opinion with some of its controversial content, but there’s no denying that developer’s LKA have created an astonishingly rich world with an electrifying atmosphere. Despite an underwhelming ending, the central mystery story will grip you, as too will the excellent side missions. With the rain pounding down outside, the Tuscan hills ain’t a bad place to be.