Martha is Dead is dark, uncomfortable, and unpleasant. I love it.
I’ve mentioned in the past that first-person horror games have something of a bad reputation. The number of shoddy Steam games designed to elicit screams from your favourite Youtuber makes me approach games of this style with some trepidation. Like the really rather good In Sound Mind though, Martha is Dead is a really rather excellent first person horror experience. If you’re familiar with The Town of Light, this game is from the same team and treads some similar ground, handling some pretty severe themes. This is not for the faint of heart, but luckily my horror chops have me well prepared, so let’s dive in.
You play as Guilia, the twin of the titular Martha, who lives with her parents in World War 2 era Italy. After a brief prologue in which you learn of Guilia’s favourite story, that of the ghostly White Lady, you’ll begin the game by discovering a body in the lake on your family’s estate. The body, in case you hadn’t guessed, is that of Martha.
Without spoiling too much, Martha is Dead focuses on Guilia’s attempt to find out precisely what happened to her sister, whilst also trying to come to terms with her loss, and the events of the war that play out around her. All is not as it seems though, and the game handles some hard hitting topics, with some very graphic moments to depict them. Between moments of enjoying and exploring the small plot of Italian countryside you have access to, you’ll have nightmarish visions of mutilated bodies and ghostly visages.
The gameplay itself is mostly based on finding and interacting with key items in the environment. You’ll find newspapers, notes, scraps of clothing, and the usual fare you might expect to discover in a narrative focussed first person game. Martha is Dead keeps things very fresh though, with every other day of the story having different ways of progressing. Sometimes you’ll need to phone other characters, others you’ll be translating and communicating via morse code, and others still in which you’ll need to use the game’s frankly outstanding photo mode. Everything is used sparingly, and you’ll never have a chance to get fed up with a mechanic as the game will progress to the next stage of it once you’ve had your fill of what you’re doing.
Then there are the nightmares Guilia regularly falls into. Each one is different, with you running through dimly lit woods, following paths to complete sentences that help Guilia make sense of what’s happening, or carrying out “surgery” on a body in a coffin. There’s always something new coming up, and I found myself wanting to move forward to find out what madness I’d be participating in next as much as I would look forward to the story’s development.
The nightmares are very unsettling though. Some of the body-horror on display here is really quite intense and extremely graphic. I’m not particularly squeamish, but I found myself feeling uncomfortable during some of the more gruesome scenes. Initially I found these moments to be somewhat gratuitous, but as I moved through the story, and the world around Guilia — and even her mind — unravelled more and more, I began to understand why they were quite so symbolic and significant to the excellent story. If you are interested in the narrative, but you don’t have the stomach for these scenes, developers LKA have been good enough to allow you to skip them without missing the story elements. You’re even warned at some stages that you’re about to see some pretty dark moments if you want to see a censored version. It’s nice to have this option here, as some of these moments could really upset some people. There’s little reliance on the horror trope of sudden jump scares, with Martha is Dead relying more on atmosphere, a building sense of dread, and unsettling imagery during the scary sections. There’s a talented team of developers here.
Guilia’s family estate is fairly small, but with enough points of interest to make exploring quite enjoyable. The lake, family graveyard, and chapel are all obvious points, but there are also mysterious buildings and secret underground tunnels to discover if you want to wander around on your own. I will say that the walking speed is incredibly slow, with the running speed not being that much faster. It did put me off going walking around too much as I didn’t relish the idea of having to walk back to the house afterwards. The ponderous walking pace fits the narrative, but it doesn’t make it all that much fun to walk around. And the less said about the optional bicycle controls, the better.
The visual quality of the world certainly helps here, with the environments looking wonderful, with some great lighting effects. Guilia’s camera in particular, with its variety of lenses, films, and controls can make the locations look especially impressive. There were times in which I would take pictures that looked near photorealistic. The character models are a little odd though. They look good, but you never see them when they are speaking, and animations, other than your own, are oddly simplistic. Perhaps the developers weren’t all that confident in this aspect, but it does stand out when two characters are conversing and the camera insists on showing you shadows or movement through a distorted window.
There’s excellent music too, being era appropriate and fitting to the current moment at all times. Not once did I feel a piece wasn’t perfectly themed. The sound effects too are very good, with some of the more physical moments really adding impact to what’s happening. The voice work is a little odd at times. Whilst Martha is Dead has an excellent script, the English voice-acting felt a little stilted at times. It improves significantly as the game progresses, but early on it certainly feels like people are reading lines from a page. The developers have said that the intention is to play this with the original Italian vocal tracks, and it certainly does sound good with this option being used. Then again, I don’t speak Italian, so perhaps it sounds stilted here too.
The only other gripe I have with this otherwise excellent horror, is that the framerate became surprisingly shaky at a few odd moments, even on Xbox Series X. This specifically happened when there was text on the screen at the same time as I would look around. Never with subtitles, but always with the narrator’s text or chapter titles overlaid on the gameplay. It was quite an odd thing, and only happens on a few occasions, but it was very noticeable.
Martha is Dead is a genuinely fantastic horror game. I’ve refrained from mentioning too much about the plot as I feel this is something that really should be experienced by as many people with as little prior knowledge as possible. It’s hard-hitting, and at times very uncomfortable to watch and play — at one point I advised my wife to look away as the scene playing out was deeply unpleasant. But this is a narrative experience that you owe it to yourself to play if you have interest in horror games. It’s horrific, but not gratuitous. Troubling, but justifiably so. There are a lot of first-person horror games out there, but few are as good as Martha is Dead.