Publisher: Wired Productions
Platform: Windows, Xbox One, PS4, PS5
Martha is, indeed, quite dead. At the same time, she is quite lucky. I spent six hours in this world and grew increasingly jealous of Martha every minute. Because by being dead, Martha never had to play this game. Despite my jealousy, I would like to think Martha’s spirit was looking out for me, as a repetitive game-crashing bug kept me from finishing.
The second game from Italian developer LKA, Martha Is Dead is a psychological thriller that finds you playing as Martha’s identical twin sister Giulia during the height of World War II in Tuscany. While taking photographs of the lake near their home, Giulia discovers Martha’s dead body. Their mother arrives soon after, and in a moment while Giulia is holding her dead sister (and years of resentment), she pretends to be Martha. Mom has always wished she could send Giulia to Davy Jones’s locker, so she buys it hook, line, and sinker. And since the military general Dad is primarily absent (and kind of afraid of Mom), he also can’t tell the difference between his children. So Giulia must continue the charade of being Martha while also trying to investigate who she believes to be Martha’s murderer.
If that felt like a lot of exposition, welcome to this plot! Giuliana regularly narrates (from the future) between chapters, often on what you experienced firsthand (this right before you read her diary, which also recounts what you just experienced). Confoundingly, she will also spoil major plot twists as well. But perhaps the worst offense is when she reports during one of these between-chapter narrations that a significant character with strong emotional ties to Giulia has died. No foreshadowing. No explanation. It just comes off as a cold explanation as to why your next puzzle will be a bit different than you thought.
The story is not entirely without intrigue. The White Lady legend, popular in many world cultures, weaves in and out of your investigation. At times, the atmosphere hits its mark, and I was genuinely spooked on a few occasions. But the good feelings are frequently interrupted by long stretches of tedium. The gameplay is first-person, and most of the game takes Martha on fetching quests throughout the large estate. One, in particular, takes nearly twenty minutes, even while running, without any advancement in the story. At least to the point I played, the only interactions with live humans were via infrequent cutscenes. Giulia’s parents are conveniently never around, even when they have every reason to be. That leaves nearly every advancement in the story at the hands of narration rather than interaction. The nadir culminates in Giulia finding her old puppet theater and narrating through dolls. It was at this point that my game would not let me continue. While a welcome respite, the game crash did not come early enough.
Gore and disturbing imagery play a significant part in many scenes. I can handle gore just fine, and it is tough to offend my sensibilities; I often seek out the horror genre. But as the game progresses, you are required as a player to take a role in some genuinely horrifying behavior actively. And when I say active, I don’t mean just a click and a point. After a couple of actions the game forced me to do, I had to stop playing and hug my family. There is also no logical build-up to any of it. Giulia’s actions regularly vacillate between reasonable and insane, and all character development gets punted as an excuse for terror. Sony requested some of this be removed or toned down for the PlayStation release, and while I usually scoff at censoring, I can’t say I blame them this time.
The scenery is generally gorgeous, and I felt transported to the 1940s. The voice-overs for Giulia are solid, although I preferred the Italian and went with subtitles. The war inserts itself into the story and always feels authentic. There’s excellent attention to detail to avoid anachronisms, and early 20th-century technology is well represented. Giulia always has her 1940 Rolleicord camera handy and uses various film and camera accessories to snap gorgeous photos that she develops in the family’s darkroom.
The film development process is fascinating, at least for the first time. While it is abridged to reduce the monotony, it is still quite the slog to repeatedly go through the motions. Using the camera is required to solve certain puzzles, but for those inclined, the game allows you to take and develop a photo of anything. You are also awarded camera “skins” for specific game actions, which I suppose could be a fun side quest for some, but feels out of place in a game meant to keep you on the edge of your seat.
Martha Is Dead certainly has its fans, though I doubt they are your standard fan of adventure games. The puzzles present no challenge whatsoever and, for the most part, are just a checklist of drawn-out fetch quests. The story isn’t consistent enough to carry the weight; even if it were, most players would not be able to stomach the horror. And even if all of that is your jam, there’s a decent chance you won’t be able to finish it without some luck avoiding the game-crashing bugs. The game has been patched many times, and a glimpse of other professional reviews shows that I’m not the only one who got irrevocably stuck. While this is not the worst game I have ever played, it is probably the one I’m most glad to be no longer playing.