Martha is Dead is a rather unconventional psychological horror game that takes place primarily in broad daylight, beneath the beating Tuscan sun. It seldom lures you into unlit corridors for cheap scares and instead resorts to an intense and unflinching brand of body gore that saw it recently endure a rather public censoring at the hands of PlayStation. While Martha is Dead captivates in these fleeting moments of grotesque discomfort, the sum of its parts is a rather disjointed, incoherent shambles of a game.
Taking place in Italy during World War II, Martha is Dead follows Giulia and how she comes to terms with the death of her twin sister. As a narrator, Giulia isn’t what I’d call reliable. This should make for a compelling deep dive into grief and how a mind suffering loss can unspool but Martha is Dead ultimately feels messy and lacking a central focus. After Giulia drags Martha from the lake and steals her life, leading her entire family to believe it was she that died—represented by a gruesome flaying scene that punctuates the game’s unforgettable opening salvo—the confusing manner in which everything else unfolds ultimately feels like a waste of both the compelling concept and the ripe wartime setting that grounds some of the plot’s more fantastical elements such as The White Lady, the childhood folklore that starts to manifest as the mystery of Martha’s death deepens.
Unlike some of the better Studio Ghibli films set during conflicts, like Howl’s Moving Castle, Martha is Dead doesn’t really have much to say about war—it’s just kind of there. Ideas of revolution are floated but the threads don’t really serve the sisters’ plot at all and feel sort of inconsequential even as a subplot.
Despite the intention to do so, it’s hard to know whether this game says anything worthwhile about mental health. There are red herrings aplenty and while our true actions in the game are spurious at best, but from the jump, I felt like Giulia’s perceived doings—and motives—were wholly irredeemable. Perhaps the effort to demonise Giulia was to serve the game’s commentary about the public perception of mental health, but it seemed lost in translation. Martha is Dead ultimately feels more pointlessly disturbing than it does cerebrally challenging—to say the face-flaying scene is one of the least fucked up scenes should say plenty.
The plot might be a bit of a hot mess, but the most frustrating part of Martha is Dead is how confused it is about what it’s trying to be. It’s a psychological horror game with a handful of challenging scenes peppered between four hours of wandering about an admittedly stunning Tuscan countryside taking photographs. If you’re not developing photos in the darkroom—a surprisingly cathartic experience which does lead to some of the game’s more unintentionally chilling moments—you might find yourself vexed decoding rebel telegraphs, an honorary doctorate from Samuel Morse in hand. It’s such an unfocused onslaught of mechanics, I would have sooner hoped for an all-out ‘walking simulator’ because wandering the villa and taking in the sights really is when Martha is Dead feels most confident.
I took issue with a lot of the game’s control scheme, some items asked for a single button input while other actions required a held input, which led to a bit of indecision whenever a prompt would appear on screen during events. Similarly, sightseeing in this small slice of Tuscany felt arduous. With a decent patch of woods separating the villa from the lake, there’s a bit of ground to cover in Martha is Dead and, sadly, Giulia isn’t exactly fleet of foot. I’d sooner walk from one end of Italy to the other than ride her bloody treadly, though. Aside from the map not really being big enough to warrant a faster mode of transport, I’m glad we were spared frequent on-bike jaunts because the one forced upon us in the game’s finale was egregious enough.
For all of my disappointment with the story Martha is Dead tries to tell and how flat the gameplay falls, it really is quite a nice-looking video game. With the exception of when it booted back up out of rest, where it’d stutter and struggle for a moment, it performed well. With your time divided between a stunningly recreated villa—full to the brim of lived-in detail—and the equally arresting Tuscan acreage. I expect a couple of Martha is Dead’s scenes in particular to shock its audience, but those buying into the experience expecting some of the most confronting, interactive scenes put to screen won’t be dissatisfied. The soundtrack might play it safe throughout the remainder of Martha is Dead but the cacophonous scratching and scraping of strings punctuate these troubling, bone-chilling moments to make them easily the most memorable of the game’s four hours.
For an authentic experience, I got through Martha is Dead using subtitles with the Italian performance. While the English dub pales in comparison more often than not to a game’s native language, I think there’s quality to the dub that’s otherwise missing in the original voice-over. Coupled with the fact that dialogue was constantly obscured by achievements—a customisable feature within the console’s UX—opting for English from the start, I feel, is a safe bet.
Martha is Dead feels like a case of missed potential. What on the surface is a collection of novel and creatively potent ideas, it executes most of them so poorly it’s hard to recommend it even to people who’ll enjoy the body horror that rears its head from time to time to shock you out of the malaise the game puts you in.
While I enjoyed a fraction of my time exploring Martha is Dead's gorgeous Tuscan farmlands, the thing I'm most thankful for is how mercifully short the game is. The closing credits shocked me back into coherence like a bolt out of the blue to cap off what is—and I'm being generous—an interestingly imperfect experience.
The game's Tuscany really is pretty
The body gore will please certain aficionados
Story is an absolute unfocused mess
The core mechanics and controls don't feel great
Feels like a waste of a ripe wartime setting
Italian dub surprisingly isn't the optimal way to experience the game