Martha is Dead is an oddly frustrating experience. It’s authentic to the point where I found myself completely immersed in its period setting, it’s often surprisingly pretty, and its premise is unique enough that, if this was a better game, it may have cemented a place for itself in the horror genre as something that stands out from the crowd. Other parts of the experience are not so impressive though. Actually playing the game is, more often than not, far from fun, thanks to its clunky movement and largely dull objectives, while the pacing is slower than molasses. The gradual ramping up of palpable tension has always been the hallmark of good psychological horror, but Martha is Dead takes that a little too far, to the point where the bulk of the experience feels plodding and meandering.
The game is set in a sunny Italian countryside in 1944, which is not so sunny thanks to the cloud of World War II casting a deep shadow over everything. The protagonist, Giulia, is the daughter of a German general, and in the opening moments of a game, she chances upon the dead, drowned body of her deaf twin sister Martha in a lake that’s said to be haunted by a spirit known as the White Lady. A case of mistaken identity, however, leads to her parents believing that it’s her that died and Martha who found the body, and Giulia, who has always felt neglected by her family compared to her sister, fails to correct oversight.
"The gradual ramping up of palpable tension has always been the hallmark of good psychological horror, but Martha is Dead takes that a little too far, to the point where the bulk of the experience feels plodding and meandering."
It’s a rather unique and interesting premise, and one that the game digs into in some interesting ways, especially as you learn more and more about Giulia’s tough relationship with her mother. As her psyche unravels throughout the experience, she becomes an increasingly unreliable narrator, and trying to piece together what exactly happened in the lake becomes more complicated as the story progresses. Weaving in and out of this psychological murder mystery, which has dashes of supernatural horror thrown in for good measure, is the story of the war itself, bringing with it its own intrigue and tying into the central narrative in some interesting ways.
Or at least so it feels in the beginning. The problem with Martha is Dead is that it can be a bit too overindulgent with its pacing, a lot of which comes down to how the game plays. More of a walking simulator than a horror game, the vast majority of Martha is Dead tasks players with walking from place to place and clicking photos of objects or investigating certain things, and while the photography itself is impressively fleshed out – from tinkering with the aperture, focus, and framing of your shots to switching out different lenses to take specific photos in different situations – everything else feels too rudimentary, and as such, mundane. Significant stretches of the game feel so uneventful that they can make Red Dead Redemption 2’s prologue look like a fast-paced, adrenaline-fueled romp.
It doesn’t help that the moment-to-moment gameplay just doesn’t feel great either. The walking speed is too slow, and the sprinting speed is only marginally faster, which doesn’t gel very well with the fact that you’re walking around a lot in this game, and often across distances that might not feel like much on paper (the game is set in Guilia’s countryside villa and the woodlands surrounding it), but feel padded out due to the slow pace at which you move. You can unlock the ability to ride a bicycle for some of the longer journeys, but surprisingly, the movement speed there isn’t a huge change from your sprint either, while actually controlling the bike always feels clunky and weirdly unresponsive.
"Significant stretches of the game feel so uneventful that they can make Red Dead Redemption 2’s prologue look like a fast-paced, adrenaline-fueled romp."
Other aspects of Martha is Dead’s gameplay let the experience down as well. Given its slow and plodding nature, a lot of the game sees you combing through environments and interacting with very specific objects, but frustratingly enough, looking at the object you want to and highlighting it as what you want to interact with can often feel inaccurate, so you’ll often find yourself making microscopic adjustments to your standing position and the angle at which you’re looking at something just so the game can realize that that’s the thing you want to pick up or examine.
Certain other gameplay sections feel clunky in execution as well- like a section that has you sending coded messages via a telegram, which requires you to actually input all of it in using morse code. That sounds interesting on paper, but in practice, it’s shoddily executed and takes unnecessarily long. Meanwhile, the game is also often broken up by sections that see you running through the woods and stitching together sentences by taking forks in the path- and if you take the wrong fork, you go back to the beginning of the sentence. It’s not fun, it makes no sense on even on a conceptual level, and it happens way too often.
That said, existing in the simultaneously quaint and unsettling world of Martha is Dead has its charms as well. The game deserves a lot of credit for how authentically it recreates its period setting, and how effectively it transports you to that place and time. It’s easy to instantly get immersed in the game’s version of 1940s Italy, and everything from news reports and radio broadcasts about the war ravaging through Europe to the detail that’s been poured into the period-appropriate photography mechanics contributes to the game’s authenticity. It also helps that visually, Martha is Dead looks quite good. It won’t knock your socks off, but the art design and visual fidelity work together well enough breathe more life into the setting. It’s not a faultless experience in this area either – there are some noticeable technical issues and visual glitches, such as entire sections of the world being replaced by blank, black textures even as you’re walking through them – but by and large, it still impresses on a visual level.
"There are some good ideas here that deserved to be in a better game, but as it stands right now, Martha is Dead is a frustrating experience that fails to do justice to those ideas."
That really just sumps up Martha is Dead as a game though- it’s got a lot going for it, but it often gets in its own way. The narrative premise is unique and makes its distinct elements work together surprisingly well, but it’s pacing might very well turn you away if you don’t have the patience (or inclination) to stick with it. The setting is beautiful and lovingly crafted, but actually playing the game often feels like a chore for one reason or the other. There are some good ideas here that deserved to be in a better game, but as it stands right now, Martha is Dead is a frustrating experience that fails to do justice to those ideas.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox Series X.
Interesting narrative premise; Authentic, immersive setting; Looks really good.
Clunky gameplay; Weird gameplay sections that are no fun to play; Frustratingly slow-paced.