“I was not expecting that. But I was expecting not to expect something, so it doesn’t count.”
No single sentence/meme can sum up my collective thoughts on Martha Is Dead better than this one. The first-person psychological thriller from developer LKA launches today for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S, and it sure is… something. That’s more than a fair thing to say given the recent news that the PS4 and PS5 versions of the game had to be altered to exclude some of the original content due to the violently graphic nature of some of the scenes.
I, however, played the unaltered PC version of the game. Put simply, Martha Is Dead is NOT for the faint of heart. Even for a horror game, this one had me uncomfortably squirming in my chair. But that’s actually the point. The 10-person team at LKA was very intentional in its design of the game, from its utter brutality juxtaposed to the absolutely gorgeous and detailed settings. Martha Is Dead will have a very specific audience that will enjoy the game for its take on the psychological thriller genre. After playing the game, I realized that I’m not part of that audience. However, I can still appreciate the game and LKA for creating what’s likely to be a very vulnerable and divisive title.
Martha Is Dead takes place in 1944 Italy as the conflict between German and Allied forces rages on. One day, while taking photos in the forest, Giulia makes the unfathomable discovery of her twin sister, Martha, having been drowned in the lake by their family’s countryside villa. Following the ordeal, Giulia’s decisions inevitably lead to her hunting for the truth behind her sister’s murder, while dealing with the extreme fallout from those same decisions.
There are a ton of layers to peel away in Martha Is Dead, from its story to its visuals. It’s a bit hard to know where to begin in describing each element because they all work together to create an impressively immersive experience. From the opening cinematic and bit of Giulia’s backstory, I was sucked in. Almost just as immediately, I started saying, “What the f***?” Something that I would be repeating in some way or another over the course of the roughly 8-hour game.
The first instance that prompted such a response was the tale of The White Lady, which Giulia’s nanny used to read to her as a bedtime story when she was a child. I won’t spoil the details, but the story and illustrations were enough to keep me – a 36-year-old – from easily falling asleep the night after hearing it. The story reminded me of when I was a kid and reading Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark right before I would go to bed. Mistakes were undoubtedly made.
The impressive part about this early scene is just how much I was drawn in. Although the tale of The White Lady was, well… creepy, there was a coziness in the scene that made it feel oddly wholesome.
This contrasting dynamic continues throughout the game. Despite the horror and unsettling visuals that are subtlety (and not so subtlety) placed throughout the game, there’s a beauty in the overall design of the world – whether that be the details in the paintings, the birds that can be seen flying through the air from a window, or the sunlight shining on the walls in the calm and non-foreboding morning.
Exploring each area is a slow burn, but feels very much intentional in its design so that it can really pull you into the life that Giulia has lived (and is now living). I’m not usually someone who inspects EVERY single thing that can be inspected in a game, but ignoring even the most unimportant-looking item in Martha Is Dead feels like it would be a disservice to the immersive experience. The slow burn also adds an element of suspense as you take and develop photographs or encounter items that are used to solve the game’s puzzles, unlocking more of the mysteries of Giulia, Martha, their family, and upbringing.
Eventually, that suspense turns into utter terror and dread when the nightmarish scenes take the stage. The lines of reality and dreams are often blurred during these intense moments, elevated by the instability of Giulia’s overall mental health. Things go from zero to 60 whenever an element of horror enters the scene. As I stated above, some of the scenes are truly brutal – enough to make me feel as close to physically ill as I’ve ever come when playing a game.
Is this a bad thing? That depends. The game is saturated with disclaimers and content advisory warnings that Martha Is Dead depicts some pretty gruesome scenes. It literally says:“The game is not recommended for players who may find depictions of mature scenes containing blood, dismemberment, disfigurement of human bodies, miscarriage, and self-harm disturbing.”
In addition, before the game even begins, a screen provides a link to SafeInOurWord.org for those who may be in need of help and/or crisis resources.
Basically, even without knowing about any of the scenes that were removed from the PlayStation versions of Martha Is Dead (which I won’t be spoiling here), you pretty much know EXACTLY what you’re getting into when you play the game.
And – yet again – that’s the point. LKA knew exactly what it was doing in creating Martha Is Dead. Having created The Town of Light, another psychological adventure, the team (along with its publisher, Wired Productions) is no stranger to the intense and uncomfortable – something that has undoubtedly been recreated to the extreme in Martha Is Dead. They know that the game isn’t for everyone, but felt like they had an emotional and immersive story to tell – one chock full of allegorical meaning by way of psychological horror and brutality.
Coming back to the opening of this review, maybe it’s actually better to say that “Martha Is Dead sure is… intentional.” From purely a content perspective, it will be interesting to see how the game resonates with users and critics. It’s definitely going to piss some people off. Personally, I can’t see myself ever playing the game again (similar to how the ending of The Last of Us: Part II also gave me reason enough to never play it again). If, however, we’re considering the goals of the developer, it’s pretty clear to see that those goals have successfully come to fruition in Martha Is Dead. Just make sure you’re prepared and know what you’re getting yourself into before heading to the lake.
GamingPizza Rating: 7 out of 10