Martha Is Dead starts off extremely strong and immediately introduces a dynamic between twin sisters Martha and Giulia that sets the stage for the entire game. Giulia’s mother never loved her the way she loved Martha, and this relationship, or lack of it, has eaten Giulia’s minds for years. After Giulia finds Martha drowned in a lake, her mother runs to hug Giulia, mistakenly believing that her least favorite child has died. Finally she gets the love and affection she always wanted. What happens next is unexpected, breathtaking even, and I was immediately fascinated by the premise. Unfortunately, Martha Is Dead quickly becomes a chore to play.
I felt at odds with the gameplay the moment I started exploring Giulia’s family villa. Walking feels like trudging through the mud, which is especially frustrating because this game is all about walking around and interacting with objects to learn more about what’s going on. Occasionally, you’ll run through poorly explained dream scenarios, or engage in simple mini-games, such as using a camera and its photos to find answers about who was at the lake the night of Martha’s death. But for the most part, you walk a lot and watch a lot. One scenario makes you avoid an enemy, which adds some suspense that I wish was more present in other parts of the game. But since most of what you’re doing is walking, the game feels less like traditional horror and more like watching a story unfold that just happens to be horrific in nature.
To make matters worse, interacting with objects is also tedious. Pressing the right thumbstick reveals interactive objects, which quickly become annoying as the symbols on the screen disappear within seconds. As a result, I kept pressing the right thumbstick over and over. As if to make this annoyance an even bigger stumbling block, sometimes the controls change completely. Instead of interacting with an object by pulling the trigger, you inexplicably have to press A. These frustrations coupled with bugs holding back progress started to break down the initial intrigue I felt during the opening.
Interacting with some objects, such as letters or your dead sister’s body, leads to side goals. None of these are as captivating as the main mystery, but a handful of side tangents are usable, like one where I found a tire pump to unlock a bike that made traveling around the villa a little faster. For some, I had to use an in-game camera that can be decked out with accessories that change how the camera can be used and skins, which are purely cosmetic collectibles. I enjoyed the mechanics around the camera’s focus, distance, lens types, and more, like occasionally having to use the d-pad to get an image sharp. I was happy that the camera was such a big part of the main purpose too. The game’s darkroom, which instructed me to develop my photos in an old-fashioned, realistic way using a timer and controller sticks, made using this camera even more immersive.
Despite a few compelling segments, many objectives are half-baked or poorly explained. For example, I spent 30 minutes looking for a side quest key (or so I thought), only to discover later that I could only get it after completing a key story moment much later in the game. I wish LKA would better indicate when you can’t continue in a quest until you’re further into the main story.
For a game that relies so heavily on story, Martha Is Dead’s story pissed me off in many ways. Some of the key moments in the game ask you to sympathize with Martha and Giulia’s parents: a Nazi general and a woman who seems unafraid of being married to a Nazi. I especially enjoyed helping Italian resistance fighters defeat Nazis near my family’s villa. Strangely enough, the game asked me if I wanted to help the Italian resistance fighters or foil their plans by telling my Nazi father about it. Of course I didn’t use that option. LKA weaved some great narrative threads into the family dynamics, but I didn’t get attached to them because in the end I would never sympathize with a Nazi.
At these moments I was scared off. There are ways games have used Nazis to tell interesting stories, but it wasn’t. Martha Is Dead doesn’t praise or even support Nazis, but the family’s Nazi connection plays nothing but the fact that WWII is underway. The parents are only used to further amplify Guilia’s torture and trauma, but their Nazi beliefs play no part in it. Why are they Nazis and why does it matter in Martha Is Dead that they are? These are questions I would like answers to. LKA uses the war surrounding this villa to show the hold Nazi Germany lost over Italy in 1944, and Giulia’s father eventually faces consequences for his part in it, but instead of using that moment to show him what he deserves, Martha is dead instead. uses this narrative beat to further torture Giulia.
Sadly, Martha Is Dead never reached beyond superficial depictions of war. Martha Is Dead tries to blend psychological horror and the horrors of war in a compelling way, but because half that equation falls short, the two never come together to create anything truly satisfying. The story leans on gory and disturbing visuals, prompting me to do things more gruesome than anything I’ve done in a game before, but these moments don’t add any meaningfulness to the story or experience. I had the feeling that the blood was just there for the shock value.
When Martha is Dead isn’t about war, it’s about the central mystery of how Martha died. There are some supernatural elements to the game, and some compelling revelations. All too often, Martha Is Dead uses the “your memories betray you” trope right before a big reveal about how the events really played out. These cheap twists always disappoint because they don’t feel deserved.
Without ruining the story, I ended the game dissatisfied and confused with everything I played. This was especially unfortunate because the original premise was so compelling. The twist in the story and the way the game tackles some serious mental health issues was disappointing. When the credits roll, the game displays a message about getting help if you need help, something Giulia couldn’t do in Martha Is Dead. While that’s true, it felt more like a sticker on this game, which, in the six hours before that, never made a real or meaningful commitment to explore these feelings in a respectful and sensible way.
LKA made the best recreation of an Italian setting I’ve ever seen in a game and I wanted nothing more than to enjoy it. However, LKA’s love for Italy is the only warmth I felt in Martha is Dead. The rest made me feel as cold as Giulia’s dead sister.