If someone were to pitch a “first person horror set during World War II”, it’d be easy to assume what it’d involve. Trenches, the horrors of war, ghosts of the fallen… or at a push, Nazi zombies. Thankfully, Matha Is Dead isn’t that cliche. Well, not that avenue of cliche, at least.
It doesn’t have any of the above, being set in Italy, out of the way, during the summer of 1944. The colours are bright, the views idyllic, and there aren’t any rescue missions for a brother marching through the scenery. What it does have, instead, is a broken family horror scenario interspersed with some very gross imagery in between.
It also has a “controversial moment” that has potentially overshadowed whether the game is any good or not. So, with that bait and hook set in, let’s expound on that, shall we?
Content warning: there will be descriptions, and a screenshot or two, of several strong themes and mutilation. If you are sensitive to body horror, feel free to skip to the end to see the score.
My Sister’s Speaker
Our story starts in a similar style to Edward Scissorhands. An old lady is telling a young girl a story in bed, but this one’s a bit weirder (even by Tim Burton’s standards). Rather than a quaint bedtime story, nanny is telling young Giulia (pronounced Julia) about The Lady In The Lake. A morbid tale of love and loss, it culminates in the myth of the Lady’s ghost hanging on.
Skip forward a few years, to summer 1944. Nearing the end of World War II, we’re put in the shoes of an older Giulia in her family villa in via per Cerbaia, Italy. Martha, her deaf/mute twin sister favoured by the mother, drowns in the same lake of the fable above. Giulia pulls the drowned Martha from the lake and, in a moment of panic, “becomes” Martha looking at the dead Giulia.
The reasoning, she explains in diary-entry-voiceover, is she wanted the adoration from her mother she never got. In keeping with the ruse, she must act deaf and never speak, lest the guise fall apart. She suspects her father knows, but doesn’t want to ruin the illusion for her mother.
Confused? That’s only the prologue.
I Want To Be Like You
Like Everbody’s Gone to the Rapture, Martha Is Dead is an apt title. She’s very much dead, so the horror here isn’t a Jennifer’s Body-style revenant theme. No, the horror here is of the psychological kind, with Giulia having an [understandable] identity crisis from time to time. That fairy tale told earlier?
That also plays a part in Giulia’s manifestations of guilt, seeing visions of the ghost as she visits the lake from time to time. But, the fun doesn’t stop there. There’s also Giulia’s extremely vivid and graphic dreams that players have to sit through, ranging from gross body horror, drowning babies and a fair amount of vivisection.
It seems really at odds with the vibrant and colourful landscapes of the Italian villa, randomly juxtaposed with some “Eww” moments. But then, I think that’s how horror works best: if it were dark and generic, we’d see it coming a mile off.
But before we get on to the more shocking elements, let’s look at how it plays.
Like most (if not all) good horror games, Martha Is Dead is first person. If I were snobby enough, I could phrase it as a parallel about how we as players inhabit another body, just as Giulia is metaphorically doing. I’m simple though, so I’ll just go with “first person is more immersive because you get it literally in your face” when weird things happen.
But then, being a psychological horror, don’t expect Facehugger-like jumpscares. Yes, I still have nightmares about Alien: Isolation. Instead, the horror on display here is the more cerebral, nerve-tingling kind. As mentioned earlier, you’ll be heading down to the lake and suddenly The Lady will appear behind a tree, for example.
There are times when it’s pretty obvious that something will happen. No horror game would let you walk down a dimly lit woodland path peacefully, would it? Yet there are others that have caught me out that I won’t spoil, suffice to say that it did defy my”conventional” expectations about when they would happen.
A lot of this is down to one of the game’s other main components: the photography.
Giulia, before coming Martha, shared a strong bond with her father over photography. He taught the girl how to frame, take and develop photos as she grew up. He’s also a German general, but we’ll gloss over that because from this narrative, he’s one of the good guys.
Anyway, photography plays a big part of story progression, as well as uncovering scenes about the villa. The first proper story use of photography is Giulia recovering the cameras she’d set up around the time Martha drowned. These were on timers, which do little to shed light on how Martha died, but set up how her body was recovered. Developing them is pretty eerie, but necessary.
The actual developing process, as the game says, is shortened and simplified for time purposes. It’s still fairly interactive: you have to frame it right and focus it properly with the card it’s being projected onto. As you progress, there are some photo opportunities that reveal hidden messages, leading to bigger clues and truths…
Which, unfortunately, is where Martha Is Dead lost me.
Too Many Threads To Tie Together
I do appreciate when a somewhat linear game has the occasional branching narrative or side quest. However, when it adds several different gimmicks to it, it makes my attention falter. Unfortunately, Martha Is Dead has one too many, with some even contradicting each other.
There’s another plot thread involving [the real] Giulia’s lover, Lapo. He fights for the rebels, before unfortunately being shot by a patrolling German guard on the estate. Which, when she investigates (as Martha), Giulia is also shot. This gets brushed off with a bit of recovery time, then it’s back to sprinting everywhere (more on that later). But there’s more: Lapo carries a note that has connections and a phone number, that will activate another sub-plot when called.
Long story short, you can help them or rat them out. One of these options involving cutting the phone line, which weirdly didn’t lock out another objective that needed me to answer the phone. So not only was it contradicting different objectives, it was also not accepting I’d cut the line.
There’s also Tarot reading, because the nanny used to do it. Players can only do one reading per day, but this doesn’t stipulate if that means in-game or via the PlayStation’s clock. Or if it even has any relevance. To me, the cynical critic, it just seems like more padding to a game with a weak story overall.
Which you may not think is weak, what with all the shock and awe that Wired stirred up over this.
There was no escaping this, which in a way acts as that “bad publicity is still publicity” thing. Before I was granted my review copy, there was controversy around a particularly gruesome scene. The scene, above, had players physically control the motions of Giulia carving Martha’s face from her dead body. This scene is a dream, but the scandal was done, with Wired/LKA taking away the interactive element of it.
It’s still gross, granted, but at least you know if you look away you’re not stopping the gameplay. There is, however, a censor option at both beginning and any time in the pause menu that can be turned on. Because that one up there is not the only one, folks. That aforementioned baby drowning bit? Yeah, that’s another twisted dream in which Martha/Giulia’s pregnant belly is suddenly torn open, reviewing said baby. Which then shifts to player control, slowly crawling in a room full of rising water.
It’s not the first game to explore horrible things, obviously. The Outlast games did a good job of that. But by framing them as dreams/nightmares, Martha Is Dead pushes the boundaries with some really grim stuff. Coupled with disjointed, stabby violin notes, it creates a sense of murkiness throughout. Which, as is the game’s wont, is good at creating that psychological element of the horror.
It’s just a shame the gameplay can’t really keep it all together.
Slow Leg Burner
In terms of technical prowess, Martha Is Dead does look very lovely indeed. The flora looks vibrant, as do the dismembered bodies that Giulia trips out about. However, it’s not been finely polished, suffering from the occasional pop in and chugging of framerate if it dare hits 31fps. This might be patched out, but that’s not something we should keep relying on.
It has also got, without exaggeration, the slowest walking speed of any game I’ve ever played. It makes the prologue to Metal Gear Solid V seem like a mad dash to make Snake’s legs work. Giulia walks slower than a toddler being told to leave the soft play area, and this is before she gets shot! I had my finger glued to the L1 button throughout, and even then the running speed is hardly an improvement.
It’s also quite buggy (and I don’t think this can be excused with “It might be patched later”). Several times the game crashed and sent me to the dashboard, or even just froze until I had to reset the console. Textures just refused to load sometimes, which loses the horror angle when the Lake Lady’s corpse face is smoothed off like a potato.
At time of writing, I appear to be locked out of progress. As mentioned earlier, I can’t answer an objective-based phone call because I’ve cut the phone line. Yet the game hasn’t cottoned on, so I’m just wandering around aimlessly. It’s not going to get a 0/10 “broken game” score, but it’s not far off at this rate.
Maintaining The Charade
It’s hard to summarise whether you, personally, will like the horror on display here. Considering how many first person horror games I review, it’s not my favourite genre. Yet conversely, I like a good story in these. It’s got the slow burn fear of Visage, which makes me want to see what’s going to happen. It’s just that Martha Is Dead is trying too much at once to make me feel completely engaged.
One “mission”, if you will, has you learn how to use morse-bloody-code apropos of nothing to find a secret Nazi bunker. Why? Your guess is as good as mine, it has no bearing on the main story. I was beginning to lose interest until Giulia had a brief vision of dead Martha to remind me about what I was doing.
If it’s just to pad out the story, then LKA deserve a slap for not having faith in their main story carrying the game by itself. Yet if it’s to sell a bigger scope of events, war and all, it fails on that front for being too flimsy. It’s got too much going on, and that sodding telegram puzzle is this generation’s Silent Hill piano puzzle.
Dead Good Or Just A Floater?
So, this year’s “hot button” of gaming so early in the year, Martha Is Dead is ticking all the boxes to be a shocking title. It’s done the controversy circuit already, prompting changes already implemented in my review copy. But do these shocking moments (the face peeling, drownings and whatnot) overshadow the game, or even sell it as a key feature?
Well, this is the problem, isn’t it? Personally, the face peeling didn’t shock me. Until recently, I’ve worked in operating theatres. I’ve seen limbs at angles they shouldn’t be, amputations, even death by internal bleeding. So no, digitised de-gloving (don’t Google it) doesn’t faze me. However, if you’re not used to it, I can see how it would.
Is it enough to sell the game? No, it isn’t. It’s enough to draw people to a game, and it does that well. But it’s the gameplay that needs to support this. In that regard, Martha Is Dead gets a resounding “S’alright” from me. It’s a walking simulator with a photography angle, with the latter being a nice change to the formula.
But it’s also got some strange tangents, like wordplay chase sequences, Death-as-a-puppet seques and several other plot threads that don’t account to much. In summary, if you’re a fan of gross, first person horror, you should enjoy it. But it is a slow, slow burn of a game to get rolling once the initial shock dies down.
Once the initial shock factor dies down, Martha Is Dead is little more than a walking simulator with a Fatal Frame-esque photography gimmick. It has too many ideas and threads going for it, whereas a focused main plot would have made it much more engaging. A few technical issues marred the immersion, and some of the worst English dubbing since Resident Evil. As long as you aren’t expecting Italian P.T., horror fans may still enjoy this psychological shocker.
Martha Is Dead is available now on PlayStation 4 & 5 (reviewed on latter), Xbox One and Series S|X and PC.
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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