Review: Martha is Dead – A Cold Case

When I first read about LKA’s Martha is Dead, a psychological thriller game where you play a young girl in 1940s Italy as she investigates the murder of her twin sister, I absolutely couldn’t resist. Even more so when the gameplay trailers hinted towards horror themes. The story sounded truly compelling, and the setting and atmosphere felt incredibly unique – the true question is whether Martha is Dead lives up to the hype. Unfortunately, it falls a little flat, and how close it came to being a masterpiece is what let it down the most. This review contains spoilers for Martha is Dead.

Martha is Dead is set in the Italian countryside of 1944, as the conflict between German and Allied forces draws near. You play as Giulia, the daughter of a German general who has moved his family to Italy during the war. We start off as Giulia is taking pictures of a lake close to her home when she discovers a woman’s body floating in the water – her deaf twin sister, Martha. As well as being the protagonist, Giulia also narrates the story as it progresses, and points out that her mother has always despised her and favored Martha. As Giulia drags her twin sister from the lake, her parents come rushing over, they recognise that Martha is wearing one of Giulia’s dresses, and mistake Giulia for her twin sister. In the moment, Giulia fails to correct them, and ends up unwillingly stealing her dead sister’s identity.

Although Giulia’s recollection of that day is unclear due to her trauma, one thing she knows for certain is that someone has murdered her sister. While her parents and the military assume this to be a political incident, Giulia believes otherwise, and sets out to find the killer. As Giulia, you will investigate the case by interacting with objects around the house and taking pictures as evidence; Giulia is a keen photographer and will collect different add-ons for her camera as you explore, which will broaden the kind of pictures that you can take from close-ups to thermal images. Two key areas of the house are locked: Martha’s lockbox and Giulia’s childhood bedroom; you need access to them in order to solve the case.

Martha is dead and Giulia will go to great lengths to solve her murder.

The Italian countryside presented in Martha is Dead is drop-dead gorgeous. Created on the Unreal Engine 4, Martha is Dead demonstrates some beautiful visuals and incredible graphics for an indie game. The atmosphere is perfect, and the area is almost serene as you explore the house and the grounds around it with birds tweeting in the trees and the golden hour sun filtering through the trees. I did encounter a few graphical glitches during my playthrough, with some walls of the house failing to load textures for the whole duration of the game and, at some points, the darker areas of rooms became completely pitch black and almost impossible to make my way around. However, this is based on a review copy, hopefully these issues will be ironed out in the day one patch.

The gameplay is fine for a story-driven game. As you interact with certain objects, Giulia will often give you a backstory around them to give you more information on her character, her family and 1940s Italy. One of my main criticisms of the gameplay would be that the markers for interacting with objects are really small and easy to miss, especially if you don’t have the best eyesight. A sound cue similar to the one used in L.A Noire when you draw nearer to an interactable object would have been suited for this – especially when the environment is so detailed that these markers don’t stand out very well. You are also unable to select certain quests to focus on, making it incredibly difficult to complete the quests that aren’t a part of the main story as their objective markers won’t appear on the map.

The dialogue is unskippable, which is manageable until you accidentally select an object and Giulia starts to suddenly start narrating about it, then you’ve got to wait for her to finish until you can move on – and the majority of the time, it’s needless information. You’re also not given the option to simply read letters rather than having Giulia read them aloud, as someone who reads quite quickly, I much prefer being able to skim over them myself rather than have to listen to Giulia blabbing along (don’t get me wrong, the voice acting is amazing, as is her narration) until you can put the damn thing down and continue the story.

One of the major highlights of Martha is Dead is its visuals.

Some of the settings also don’t seem to work. During some of the more intense scenes, your controller will vibrate if you are using one. However, on PlayStation 5 this vibration was so intense that it was actually really annoying and distracting from what was going on in the scene. I even put the controller down onto the sofa to give my hands a rest from the vibrations and the entire sofa was shaking as a result. I tried turning off the vibration in the menu, but the game just ignores this and carries on anyway. And that’s another point, you can’t change the settings in-game; you have to go back into the title menu – even if it’s just something small.

As well as the main story, Martha is Deadalso has several side missions that the player can complete around the map. One of these includes potentially aiding a rebellion that your friend was a part of, or instead turning them in to your father. This adds extra depth to Martha is Dead’s World War II setting and almost seems to give the player the option to rectify the fact that Giulia’s father is a German soldier, who she blindly supports, by having her betray him for a cause that she doesn’t have any clue about. But asides from this mission, the side quests feel tacked on to increase the amount of gameplay offered; most of the time they feel pointless, such as watering the flowers in the chapel or finding a pump for your bike so that you can travel around the map quicker (not essential, you can just walk everywhere instead as the map isn’t very big).

As well as exploring the grounds around Giulia’s house, the gameplay also includes interacting with cut scenes by pressing buttons to prompt Giulia to perform certain actions – a classic tactic of, again, lumping in some more player interaction into a story-driven game just for the sake of having more things to do. I’ve always hated this kind of gameplay, it feels pointless to press a button for the character to lift something or pick up an object during a cutscene, just let us watch it unfold properly. On top of this, Martha is Dead takes this kind of gameplay way too far, as I’ll explain below.

A large part of the gameplay involves taking pictures with Giulia’s camera to record evidence.

When Martha is Dead hit headlines just a few weeks before its release due to a controversial move by Sony to enforce censorship onto the game, I thought “what on Earth is in this game for THIS to be censored and not the likes of the Resident Evil series, The Evil Within, Outlast, and The Last of Us Part II’’? Of course, this isn’t the first time that Sony has stepped in to protect the innocent eyes of its customers. There was a brief period after Devil May Cry 5‘s release when PlayStation players in some regions were deprived the opportunity to gaze upon the bare buttcheeks of several of its female characters, their dignity preserved by a tactically-placed lens flare. Unfortunately, they couldn’t help us out from the cannibal phalluses in The Forest or save us the embarrassment of our parents walking in while we’re styling the pubes of our Cyberpunk 2077 characters, but all I can say is thank god I didn’t have to see some of the hottest female characters in video games naked because that would have scarred me more than being chased by a giant aborted fetus in Resident Evil Village. To our horror, the lens flares in Devil May Cry 5 were quickly removed once enough people complained (excluding Europe), now I’m in therapy.

Of course, in line with the majority’s opinion – I do not agree with this kind of censorship, especially when it’s for a game developed for adults that has already been given an age rating based on its country of distribution’s laws. However, in terms of the content presented in Martha is Dead, I’m re-reflecting on my previous stance. When the news came out that certain scenes would be censored, I assumed that these scenes had been removed entirely. This isn’t the case. Martha is Dead already gives you the option to censor such scenes and keep them out of the game altogether. This content includes graphic imagery of violence and a scene featuring an abortion. If you are playing the game on PlayStation, these scenes are not completely cut if you have opted to play the game uncensored. What is cut is the prompt to get the player to press buttons and perform these actions themselves – such as a scene where the protagonist has a vivid nightmare of her cutting off her twin sister’s face and then wearing it. The cut content is the player having controller input to use the scissors to remove someone’s face. It’s a similar scenario in a scene featuring an abortion. On this occasion, I agree with Sony’s decision. Such interactions are incredibly extreme and unneeded – just watching this was bad enough. In fact, these, again, feel tacked on to increase shock value and horror. I hated this tactic in The Last of Us Part II, and I hate it here; it’s not just showing that the protagonist is morally gray, but it’s also forcing the player to undertake these actions when they don’t really need to.

Unfortunately, although Martha is Dead‘s story starts off on a high note, it gradually declines midway through the game. Giulia’s whole investigation is pretty ropey. To begin with, the only suspect is either Giulia, or her mother. Take your pick. In a mystery game, there are two possible suspects presented to the player (unless you believe her parents’ theory that it was a political move), which doesn’t exactly do much for any intrigue surrounding the investigation. On top of this, the way Giulia goes about gathering evidence and using it to narrow down the investigation is also questionable. At one point, she even suspects herself of murdering Martha as her memory is hazy. So, she collects her film roll from her photography session from that day, and summarizes that, because there is footage of her rescuing her sister’s corpse from the lake – then she couldn’t have possibly had a psychotic breakdown and murdered her, even though there’s missing footage of her sister actually being murdered and, like Giulia says herself, her memory is unreliable. Her evidence surrounding her mother becoming a suspect is, again, questionable. She finds a piece of torn material in the bush which is also present among her mother’s sewing items – so her mother must have beat her sister to death with a cane? We get the impression that maybe Giulia is just making this a bit personal.

Martha is Dead does a stunning job of capturing 1940s Italy.

Not to mention that Giulia’s actions and decisions are incredibly frustrating at the best of times. She encounters German soldiers chasing rebels through the woods so… decides to follow them? Oh surprise, she gets shot. Who could have predicted that one? On top of this, her investigation relies heavily on tarot cards and talking to ghosts, although this is following the Italian folklore that the game explores, it’s annoying how this is included in the investigation and used as viable evidence. With this, the scene where she performs an abortion on her twin sister’s dead body and the whole identify theft, unexpectedly, I found myself siding with her mother a lot of the time, maybe this nutcase should get professional help… It’s made clear around midway through the game that Giulia is an unreliable narrator. Her memory of certain situations is unclear, so we can’t always trust what we have seen through her eyes or how she says an event happened. I found this to be one of the greatest drivers for the storyline. We constantly feel uneasy throughout the game; we can’t trust anyone or even rely on the main protagonist. I wish there had been more to this and less ghost hunting.

In a way, Martha is Dead is like a ghost of what should have been an incredible game. The storyline feels like a first draft of something amazing and really needed some fleshing out first. We could have done with more characters, more people to suspect of this murder and more questions to ponder over. I feel like there could have been a lot more to it, especially when the game constantly brings up background characters that are talked about but never shown. We could have met the caretaker, the local priest, the nanny – and all of this would have given us more of a mystery and a more fleshed-out story to unravel. It would have had us thinking that maybe the nanny did it all along, or maybe it was the priest or even the caretaker. If we’d had more interactions with the rebels and Giulia and Martha’s friend, Lapo, maybe we could have added them to the investigation too.

The game ends with the twist that Giulia murdered her own sister. As far as I could make out in what felt like a rushed ending told mostly through surreal imagery, there is no reason given for the murder other than the fact that Giulia was driven insane by her mother’s mistreatment from an early age. Her mother wasn’t always awful, Giulia’s perception of her is built around a traumatic incident during one of her mother’s early mental health breakdowns. In fact, the ending feels so rushed that it even offers the player the choice to just make up what happened as you’re being interviewed by Martha presented as a doll at the end of the game, and she asks you what has happened which you can answer using a dialogue wheel. We’re also given a roundup of how our decisions in the side quests have affected the game, although I’m yet to replay the story to find out what happens if you go with the other side as the thought of sitting through so much unskippable dialogue has put me off.

A lot of Martha is Dead’s exposition is told through surreal imagery that doesn’t make sense a lot of the time.

Martha is Dead starts off really well. It has a great introduction to a character who has made a terrible, morally gray choice. It has a really interesting setting and a beautiful map to explore. I loved exploring this scenic location in the Italian countryside as well as experimenting with the photography aspects. You feel attached to the character and her love for her twin sister, so the stakes of the investigation feels high. The only problem is that this all slips away the further you progress, when you realize that the story is missing something. With its incredible twist and captivating story telling, Martha is Dead really could have been something breath-taking. Unfortunately, it just misses the mark. I enjoyed it up until the final act, and played it non-stop over two days to find out what had happened – which is why I would cautiously recommend this game.

Jess played Martha is Dead on PlayStation 5 with a review copy provided by the developer.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments