[REVIEW] Martha Is Dead – Fulfilling your daily WTF needs

It’s not often that I put my controller down to contemplate my life choices. Most of you know exactly what kind of moments I’m talking about. You just sit back and think to yourself: “What the fuckedy fuck is wrong with me for watching this?” Granted, that doesn’t happen to me a lot. Born in the ’80s, I grew up watching Faces of Death and Rotten.com, preventing me from becoming one of those snowflakes that gets offended by almost anything. But as of yesterday, one such moment transpired, and I have LKA’s Martha Is Dead to thank for it.

Admittedly, I should have been prepared for it. Martha Is Dead recently made headlines by having it censored on PlayStation’s request. Mind you, PlayStation didn’t even flinch when NetherRealm went balls-to-the-wall with Mortal Kombat 11 and its highly-detailed Fatalities. But Martha Is Dead… that shit was apparently so repugnant that Sony went “Woah there”. And I have to acknowledge, that piqued my interest. A lot. Even though that same fucked-up curiosity has led me to some major disappointment in the past. Yes, I’m looking at you, Agony.

But Martha Is Dead hits the sweet spot just right. Granted that it’s mostly a (painstakingly slow) walking sim, Italian indie dev LKA sure knows how to make it hella offputting. Making a game revolve around death is always a good start. As you already might have guessed, we are dealing with Martha’s death in this game. But it’s not the fact that we’re constantly around a laid-out corpse that makes Martha Is Dead eerie. It’s the things we do to get to the horrible truth that had me going “Aight… Imma head out.” Things like carving off a face and wearing it like a pancake mask.

In Martha Is Dead, this aforementioned ‘horrible truth’ is sought by Giulia, the identical twin sister to the titular Martha. Both daughters to a German father – a high-ranked SS officer – and a troubled Italian mother, Giulia and Martha are holed up in a lakeside house as World War 2 hits Italy. It’s when Giulia – obsessed with photography and a macabre folklore tale of The White Lady – heads out to the foggy lake to take pictures that stuff gets shady. After finding the lifeless corpse of her sister in the said lake, things turn for the worse. What follows is a 5-hour journey to uncover the events that led to Martha’s demise, even if it includes performing unspeakable tasks.

Now, I can’t really delve too deep into the substance that makes Martha Is Dead so incredibly nasty. I wouldn’t want to spoil things for you. But I can tell you one thing. I get why PlayStation had it censored. Martha Is Dead makes you watch things that are deeply disturbing. Things a rational human being should never even contemplate doing. The face-carving is merely one of them. The images presented almost make you believe you’re watching a snuff movie. An exceptionally beautiful, highly-detailed, gore-filled one to boot.

In an industry filled with games that prefer style over substance, “smaller” studios are often overlooked. Now, Florence-based LKA isn’t the newest kid on the block, but I’m pretty sure that plenty of gamers haven’t got the slightest idea of who they are. I used to be one of them. But going by the sheer beauty of Martha Is Dead, you’d almost forget it’s an indie developer. I’m not saying that the game is perfect – because it absolutely isn’t – but LKA is giving a lot of AAA devs a masterclass in making an astonishing horror game without resorting to cliché jump scares here. Even something as innocent as taking pictures and developing them in a dark room – because that’s how you made snaps in 1944 – becomes nerve-wracking if you play your cards right.

But as I said, all is not immaculate in Martha Is Dead. There’s plenty to be said about its performance on PC, the platform on which I reviewed it to get the most out of the uncut content. Even when playing the game in 1080p – a resolution which should be no match for my fairly new gaming PC – frames would drop immensely from time to time. And that’s even with settings dialed down to ‘High’ and DLSS, ray tracing, and motion blur disabled. When I got to a point where Giulia literally fell through the ground after exiting an in-engine cutscene, I knew that Martha Is Dead still needs some tinkering to get it absolutely right.

The same can be said about English voice acting, which misses the mark completely in several cases. It must be said that Martha Is Dead was developed to be played in Italian with according voice acting, which I didn’t. But damn, some people are hard to listen to. Giulia’s dad in particular. After hearing him talk to me, I thought I almost figured out why Martha died (out of sheer boredom). Luckily, Giulia’s voice – the one you’ll hear most of the time as she narrates the story – is pretty dead on. No pun intended. And lastly, that warning at the end, asking people if they want to censor an upcoming scene because it contains disturbing images of self-inflicted harm, that’s pretty rich. You just made me sit through a 5-hour game filled with gruesome content and now you ask?

If we put all of these grievances aside, Martha Is Dead is absolutely a gem of a psychological horror story. Sure, it’s a little rough around the edges at certain points and a stroll to the lake takes ages because of Giulia’s pace and the forest’s immense volume. But when push comes to shove, Martha Is Dead is a controversial game worth the controversy. Plus, the controversy actually serves a purpose, rather than being gory just for the sake of it. This game has an important message to propagate and it does so with tremendous success. One well worth its asking price.

Well played, LKA. Well played indeed.

Uncomfortably enthralling
The Lively
You get to wear someone's face as a mask
Exceptionally captivating horror story
Easy and hard on the eyes at the same time
Great for all you snuff film enthusiasts out there
Despite the gore, the game has a meaningful message to propagate
The Dead
English voice acting is hit&miss
Frame drops and some nasty bugs in PC version
Giulia is slow as fuck for someone who wants answers fast