Martha is Dead is finally available today, and we have been absolutely enamoured by the ambitions of the developer and how much effort they have put into making this game.
The story is narrated by Giulia, as she recounts finding her sister’s dead body washing up ashore, hurtling her into a murder mystery in the early days of World War 2. The tale she weaves mixes elements of superstition, a war invasion and the highlights of a deeply broken family.
Whilst the gameplay itself is nothing new or revolutionary, the amount of detail they’ve put into making everything so interactable is mindblowing. In fact on a technical level, the game is very impressive, and LKA has utilised various techniques from full-body animations to in-depth IK in order to deliver an immersive experience. You are not a floating head, but instead, if you look down, you will see a fully animated body, grounding it to the overall experience, as well as physical interaction with the items found in the world.
Of course, many will already be accustomed to such features, especially when it comes to first-person action games, but the reason I specifically called it out with Martha is that it isn’t as common in first-person indie adventure games, let alone polished to such an extent.
Even simple acts of opening/closing key items during investigation sequences, or examining certain objects are gameplay driven, and players are given as much control as possible. LKA could have easily relegated these sections to a scripted cutscene, but it’s commendable that they’ve tried to keep interaction as high as possible, keeping you engaged throughout.
The main highlight, of course, is the story, and it is something that will keep you guessing for quite a while. You see, Giulia is an unreliable narrator, where certain events she talks about can contradict what you see or witness in her memories. This is a difficult trope to pull off in a videogame, and whilst LKA hasn’t hit the highs I was hoping for, they’ve done a remarkable job telling this story.
I continuously questioned the motives of not only the supporting cast but the protagonist as well. The deeper she went down the rabbit hole, the more uncertain her tale became. The ending might be a bit contentious, as it is rather ambiguous, and mostly tries to encourage the player to go away with their own understanding of what happened. This will clearly not be everyone’s cup of tea with some preferring a clearer explanation, something this game doesn’t give.
What makes the story really stand out, however, is how it juggles different themes. There are elements of family drama, supernatural occurrences, murder mystery and war thrillers all present in a single game. In one mission you will be trying to find clues to your sister’s death, whilst in another, you might be trying to sabotage military operations or summon the ghostly white lady.
It is a tricky thing to pull off, and whilst I wouldn’t say they’ve achieved a perfect balance here, it’s not as jarring as you would think, especially as the true nature of Guilia comes into play towards the end, and the veil separating these elements starts to lift, bleeding them into one another.
Again, a lot of this wouldn’t have worked as well, had LKA not managed to deliver such a technically impressive experience. The scripted events and cutscenes are engrossing, with some really interesting cinematography and horror imagery utilised for maximum effect. Sadly, some of the scares aren’t timed as well as they could have been, and they usually just happen, without any sort of clever build-up, making them feel lacking. The ideas are great, but the execution leaves some room for improvement.
The graphics are outstanding, however, as it looks breathtaking with some of the most impressive lighting I have seen in a game, further highlighted by the game’s show-stealing camera mechanic. Early on, we find out that Giulia is a talented photographer, a hobby inherited from her father, who used to be a war photographer, now acting as a general in the army.
The camera is not a modern handheld as you would expect, and is a very early model that shoots in black and whites. LKA has found a perfect balance between usability and complexity where even though you have to account for different filters and addons like flashes and lenses to get the best photos, they’ve streamlined some processes.
One such process is the development of photos in the darkroom where you can expect to spend a good portion of time, and as such, the developers don’t make you go through the full realistic process of image generation, but instead simplify it to a few actions only. What is interesting is that they still give you good educational information on how it works in real life, but make it clear that the process has been simplified for gameplay purposes.
Early photography is not the only thing I found out about through this game, but also morse codes and sending out telegrams, as one of the side missions involved helping Italian rebels sabotage the German army. I do think this aspect could have been explained a bit better, as I got lucky with some prior knowledge to get me through these sections. As such, I fully anticipate that most people will have to learn about the basics of reading morse codes to even complete these sections.
Whilst it is a good thing that these are completely optional, the game never really tells you when the cut-off point for completing these objectives are, locking you out of some easy achievements and key areas after a certain point.
Another thing that felt odd was Giulia’s narration during gameplay, as she likes to talk quite a lot, describing everything that happens around her in a little too much detail, often oversharing solutions to a puzzle that players could instead try to solve themselves.
The puzzles themselves aren’t too complicated, as the game mostly boils down to finding and using certain objects, but as mentioned, the gameplay is not as passive as some might think, with gameplay elements that ask for your full engagement. The IR puzzles are worth mentioning, as they take you on a scavenger hunt of sorts with clues and riddles found when picturing certain locations.
Another gameplay element that is worth mentioning is the bicycle you can ride. When the game originally mentioned that I could use it to travel quickly to certain parts of the map, I thought it was going to be a fast travel option but instead turned out to be freely ridable.
Sadly, it is also the buggiest part of the game, and I have had to reload my saves after I couldn’t get off due to certain elevations of the ground, which seems to be blocking the exit. Not to mention the tight design of certain paths through the forest (all of which is open to you), can be a bit tricky to navigate on a bike.
Ultimately, it shows the dedication LKA has put into creating this game. There aren’t many bugs in this game that made me lose progress, but there were quite a few related to the game’s audio and music, where certain musical themes wouldn’t play, cheapening the experience and would even cause a crash during some scenes.
The music itself is phenomenal, and the composer has done a remarkable job in complementing the strong atmosphere of the game, utilising a mix of beautiful vocals with tense orchestral progression.
The Italian voice acting is the default and recommended way of playing the game for authenticity, a move that I wholeheartedly applaud and wish more games would do. The English voice acting, however, has a lot left to be desired, with amateur British accents and inexperienced voice actors taking you out of the experience.
Now, let’s address the elephant in the room, the apparent grotesque nature of the game which has caused it to be censored on Playstation by Sony. If you are wondering if the gore in-game is really as bad as it’s being made to be, then the quick answer for you is… YES. What makes this stand out more, is the fact that certain mini-games have you interacting with some gruesome mechanics. Cutting off someone’s face, and slicing through a dead body’s abdomen to find her unborn child were some of the things I had to manually take part in.
There is an argument to be made as to whether or not these scenes are necessary, and that’s an answer even I can’t give at the moment, due to just how complex some of the themes this game deals with are. It doesn’t necessarily always do them justice, but it does reflect on them in interesting ways.
Overall, if you have the stomach for it, and are a fan of adventure games, preferring to focus more on the mystery over reflex-based actions, then you should not miss this. Martha is Dead is an impressively crafted game that deserves to be played, even if the storytelling and mixing of contrasting themes aren’t as elegant as they could be and more polish around the pacing of certain scenes could have elevated the experience even further.