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Developer: LKA Games Publisher: Wired Productions Format: PC (Reviewed), PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Series S Released: 24th of February, 2022 Time Played: 6 hours, 58 minutes Pre-release copy received free, courtesy of sassygamers.com & LKA Games
A Little Context
If you’re a fan of indie games from the psychological horror subgenre then there’s a strong possibility that you’ve heard of “The Town of Light”, LKA Games’ first project which was released back in early 2016. For the most part, the general consensus on the game was very positive, praising its emotional impact and steady pacing alongside the vast majority of its well-rendered environments.
Not everybody was pleased with it though, with many criticisms being leveled at its lack of outright horror, as The Town of Light took a more nuanced approach to the genre that focused on real-world mental health issues, rather than the more traditional supernatural themes found in the majority of horror games at the time. Regardless: The Town of Light became something of a cult classic over the years that followed, building a small but faithful fan base who have been patiently awaiting LKA’s next game ever since.
Admittedly —despite hearing some very promising things about it over the years— The Town of Light was an experience that completely passed me by, through no fault of its own. I am a rather poor individual and as such: I tend to shy away from short-form narrative-driven indie titles if they have a price of £10 or more. Without some reassurance that a game’s length is substantial enough to satiate me, or that its quality level is high enough to warrant the cost of admission, then I simply won’t be willing to bite the bullet. Obviously, I’d love nothing more than to play and support every indie game possible without having to take length or price into consideration, but monetary limitations do exist and I would be a financial fool not to abide by mine!
At any rate, I was convinced that The Town of Light was a good game, but that it was likely a tad niche given the subdued level of success that it had received. I was also certain that it’s How Long To Beat’ time likely had enough submissions for its supposed 4 to 5-hour completionist length to be accurate. Between this short runtime and the possibility that I wouldn’t be the right audience for it, I decided to wait until a good sale came along before picking it up. Unfortunately, though, every time a decent sale did come along I either had no money to buy it or had another gaming release in my sights which I opted for instead.
That Leads Us To…
Six whole years later and here we finally are with LKA’s newly released second game: Martha Is Dead. When I received this unexpected yet wonderful opportunity to play through a free pre-release review copy of the game, I simply couldn’t say no. I was absolutely determined to give it the time and attention that I wish I could’ve given to The Town of Light all those years ago. The time and attention that it deserved.
We’ll dive into some spoiler-free thoughts and feelings about the quality of Martha Is Dead in just a moment, but there’s something particularly relevant that I’d like to mention first… Once the credits had finished rolling and I had finally dried my tears; I closed the game and —despite all of the deliberating and penny countings I’d done over the years— I immediately went to The Town of Light’s store page and purchased it at full price! Personally, I feel this tells you everything you really need to know about my thoughts on this game: It is incredible.
A Final Note
As odd as it may be, it was actually the publisher that first drew me to this game. Wired Productions have published a wide array of enjoyable products over the years, from fantasy aerial dogfighter The Falconeer, to a number of fantastic narratives with horror undertones such as Close to the Sun, Those Who Remain, and Deliver Us The Moon. If Wired hadn’t been involved then I likely wouldn’t have even heard of Martha Is Dead, so be sure to check them out if you’re on the hunt for some high-quality indie releases. Anyway, let’s get on with the show!
Martha Is Dead is the tale of Giulia, who lives in a luxurious villa in the countryside of Tuscany with her mother, father, and twin sister Martha. The year is 1944 and with her father Erich being a high-ranking general of the Wehrmacht, (the unified army of Nazi Germany), tensions are high and conflicts often strike far too close to home. This highly intricate setup serves as an excellent framework for the deeply layered story that the game intends to tell, which is only complicated further by the individual complexities of each of its characters.
Giulia’s mother is always showing preferential treatment towards Martha, and her recent excessive use of medication has been affecting her personality in a number of ways. Erich is often absent from the family on account of his military duties, though he has grown weary over the years from all the pain and suffering that the war has wrought. Martha has been deaf for as long as Giulia remembers, and nobody other than her sister ever seems to put in the effort to truly communicate with her. Thankfully, the twins’ local friend Lapo has been known to support the duo well, but given his ties to the Italian Partisan movement: His presence poses a great risk to everybody involved.
One problem that the family is facing, however, is far more significant than any other, as the title of this game is depressingly self-explanatory: Martha is dead… On a fateful misty morning in the middle of July, Giulia leaves the comfort of her home in order to visit the villa’s nearby lake. She’s initially rather excited to see the results of her time-lapse photography, as she set up several of her cameras along the shore overnight; But this feeling of excitement quickly turns into an abundance of despair.
After ejecting its roll of film, she adjusts her first camera’s lens and peers into its viewfinder. What she sees shocks her to her core: A body, floating lifelessly in the water, bizarrely donned in one of her own dresses… Without a moment’s hesitation, Giulia rushes into the lake and drags the body back to land to the best of her abilities, but she’s too late; Martha is dead and nothing can be done.
Following this traumatic event, Giulia makes an improvised decision —one which I shall not spoil here— the repercussions of which serve as the core premise of this tale. From this moment onwards, Giulia’s mental well-being is significantly altered, with the lines between reality and imagination becoming blurred and distorted. It’s a fascinating starting point for any game, shrouded in mystery and beset by countless story threads of both a personal and political nature. There are so many consequences that must be dealt with if Giulia wants to learn more about the death of her sister, but will this be possible with her mind so severely fragmented?
From this: The true terror begins. Martha Is Dead is not a traditional horror story by any stretch of the imagination, with typical hauntings, monsters, and killers being ignored entirely in favour of a much more realistic flavour of fear… It is grounded in the real-world torment of mental health issues and the despair and desperation that can accompany them at their worst. Primarily, it tends to focus on the types of delusions and psychoses that can accompany a complete and utter mental collapse, making it an excessively strenuous experience at any given moment.
Scared isn’t the right word for how this journey made me feel… If anything, Martha Is Dead is the first game in a long time to make me feel well and truly perturbed. It tends to avoid relying upon jumpscares to punctuate its tension, instead of focusing on a gradual build-up of multiple variations of discomfort. It utilizes our latent fears over losing our sense of selves, whilst also exploiting our natural disgust towards the extreme depravity that some individuals are capable of.
Despite this very specific focus, I’d certainly say that there are a number of conventional horror tropes that still rear their head from time to time throughout the story. Usually, these tropes are presented with a distinctly eerie atmosphere and a notably unique tone, ultimately becoming reminiscent of some recent folklore horror films such as Hereditary or Midsommar. Yet, even when it comes down to the most outlandish examples of these tropes: The game always ties them back into the central theme of mental health in one way or another. How this makes a player feel will likely vary from person to person…
You see, with a story based around such a horrible real-world concept, players will likely experience some drastically different emotions to one another in response to Martha Is Dead. As someone who has experienced countless mental health issues over the years, (albeit not to the extent of experiencing psychoses), I found it to be a sympathetic tale of grief and identity that was truly hard to stomach at times… Yet despite that, I still found myself fascinated by every one of its twists and turns, consistently impressed by the levels of gritty and horrific detail that the story was willing to address.
Martha Is Dead did make me feel anxious, uncomfortable, and afraid in ways that most recent horror games have failed to evoke from me, but I also felt something much more significant… Chief among my emotions whilst playing was a form of guilt by association towards protagonist Giulia’s actions, a feeling which I don’t recall ever having experienced before in response to a fictional narrative. The only issue amidst all these details is that an arduous and overwhelming emotional experience like this one makes for a very niche story indeed!
Very similar to what happened with The Town of Light: An extremely limited number of people are going to see the appeal of a game like this —not least of all due to how disturbing it is— and fewer still will understand the place that its creator is coming from…
Thus, a content warning:
-Disfigurement of human bodies
-Discussions of mental health issues & masturbation
It’s a long list of topics that will be horrifying to some and slightly uncomfortable to others, varying from subject to subject. Unfortunately, though, it’s very necessary to highlight just how impactful and disconcerting Martha Is Dead can be. If you’re not okay with any one of these topics, then Martha Is Dead is absolutely not an experience you’ll enjoy or appreciate. Put simply: This is a game for an extremely limited target audience, for better or for worse.
It’s safe to say that gameplay isn’t the main focus of Martha Is Dead, as the story functions as both the heart and soul of this narrative adventure. Fortunately, the developers have put a lot of time and effort into ensuring that the gameplay doesn’t feel lacking in any way. For all intents and purposes; Martha Is Dead can be viewed as a game from the “Walking Simulator” genre, (in the same vein as Firewatch, The Suicide of Rachel Foster, or What Remains of Edith Finch), but to describe it as such would be to severely misrepresent the level of interactivity and exploration that this experience has to offer.
There are dozens of examination cues throughout the large Villa grounds that Giulia can explore, several of which are also accompanied by short Quick Time Events that build upon the realistic nature of your interactions within the world. With numerous documents to read, radio broadcasts to hear, and environmental changes to notice, the Villa never feels static even when it stands completely still, as there are always more details to be found if you peer beneath the surface of any given area.
Plenty of unexpectedly varied gameplay sections await you in Giulia’s journey too, from in-depth puzzles and dialogue options to highly interactive marionette plays and even a couple of chase sequences! All in all, Martha Is Dead demonstrates a number of gameplay mechanics that really shake up the traditional walking simulator framework, in order to keep players engaged at each major story beat. As such: You’ll never find yourself doing any particular activity long enough for it to become stale.
Another cornerstone of Martha Is Dead’s gameplay is photography, utilized frequently for essential progress, optional world-building, and even a few instances of secret hunting. This may well be the most detailed photography system I’ve encountered outside of literal camera simulation games; A fact that certainly caught me off-guard. Personally, I’d even go as far as to say that this mechanic often rivals the elaborate photo modes found in most recent AAA titles.
Consisting of a vast number of equipable lenses and film types, alongside a detailed selection of options for exposure, aperture, and focus customizations, this mechanic is extremely well developed —pun intended— and is sure to meet your needs. Add on a simplified (yet highly immersive) darkroom process for adjusting your photograph’s size, along with the ability to manually submerge it in a bath of developer fluid, and you end up with an extremely satisfying system that manages to successfully enthrall you in the world of 1940s photography.
Exploration is particularly freeing here when compared with other walking simulators, simply due to the range of traversal options available to you. In addition to walking and running, Giulia owns a bicycle that can be ridden around the grounds, alongside a small motorboat for investigating the expansive lake where Martha met her demise. The bike admittedly had a number of bugs in the build I played, but given that my playthrough occurred prior to the game’s day one patch, it’s not exactly surprising and will most certainly be fixed before launch. Regardless of the bugs though, I definitely appreciated having some extra options when it came to touring around the area.
One shortcoming of the exploration, however, is the game’s reluctance to give any substantial direction when it comes to optional objectives. Very early on in the game, I was tasked with finding an air pump to inflate a flat tire on Giulia’s bicycle. Unlocking the bike seemed like it would be very useful to me so I delved straight into the search; A task that should have been a simple case of glancing at my map and finding the associated objective marker.
Unfortunately, it turns out that these map markers only appear for main story objectives, meaning that the next fifteen minutes were spent searching high and low, both in and around Giulia’s home. Ultimately I found the air pump attached to another bicycle just outside of the main building, which would have been a sensible enough place to find it were it not for the fact that I had already looked there prior to getting the task, yet did not receive the ever-elusive air pump for doing so. The whole experience was admittedly a tad frustrating.
Another example of this issue would be from one of the more substantial optional objectives, which requested I search for an alternate entrance to a gated-off area. I patrolled in a grid-like manner around the map for a rather lengthy amount of time before I found the passage I was looking for, as once again: No objective markers were provided. The alternate entrance turned out to be tucked away at the complete opposite end of the map, accessible only by the motorboat and hidden from sight unless I was already exploring the lake…
Do these examples constitute bad game design? Not necessarily, as both occasions prompted me to explore in greater detail than I otherwise would have, which in turn led me to find several other points of interest. Yet, with that said, the mild frustration did start to grow stronger as I sunk more and more time into my search… I understand that a specific map marker would’ve likely caused more harm than good to the exploratory sections of the game, but perhaps a large section of the map being highlighted with an “I should search around here” style notation could’ve remedied the issue whilst still encouraging players to observe their surroundings more closely.
Overall, the gameplay of Martha Is Dead has much more to offer than you’d initially expect, yet it requires a vast amount of patience in order to truly be enjoyed. Moving from one area to another, developing photographs, searching for hidden objects and interactions; All of these things take a substantial amount of time, and —much like the story’s subject matter— it certainly isn’t going to appeal to everybody. Personally, I loved just about every second of this journey and felt that each long-winded process only lead to further immersion, beyond the two exasperating examples above. With that said, I can certainly picture a lot of players gritting their teeth, eager to speed things up and get through to the next major story beat. Suffice to say that patience is essential.
Graphics and Audio
Throughout my life, I’ve crossed paths with countless gorgeous indie games that have absolutely blown me away with their stylized visuals and unique artistic designs. Whether the graphics are cell-shaded, pixelized, voxel-based, or hand-drawn, indie games tend to rely on a distinct art style in order to direct attention away from their graphical shortcomings. The vast majority of indie development teams just don’t have the budget or staff to create visuals that are on part with AAA releases, and that’s okay. It’s a completely understandable concept and is usually beneficial in more ways than one, as it often leads to more unique and eye-catching visuals as a result of these distinct styles.
Martha Is Dead, of course, relies heavily upon realism in all of its facets, with graphical fidelity being no exception. I honestly have no clue how they’ve managed it, but the team at LKA Games has somehow managed to create such a photo-realistic art style that this title could easily compete with AAA games of the modern era. The level of artistic detail here is breathtaking at times across all of its surroundings, character models, and effects. I genuinely don’t know how they did it!
Being used as a backdrop to this story, Tuscany’s countryside serves as a truly captivating collection of environments, which feel equal parts mesmerizing and isolating. Whether you’re observing the most minuscule details of each house furnishing or taking in the lake’s water effects and the lighting between each tree branch: This game is stunning. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered an indie game with such a well realized representation of the real world! Words truly aren’t enough to convey just how impressed I am.
Audio design is another crowning achievement of Martha Is Dead, particularly on account of its voice acting. By default the game’s language option is set to native Italian, making it the very first indie game to feature this as a default across all regions at launch. This dramatically increases the immersion as you listen intently to each stellar performance from its incredibly talented cast of actors! Whilst I can’t speak for the quality of the German voice acting, (having not heard it myself), the English language cast also worked hard to deliver compelling emotional portrayals of their respective characters. No matter how good the English track may be though, the Italian voice work is definitely the highlight here and I’d recommend it to anyone willing to give it a go.
Music functions as yet another high point to strengthen the ambience, feeling every bit as authentic as the voice acting. The soundtrack is filled with some remarkably atmospheric OST tracks alongside a large number of vintage songs from the era, often reimagined by the great talents of Aspetic Mind and Between Music. A neat additional detail here is that the villa’s radios must be kept on at all times, as keeping up with the news during wartime can mean the difference between life and death; This concept functions as a satisfying explanation for the constant music, whilst keeping the game’s storytelling at its forefront. It really goes to show just how much thought was put into each and every aspect of this game!
Martha Is Dead is a truly incredible experience. Any source of frustration voiced in my review was fleeting in the grand scheme of things and was by no means damaging to the quality on the whole. It’s an evocative experience from start to finish that kept me feeling a wide range of emotions throughout each of its key scenes, with enough gameplay variety to keep me consistently engaged. Each aspect of its visuals, voice acting, and music increased the enjoyment factor and grounded me further into the story’s setting, in turn leading the narrative to become more and more effective as the story played out.
Yes, it is an extremely niche game and a lot of people will not enjoy it at all. It’s a shame, but that just is how it is. Regardless, Martha Is Dead sets out with the intention of telling a very specific story in a very specific way; A task which it succeeds at without the slightest shadow of a doubt. It’s a near-perfect example of a dark narrative adventure game no matter how narrow its audience may be, and it certainly doesn’t deserve to lose any points just because it has a specific demographic in mind. Everything it strives to do: It does well.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m finally going to go and enjoy my long overdue playthrough of The Town of Light… After that, who knows? Odds are I’ll probably play Martha Is Dead again, just to see what I might have missed!