Martha Is Dead – Preview Impressions – It’s a Tastefully Horrifying Game
Martha Is Dead is a first-person horror game set in 1940’s Italy that manages to be both lovely and horrifying at the same time. I won’t give any spoilers in our impressions of the preview build. The only kind of spoiler I’ll say is that “Martha Is Dead” (as the game’s name implies). The screenshots I’ll provide herein won’t spoil the plot and won’t be gory in case you’re squeamish.
The protagonist you control is named Giulia and her twin sister is Martha, who is found dead at the beginning of the game. Giulia uses the tools available to her such as her camera to figure out who killed Martha. The premise is simple, but with all of the characters thrown in and without spoiling any plotlines, the plot becomes a lot more complex very quickly.
The game is set in 1940’s Italy during World War 2 and Giulia lives with her parents. The game really does showcase the tragedy of war and it’s very respectfully done. It doesn’t glorify war at all. My heart sank when I read through the newspapers in the game, who tried to pin Martha’s murder as something political when it likely wasn’t. Giulia will often comment on how lucky she is to have a house and plenty of food during a time of war. Newspapers will also explain about how supplies are very limited, and that food must be rationed to starving families.
Although they’re living in Italy, Martha’s father is a German general and gets secret transmissions and telegrams that provide additional insight into the war. If you complete optional objectives you can even find secrets hidden in the game.
There is a lot of lore in the game, not just with the time period but with the main cast of characters. The main hub of the game is Giulia’s house where the majority of the game takes place. The game is linear at first, but eventually you’re given the option to explore freely before completing the main missions. Her house is somewhat large and they are a rich Italian family. Not the richest, mind you, but very well-off.
There are many rooms in the house with plenty of objects to examine. All objects will have Giulia narrate them when you examine them and many of these objects, such as family portraits, tell the story of Giulia’s family. There’s a lot of beautifully crafted Italian paintings as well you can look at, such as an artist’s depiction of Dante’s Inferno. There’s also a radio featuring songs of that time period you can turn on and you can also change the station.
It’s not a good idea to rush through this game because Giulia’s house is full of interesting objects to examine and the developers put a lot of creativity into making her house feel like a real house someone would live in for the time period.
The graphics of the game are very decent for a game of this scope and the art direction is top-notch. It’s trying to be realistic for the time period and it really does a good job. Another example of a game that did a good job with the art direction in a similar way was A Plague Tale: Innocence, though that was set in 1358 in what would be present-day France. In Martha Is Dead, the nearby forest, the lake, the bridge, the farm and its animals are all beautiful and juxtapose the horror parts of the game that I’ll get more into soon.
The language of the game defaults to Italian voiceover with English subtitles and that is the developers’ intended way to play the game. I’ve played it both in Italian and in English, and although it was meant to be played in Italian, the English voiced dialogue is certainly good as well. In Italian the game plays like watching a foreign film, which is really fun because it immersed me into the Italian landscape. Still, if you’re not comfortable playing the game with Italian voiceover and English subtitles, English voiceover is available and this can changed in the settings.
The gameplay is in first-person view and involves moving Giulia around and examining objects. During certain game segments you’ll need to press combinations of buttons or analog stick directions to proceed, such as through setting up her camera. Some of them are quick-time events where you need to press the sequence of buttons within a few seconds while being chased.
You’re given choices with your actions, but you don’t have speech choices due to the narrative. An example of a choice given was whether to “sign the cross” when kneeling before a dead body, or just immediately get up without doing so.
There are also scenes where Giulia is flying through the air and has to choose paths with words to complete a sentence for a plot event that happened (it’s like the Psyche Taxi minigame in the Danganronpa series). You’ll restart these sections if you put in an incorrect word, but they’re short and easy for the most part and serve as a good refresher for the plot events that happened.
The game has a hint feature that you can activate to highlight all examinable objects in the area. In addition, there’s also a journal to view your objectives. There are both main and optional story objectives in the journal and it does provide hints in the text if you’re stuck in the game.
Some of the items needed to progress the game can be a little tricky to find, but if you read the journal and take the game slowly you can find everything without issue. During the early story I had to find a bicycle pump, which was attached on another bicycle by another side of the house’s exits. I was also able to collect scissors and a tripod for Giulia’s camera. If you really get stuck, the journal will provide a hint, such as it explaining that the camera tripod is downstairs.
Although her family’s house is large, it’s the main area of the game and you can memorize its layout within an hour or less. It’s important to remember the room where Giulia can develop her photography for example because she will need to return there often.
When you fix Giulia’s bicycle you’re able to travel more quickly outside and you can explore the surrounding forest. Sadly, I found the bicycle to be very troublesome to use due to being slow to accelerate and due to it not being able to go up and down stairs. There’s a boat that you can use to travel around the lake that controls far better, but you can only use it on the water. It does feel very romantic!
Other important gameplay elements include taking pictures with Giulia’s camera and developing the photos, which is required for many of the main missions in the game. The game’s explanation is a bit wordy and I can see these aspects being off-putting to many people because the controls are a bit odd. The user interface while holding the camera is a bit too convoluted with many moving parts on the screen at once.
The best thing to remember is that there are 3 elements of the photo you can change, including the exposure, aperture and focus and each of these can be turned up or down by using a control, left analog stick, right analog stick, and left/right directional pad, respectively. You don’t need to change them all at once, you can do it one-by-one and when you get more practice it’s pretty simple, it’s just that it looks intimidating.
Sometimes you’ll need to search the house to find special kinds of attachments for the camera such as a flash to allow it to take pictures at night. This does add another layer of complexity because you’ll now have to select your attachments and then take the picture correctly as usual, but it’s not bad at all. If it’s nighttime, it’s obvious you’ll need to use equipment to take pictures at night and the game will tell you “too dark” and such. Developing photos is very similar process, where you need to move the paper, adjust the focus and adjust the enlargement along with a quick-time event.
I would recommend playing this game with a controller, it makes the game much easier to play and I can’t imagine using the camera with a keyboard. If you’re into photography and using analog film cameras, you’ll certainly appreciate the level of detail it’s done in this game. The developers clearly put a significant amount of research into the photography equipment in this game.
There are scenes where you need to use the camera to take a picture to progress, but you can also use the camera for fun. The house has a farm nearby with many loveable animals and I took a picture of a goat and her kid.
The game does a great job of juxtaposing between horrifying moments and happy life moments. I haven’t mentioned it in great detail until now, but horror is certainly present in this game and the game does have very gruesome moments, such as one scene where you play as someone cutting off a human face from a dead body and wearing it. When the character wears it you see their vision because it’s a first-person game, and all you can see is sunshine and rainbows, similar to Team Fortress 2’s “Meet the Pyro” video.
I liked the horror elements of Martha Is Dead because I grew up with slasher movies full of gore, but at the same time I know that it’s not for everyone and I wouldn’t force it on someone who’s not into it. But as someone who has played and watched both horror movies and video games for over 30 years, there is a lot of nasty scenes and the developers aren’t afraid to take risks which I can really appreciate in the modern era. The horror scenes are not distasteful in this game either, they’re meant to convey what it’s like going through a terrible experience and there are significant meanings behind the scenes in the game.
The game is organized into days, and progressing the main story mission usually results in major plot events happening and the day progressing, so it’s a good idea to have backup saves because often I’ve accidentally progressed the plot even though I wanted to do side content first.
The game is very linear for the first few days, but as you progress you will be able to unlock many side objectives and the world becomes more open. My only criticism is that the days can get repetitive after a while, and as I was finishing my playthrough of the preview build it was getting boring because you’re waking up and exploring the same house again until you do the main mission.
One interesting side objective involved finding the pack of tarot cards that was confiscated from you. It’s a really neat game mechanic where once a day Giulia will shuffle her deck, pick 3 random cards, and do a tarot card reading on herself.
Eventually you get access to the house’s telephone. There’s a list of contacts your family has written down, such as the police number, family friends, the doctor, etc. You can also keep track of important numbers you come across in the game not present on that list of contacts. When you have free time you can call them and get access to a lot of interesting information. For example, you can disguise your voice as your mother’s and call the police to get access to confidential information about the case you’re trying to solve. At the same time, you’re taking a risk by doing this and it could backfire severely. Unfortunately, in the preview build of the game calling most of the contacts didn’t result in any conversations. I would expect these to be added when the full game releases.
One interesting conversation you can have is actually with a rebel group and it leads to an extremely interesting side quest chain. I’ve explained earlier that Giulia’s father is a German general even though Giulia’s living in Italy. You can help the rebels with their efforts by thwarting the Germans’ plans, or alternatively you can even tell your father about it.
I chose to help the rebels, and it lead me sending and receiving their messages in Morse code. It was a very fun side quest and actually taught me how to use Morse code. The game had a translation sheet to convert words to Morse code and back, and that made the process easy even though it looked daunting at first. In fact, I wouldn’t even mind if the whole game was like that because helping the rebels felt like a historical movie.
One last caveat I’d like to mention is to be careful if you’re not into horror because this won’t be the game for you if you can’t handle shocking content. The game has a big disclaimer before it begins, and with a warning that big you know it’s going to be a fun experience. But on a more serious note, the game does a really great job of making you feel uneasy when you least expect it, and if you’re not into horror or if you can’t handle seeing nudity or disfigurement, I don’t think you’ll enjoy the game as much as I did. I don’t mean any disrespect by this either because I have many friends and family who just cannot handle these kinds of genres and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.
The planned release date of Martha Is Dead is February 24, 2022. I purposely left out a lot of details of the plot on purpose, and I haven’t even mentioned spoilers that happens early within the game because of how impactful those scenes are. From what I’ve played of the preview of the game so far it’s definitely one of my anticipated games coming out. It’s genuinely fun to explore Giulia’s Italian household and learn the rich culture of the 1940’s and I can’t wait to solve the mystery of what really happened to Martha on that eventful night.
Martha Is Dead
- The setting and atmosphere are well done. It genuinely feels like Italy during World War 2.
- The characters are nuanced and there are different routes for the quests.
- The puzzles you encounter are interesting and make you think, but are never overly difficult.
- It’s genuinely one of the scariest games I’ve played.
- The plot is a little slow to get going early on. Some of the narrative can also be difficult to understand due to nonlinearity.
– Brandon Harris
Reviewed on PC