A beautiful-looking game that is easy to admire but hard to like
Martha is dead! This much is clear at the beginning of the game when Giulia, the main protagonist of this psychological horror, spots the body of her twin sister lying motionless in a nearby lake.
The girl has apparently drowned but as to how this happened, we don’t really know for sure. Giulia suspects murder and she thinks she knows who the culprit is, but as the game’s story plays out, it becomes clear that she doesn’t have the tightest grip on reality.
The game is set in 1944 Italy during World War 2. There are lots of references to the war, from newspaper clippings to radio broadcasts, but the horrors of the war rarely surface in any real way until later on in the game when soldiers invade Giulia’s Tuscany home.
Before then, we get to see horrors of a very different kind as Giulia tries to uncover the reasons for her sister’s death while battling with her mental health struggles.
In terms of gameplay, Martha Is Dead is not exactly action-packed. For most of the 6-7 hour playthrough, this is little more than a walking simulator as you journey from one location to the next searching for answers. Thankfully, the areas you traverse are mostly quite beautiful, although there are times when the glorious countryside of Tuscany is hidden by fog and the darkness of the forests that you are forced to wander through.
You aren’t confined to walking as there are moments when you are able to use a bicycle. You can’t travel great lengths on your bike but you can move at a greater speed which is a bonus. As is typical of this game, you aren’t able to get on the bike immediately. You need to blow up the tyres first and to do this, you need to find the bicycle pump.
There are lots of fetch quests like this one and they can be a little frustrating. As soon as you have found the item that you are looking for, you are then told to look for something else. Such busywork isn’t uncommon in games but as Giulia moves quite slowly when on foot, it can become a little tedious.
Quite often, you are called upon to take photographs at specific locations around the game world. These moments are also quite annoying, as not only does it take a little while to set the camera up but it also takes a while to get the perfect shot. You then have to develop the camera film in the basement of Giulia’s family home and this isn’t a quick process either.
The gameplay isn’t entirely devoted to amateur photography and fetch quests though. At several moments during the game, there are puzzle-solving sequences and these are fairly easy to solve. The morse code sections are a little more taxing but as these are optional, you don’t have to worry about them unless you want to achieve 100% completion of the game.
If you’re somebody who likes to rush through a game, this probably isn’t for you. Not only are the walking and photography sections deliberately paced but the cutscenes and dialogue are unskippable. This wouldn’t be a problem if these moments were brief but they can drag on for quite a while.
I can understand why the game’s developers favoured the slow pace as it adds to the game’s sense of realism. But when you find yourself being forced to listen to Giulia reading a newspaper article for the umpteenth time, you will be desperate for a ‘skip’ button so you can move on to the next stage of the game’s narrative.
Thankfully, the story isn’t as boring as the often dull aspects of the gameplay. The mystery behind Martha’s death is genuinely intriguing and Giulia herself is a fascinating character. During the game, she tricks her parents into thinking that she is Martha, for reasons that I’m not going to spoil here.
She is a troubled girl with a mental state that has been made fragile because of the traumas of her past. Again, I’m not going to give anything away but be warned, while you may have heard about the censor-baiting sequence involving the graphic removal of a corpse’s face, this is nowhere near as disturbing as Giulia’s backstory.
The difficult nature of this means Martha Is Dead is not a game that is easy to recommend. You probably shouldn’t play this game if your own childhood was traumatic. You might also want to avoid the game if you have struggled with your own mental health.
At the conclusion of the game, there is a hopeful message for those of us who have struggled mentally but I’m not sure how effective this is when considering the triggering moments that lead up to it.
I’m trying hard not to give away any spoilers but if you want to understand more about the game’s more troubling aspects before playing, you can probably find what you’re looking for online.
Despite my misgivings about the upsetting elements of the game, it is still very well made. Giula’s story is compelling, the graphics are mostly excellent, and the original voice acting is fantastic.
There are also moments in the game that are wildly imaginative, such as a marionette sequence that wraps up the narrative. In terms of artistry, this game deserves a lot of credit.
If the developers had reigned in some of the more grotesque aspects of the story (and speeded up the gameplay) this could have been far better. As it is, Martha is Dead a game that is sometimes easy to admire but often hard to like. Your tolerance for this will depend on your own backstory and your ability to play a game that forcibly slows you down while playing.
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Verdict - 6.5/10