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Martha is Dead is a Compassionate and Devastating Journey

The flaws don’t outweigh the power.

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Martha is Dead Review

Developer: LKA| Publisher: Wired Productions | Genre: Adventure, Music | Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5, PC | | Reviewed on: PS5


I have never played a game like Martha is Dead. I mean this as both a compliment and a criticism. On the one hand, this new game from developer LKA and Wired Productions, is hypnotic: a dark, yet extremely compassionate, descent into madness. On the other hand, it’s also often boring and filled with monotonous gameplay that is exacerbated by horrendous technical problems. That is to say, I have conflicted feelings about this game. And yet, I cannot stop thinking about it.

Image Courtesy of Wired Productions

Set during the final year of WWII in occupied Italy, Martha is Dead tells the story of a girl named Giuliana who is the daughter of a German general and an Italian mother. She is a person born into an identity conflict: is she occupier or victim? This identity crisis extends well beyond politics since Giuliana has a twin sister named Martha who is so identical in appearance that their parents need to write their names on family pictures to tell the difference.

The game’s core conflict revolves around the murder of Martha at the beginning of the game and Giuliana’s decision to take up Martha’s identity. Giuliana is the black sheep of the family, blamed by the mother for all their problems, but Martha is adored. The sequence in which Giualiana decides to be Martha is devastating, depicting with brutal honesty the desire of a child to be loved by her mom. 

To say anything more about the story would be to spoil one of the most engrossing, empathetic tales ever to grace gaming. There have been games before that deal with trauma and mental illness but none like this, at least as far as I know. There is no empowerment. There is no catharsis. There is no certainty. Anyone who has suffered from mental illness, as I have, knows the crippling self-doubt that often accompanies it. Your mind spiraling from anxiety and panic, you often do not know which end is up. Martha is Dead understands such suffering and depicts it with honesty and compassion, asking the player to see the world through a fractured mind.

Image Courtesy of Wired Productions

The psychological aspect of the story makes up most of the narrative, as well as unraveling the murder, but the presence of the world war is never forgotten. From news broadcasts to Nazi propaganda to a side story that involves helping or hindering the resistance, Martha is Dead constantly reminds you how Giuliana’s external world is just as broken as she is. By the end of the game, the war and Giuliana’s internal life feel at once wholly separate and one in the same: reflections of one-another. It’s a remarkable accomplishment

The narrative of Martha is Dead is brilliant, but unfortunately, everything else in the game is problematic, including the gameplay. When the game focuses on exploring the world, it’s utterly absorbing, but too often the player is forced to engage in tedious gameplay that draws out otherwise mundane, but authentic, behavior. For instance, there is a section of the game that involves corresponding with the Italian resistance via Morse code. The player has to manually input and translate the messages. It’s a neat idea but it goes on far too long and if your message is not exactly what the game wants, even if it’s adequate, you have to do it all over again. The game is filled with instances such as these: be it opening up a camera or performing a puppet show, the player is forced to do repetitive actions step by step which makes what should be a fluid, simple task feel rigid and artificial. If the game took control away from the player and just depicted the actions as a first person cut scene, it would be a much better experience.

There is one area of the Martha is Dead where it takes control away from the player and it shouldn’t. I am referring to the moments of body horror and self-mutilation that have been censored on PlayStation. The scenes still play out as intended, but the player does not interact with them. This is a problem since, unlike those other sequences, these scenes justify their interactivity.

At the heart of the Martha is Dead is a story of disassociation with Giuliana struggling to retain her sense of self. By engaging in these scenes, the player acts as a proxy for Giuliana: the active action taken by the player mirrors Giuliana but whereas the player is consciously aware of themselves, Giuliana is oblivious to her will. Knowing that these scenes were intended to be interactive I could see LKA’s intent and am saddened that their vision has been unjustly muted. Furthermore, these scenes all involve corpses. The fact that Sony will release first-party titles like The Last of Us, which contains interactive torture sequences, but censor Martha is Dead, is appalling.

Image Courtesy of Wired Productions

Adding insult to injury, Martha is Dead is borderline unplayable on PlayStation, or at least the PS5. Not only did the game crash on me numerous times and drop into single-digit frame rates, it also had broken objectives that had me wandering for over an hour with no idea what to do. It wasn’t until I loaded a prior save that the quest activating sequence finally occurred. Aside from these issues, the game also has lighting that bugs out with the whole screen going black and an absolutely horrid first-person bike riding mechanic: Giuliana’s arms flail about like drunk riding a unicycle. Martha is Dead may not have these issues on the Xbox or PC, but it is disastrous on the PS5 in its current form.

All that said, despite the technical issues and gameplay annoyances, I adore Martha is Dead which is a testament to its soul. This is a game brimming with heart, unafraid to look into the darkest parts of the human mind and say that it is still worth loving.

Nicholas Straub is a contributor and former Game Informer Intern. He graduated from the University of California San Diego with a degree in philosophy. He loves delving into what makes art, especially video-games, so moving. You can find more of his writing at https://www.gameinformer.com/user/ncstraub and his newest thoughts on twitter: https://twitter.com/Ncstraub.

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