Martha Is Dead - Civil War
PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series, PC
It’s hard reviewing games sometimes, especially ones with strong emotional tones. A year ago, this would have been easy for me. I could disconnect myself from the feelings, and see them objectively: What is the music trying to achieve? The lighting? The camera? The words being used? All of these come together into one cohesive question: What is the game trying to make me feel here?
A year ago, I didn’t feel very much emotion, at all. Through a lot of mindfulness, self-reflection and psychological counselling I am growing as a person. I am feeling. But that makes this review all the more difficult. Let me explain.
Martha is Dead is a game that does not pull its punches. You play as Giulia, a young girl who loves photography and discovers her sister (Martha) has drowned in the lake near their house. Your aim is to find out what happened to her. Did she kill herself? Was she claimed by the White Lady, a folklore legend of the lake?
With Tuscany nearing the end of World War II being the backdrop, the game looks absolutely gorgeous. On PC, with the combination of DLSS and ray-tracing, the way the light hits things in the world is jaw-dropping. Combine this with some interesting gameplay decisions around normal tasks (such as developing photos), and the game defaulting to the developer’s native tongue of Italian, and the game is just soaked with immersion.
Your days in the game generally come down to a few things: wake up, get dressed, read the paper if you’d like, then head out and take some photos, maybe do some sidequesting, walk to a point, ingest some story, walk back and develop some photos. It’s the minutiae that makes it special though. For starters, playing around with an antique camera is absolutely amazing, and LKA put a lot of effort into making it varied. A tripod, different lenses, different films all mean that if you’re a bit of a photography buff (I’m not, I am awful at it) then you can take a lot of masterful photos. This system in a more open-world game based on photography such as Afrika for the PS3 would be absolutely amazing. Here, it’s something to distract you in a good way. Other distractions include actually developing your photos, a process that does that some time but isn’t too tedious, and during one specific side mission, using morse code via a telegraph. I thought I’d hate hammering away on the telegraph using the code given but I actually got into a rhythm with it and quite enjoyed it. Receiving a message back requires you to decode it using the same table and I found this good fun. A few times I didn’t really understand what exactly the message was meant to say but the game was quick enough to set me on the right course.
I’ve been dodging and dancing around the story quite a bit. At around the six or seven hours it took me to complete, there isn’t a whole lot that can be said without spoiling things. This is an extremely hard hitting narrative, and multiple times I needed to put the game down as every inch of morality and humanity winced in discomfort. I see people describing this as horror, but I don’t think that’s completely true. It’s much more like a psychological thriller. The game isn’t aiming to scare you. It doesn’t have to. It wants to make you reflect on the actions that you as a player are doing. It wants you to really plumb the depths of yourself, to wipe away all of the ideas you have about what you would and wouldn’t do, and take some truly drastic actions as Giulia.
Deep down, when you scrape away the gorgeous graphics and the photography and the backdrop of the war, this is a story about family. Warts and all. I’ll say, again without saying too much, that this game really screwed me up. Some of these themes struck really true for me and that’s why I love it so much. This is the correlation this game actually has with horror. Horror mainly works when it plays with something close to you. Home invasions, demonic possession, slashers; they all work when you’re afraid of those themes. This game will still be strong thematically for someone who hasn’t been through some of the things that happen, but if they have then this is a truly horrific, self-reflective experience.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows for the game though. I said it’s gorgeous but it’s got rough optimisation. I dropped my settings down from Ultra despite my PC being able to handle it because I was having large stuttering issues and framerate drops, and I still had a slew of issues on medium. These things will be sorted out in time but it would be remiss of me not to mention them. Really takes you out of the experience too.
The bike riding is also terrible. Were decent bikes not invented until much later? I was actually glad I didn’t unlock the bike until the penultimate chapter. Unfortunately, a lot of the really cool set dressing such as the war, the vineyard, and especially the White Lady doesn’t get used to their fullest. Again, this is a story about family at its core, but I was still a bit sad. I’m a sucker for wartime stories and folklore.
I’ll say it again; this game is a psychological thriller and it really screwed me up. I adored the whole experience but it did affect me. I’ve actually never been affected by a game in such a way. It’s a breath of fresh air, but one I am not looking forward to doing again anytime soon. Martha is Dead is something really special to me and whilst I think your mileage may vary, I still believe that this game should be played by people who really want a story they can dig their teeth into. Just don’t be shocked if you bite off more than you can chew.