Set amid the rolling hills of 1940s Tuscany, LKA’s wartime horror title Martha is Dead pushes boundaries while remaining true to the soul of the genre – but it isn’t for the faint of heart.
There are some games that you immediately know you’ll fall in love with, and LKA’s Martha is Dead is one of those. Having poured years of study into the portrayal of war and trauma in video games (with two degrees to prove it), the wartime horror title was music to my ears.
This puzzle-centric narrative adventure revolves around the murder of a young Italian girl called Martha, placing players in the shoes of her twin sister, Giulia, who adopts her deceased sibling’s identity in an attempt to earn favor with their abusive mother.
Intent on finding out who killed her sister (although the in-game newspapers claim that it was a political attack due to their father being a high ranking SS officer), we spiral through the darkness of Giulia’s tortured soul in a spine-tingling thriller that forces you to reconcile with some of the most uncomfortable aspects of the human psyche.
Trigger warning: This review includes a discussion of content that may be distressing to some readers. If you simply want to see the score, click here, or skip the section ‘Gory gameplay that isn’t for the faint of heart.’
Martha is Dead: Key details
- Price: £24.99 / €29.99 / $29.99
- Developer: Wired Productions / LKA
- Release Date: February 24, 2022
- Platforms: PlayStation / Xbox / PC
Martha is Dead Trailer
War, what is it good for?
Of all the things that drew me to Martha is Dead, the 1940s wartime setting was at the top of the list. Set in Tuscany instead of the bloodstained trenches of France and Germany or the searing heat of the Pacific, the game is narrated entirely in Italian (although this can be changed).
While at first glance the story seems incredibly simple (angry ghost lady kills innocent young girl), Martha is Dead’s plot is anything but predictable. As we progress through Giulia’s traumatic tale, players are hit with plot twist after plot twist, culminating in an ending that we genuinely just didn’t see coming.
I can honestly say, hand on heart, that I have never played a game so gruesome yet alluring. Despite having to pick my jaw up off of the floor many times, and screaming so many times my mother was wondering if Lauren was dead and not Martha, something kept pulling me back in.
While the game isn’t long, it is unforgettable, packing a rollercoaster of a story into several hours of blissful storytelling that leaves you wondering whether it’s you or Giulia that is the sadistic one. Plus, you can play it all over again and make different choices, adding to the replayability.
A symphony of savagery
A good story is nothing without the right environment, however, and LKA’s war-torn Tuscany is the perfect setting for this bizarrely beautiful saga.
Largely set in Giulia and Martha’s familial holiday villa, the emerald pastures of 1940s Italy are at first portrayed as almost a secluded spot untouched by the surrounding conflict. Tiny robins dart amid a perfectly planted garden, and the sun bathes everything in a warm, almost friendly glow.
Things quickly go from idyllic to insidious, as with the night comes the roaming White Lady, the specter of a young woman whose life was so brutally snatched away. As the dawn breaks, German troopers shoot partisans in the neighboring forests, mutilating their victims beyond identification. Night falls once more, and bombs hit the family church, reducing this beacon of sanctuary to nothing but fire and rubble.
As Giulia’s paranoia intensifies, the setting evolves with it, accompanied by a haunting soundtrack characterized by strings and rumbling bass. Contrasting starkly to the upbeat jazz music inherent of the time, Martha is Dead isn’t just about the gameplay – it’s about how it makes you feel. That niggling sense of unease at the back of your head is somewhat thrilling despite the danger that it spells.
It’s exhilarating, exciting, and absolutely terrifying, all at the same time.
Gory gameplay that isn’t for the faint of heart
As I mentioned before, this section of the review deals with themes some may find disturbing. I advise you to skip this section if you struggle to approach these topics.
It’s general knowledge that Sony censored Martha is Dead on PlayStation, and while this has created a whole discourse around the censorship of games, I’m not going to discuss that here (but don’t worry, it’s coming). Instead, I’m going to assume that you accept that this game allows you to disfigure bodies and partake in dramatic recreations of domestic abuse and self-harm.
Is any of this necessary? The answer is yes; yes it is. Martha is Dead is marketed as a ‘psychological thriller,’ and that’s exactly what it is. Throughout your journey and Giulia’s descent into madness, you encounter horrors both fantastical and entirely real – with the latter serving as a stark reminder of the brutality and pointless loss of life associated with war. It’s an uncomfortable experience, but it’s never gratuitous.
And you can’t say you weren’t warned, because you are. Right from the get-go a series of messages will pop up explaining the nature of the game’s content, as well as providing a link to a suicide hotline. Certain scenes can be skipped in order to avoid upset, too.
Aside from the darker aspects of the gameplay, LKA’s universe is packed to bursting with lore. There’s so much to interact with so that we can learn more about this seemingly happy family. The photo-taking aspect is fun and provides a throwback to the techniques of old, with each step in the process described in detail for avid historians – something that also pops up when using the telephone or telegraph machine.
Additionally, around two-thirds of the way through the story the puppet theater comes into play, a traditional toy with wooden and porcelain dolls which Giulia controls to tell the player about her heartbreaking childhood. Despite being a child’s plaything, the puppet theater is perhaps the creepiest part of the entire game, as we learn about Giulia’s suffering at the hands of her mother through a medium that’s supposed to be upbeat and happy. The polarization of a children’s game versus abuse that only an adult can fully comprehend sends a shiver down your spine – and in many ways, it’s by far more chilling than the violent content.
In all my years studying historical video games, Martha is Dead has to be one of my absolute favorites, and its message grows ever more pertinent with each passing day.
By immersing the player into this woeful world, LKA has created a beautiful, contemporary work of visual art that is a must for casual players and learned historians alike.
Characterized by innovative storytelling and a determination to push the boundaries, the game is not for the faint of heart. Beautifully animated and contemporary in its chaos, it taps into the darkest parts of the human soul in a way that hits hard but entices the player to keep coming back for more – even if you know you really, really shouldn’t.
Reviewed on PC with no scenes censored