Luca Dalcò is adamant that Martha is Dead is not a walking simulator.
The founder of Italian studio LKA, who also worked on the game’s script, screenplay and art direction, is clearly anticipating some people pigeonholing his work into that genre.
At first glance it appears Dalcò is protesting too much – while there’s clearly a lot of walking to be hard here, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the walking simulator genre, even if the term has become synonymous with passive, ‘boring’ gameplay.
That said, Dalcò does have a point in that players aren’t simply following a set route from start to finish here, so while the story clearly plays out in a linear fashion there was still a degree of choice to be found in the opening 90-minute section we recently played.
Martha is Dead – which is coming to Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One, PS5, PS4 and PC later this year – is an extremely dark game with some morbid and traumatic themes that some players may struggle with. As just one example – the tip of the iceberg, it appears – if the idea of a family member being drowned is one you’d find particularly upsetting, you may wish to draw a line under this game altogether and move on.
That’s the fate that has befallen Martha, a teenage girl whose floating body is discovered by her twin sister at a lake near their house. As far as opening sequences go, it’s a grim one.
Living in a large house in the middle of a forest in Tuscany, the player has to figure out what happened to Martha while also dealing with the mental anguish of what happens when a loved one dies, and the feelings of guilt that can sometimes accompany this grief.
In case it wasn’t already clear, this is hardly a Kirby game, and requires a fairly strong disposition to play (not to mention a similarly strong stomach at times), with a tolerance for morbid themes.
“In case it wasn’t already clear, this is hardly a Kirby game, and requires a fairly strong disposition to play (not to mention a similarly strong stomach at times), with a tolerance for morbid themes.”
One of the early tasks, for example, requires you to use a camera to take a photo of your sister’s body as she lies in her open casket in the living room.
The photo-taking process is a lengthy one that requires you to properly line up the subject, adjust the focus and make sure it’s all in the frame, meaning you’ll be spending a little while taking a photo of a corpse (with a creepy little hallucination set-piece thrown in for good measure).
Photography is actually one of the central themes of the game, at least in the early section we played. The protagonist is a keen photographer and a number of early quests involve taking photos of various things (a bird in the garden, a self portrait and so on) and developing them.
This isn’t a quick and easy Polaroid affair – the game is set in 1944 and so players have to head to the darkroom in the house’s basement and develop the films there via an oddly satisfying mini-game.
The house Martha’s family lives in is beautifully detailed, with era-appropriate furnishings and other knick-knacks dotted around to further reinforce the game’s 1944 setting.
The house is set in a forest in Tuscany, and the surrounding woodlands are also a visually appealing treat to explore, even if the reason for doing so is often an unpleasant one.
This pleasant and idyllic setting is in stark contrast to some of the more disturbing moments that take place in the early part of the game. During one particularly disturbing dream sequence, the player has to physically cut off someone’s face (in unflinching, graphic detail) and wear it as a mask.
“During one particularly disturbing dream sequence, the player has to physically cut off someone’s face (in unflinching, graphic detail) and wear it as a mask.”
It’s a striking, powerful visual as long as you’ve got the stomach for it, and it does make sense in the context of the story, but it’s certainly one of the more unsettling things we’ve played in recent times.
To say any more at this stage would be to reveal more story details for a game that’s almost entirely plot-based. As such, we’re wary of going into any more detail because it may lessen the impact of your first few hours with the game.
Even in the small section we played there’s a lot more to the overall situation than we’ve mentioned in this preview but we’re actively choosing not to get into that, because almost from the off Martha is Dead starts throwing surprises and bombshells at the player to keep them interested and guessing throughout the story. Forgive us, then, for dancing around the details a little more than we usually would.
From what we’ve played so far, however, Martha is Dead looks set to be a striking and atmospheric psychological thriller – one that won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but should be an intriguing adventure for those who don’t mind things getting very dark.
As long as you’re able to cope with the mature and frequently macabre themes that appear to be infused throughout the entire plot, then this has the potential to be one of those games that sticks in your mind long after the credits roll. We’ve only played the first hour or so, and we’re still thinking about it.