Martha Is Dead borrows many elements from classic horror games. It has a spooky isolated locale akin to Silent Hill, and a focus on photography similar to Fatal Frame. Like those titles, Martha Is Dead also has a strong emphasis on supernatural and psychological elements. It would be easy to dismiss Martha Is Dead as a cheap knock off of those beloved popular games, but it has its own frights—and frustrations. We played a 30-minute, hands-on demo, and think that the upcoming PC game has the potential to become a cult classic.
Set in World War II-era Italy, Martha Is Dead sees you play as an aspiring photographer named Giulia. She spends her days taking photos of her beautiful countryside home. This tranquil life is possible because Giulia’s father is a Nazi officer who provides his family with food and shelter. While most Italian citizens are suffering from the raging war, Giulia is blissfully ignorant of her country’s plight and her father’s involvement.
Her idyllic world ends when Martha, her sister, is found dead. We won’t spoil a major twist that happens during the intro, but it sets the stage for what follows. This twist greatly affects Giulia and her family, and makes you genuinely feel uncomfortable. The underlying tension produced by this singular moment produces a unique type of terror rarely seen in gaming.
It’s tempting to label Martha is Dead as a “walking sim” similar to Gone Home or Firewatch. The main difference is that this title contains interactive components. In that sense, it’s closer to Myst—but with frights.
Worth a Thousand Words
Instead solving environmental puzzles, you use photography to unearth the game’s mystery. The first major puzzle involves photographing a bird. Since you’re dealing with an old-school camera, there are certain factors to take into account. You first need to place the tripod-mounted camera on firm ground, and ensure it isn’t too close or far from the subject. After that, you must adjust the camera’s focus and exposure. Once you’ve set these three basic parameters, you can take a photo.
Adjusting the image’s focus and exposure requires you to slide dials from left to right. This process is straightforward and intuitive. Nailing the correct distance is trickier, though. You know if you’ve reached the right spot by looking through the camera. If you’re off, you’ll need to leave the camera submenu, pick up the camera, and then move to another spot. It would’ve been simpler to let you move the camera while in the submenu where you adjust focus and exposure. Yes, physically moving the camera is more realistic, but it’s decidedly more cumbersome. Other than that, taking pictures isn’t challenging.
The next step is developing photos in a dark room. This has two primary steps. The first is taking the camera film and using an enlarger to expose photographic paper to the light coming from the film negative. You need to move the projected image and resize it so that it fits within the photographic paper. Once you’ve printed the image on the paper, you then dunk said paper in water. Be careful! Leaving the photograph underwater for too long ruins the image. The same thing happens if you remove the paper prematurely. To find the sweet spot, you’ must pay attention to an indicator on the left-hand side of the screen. When the indicator’s arrow goes over a tiny green patch within the circle, you can safely remove the photographic paper.
Compared to the real-world process, taking and processing photos is easy. Despite that, you’ll feel like a real old-school photographer. It also gives you a greater appreciation for how people snapped photos in the past.
Horror Surrounds You
Martha Is Dead isn’t just about processing photos; there are sections where the game turns into a first-person endless runner. You guide Giulia through a dark forest, and press the indicated buttons to jump over logs or duck under tree branches. You’ll see different words or phrases appear on the screen when you arrive at branching paths, and you must use them to make sentences. If you turn into the wrong word, you’ll be sent back to the beginning of the run. Stringing together the correct word sequence is purely trial and error, and incredibly frustrating. Still, the endless runner mechanic provides is a decent diversion from the game’s core exploration and photography aspects.
Speaking of exploration, the demo has a fair bit of it. For example, early in the demo, you must search Giulia’s room to find her diary key. Later on, she rummages for the key to her home’s front door. Interactable items don’t glow like they do in other games of this type. Instead, you receive a prompt that tells you when you can interact with something in the environment. The first-person perspective works well in this regard, making it easier to find hidden objects.
Though an indie title, Martha Is Dead doesn’t skimp in the graphics department. Giulia’s home and surrounding forest are photorealistic affairs. Even with the demo’s sometimes less-than-optimal stream quality, it wasn’t hard to see the fine details in everything from brick walkways, towering trees, and enormous lakes. For a horror game, Martha is Dead is gorgeous.
To play Martha is Dead on PC, your gaming rig needs at least an Intel Core i5 CPU, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 560 GPU, 8GB of RAM, 30GB of available storage, and the Windows 10 operating system. We played a streamed demo, so we could not test the game’s performance on a local PC.
The New Face of Terror
Martha is Dead has a lot of potential. The Italian WWII setting isn’t one you’d normally associate with a horror title, and the central mystery is a constant source of suspense. Although the game’s endless runner portions need work, the exploration and photo-taking are both functional and enjoyable. Martha will haunt PC, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X/S, and Xbox One later this year.