Martha is Dead is an upcoming psychological horror from LKA and Wired Productions, the team that built The Town of Light. Martha is Dead has been on my periphery for a while as a fan of psychological thrillers, but last week I was lucky enough to experience the first 30 minutes of the game, which takes place in a rare World War 2 Italy setting.
I had absolutely no idea what to expect from Martha is Dead going in, but I came away from the demo jaw agape from some of the most intense scenes I've experienced in a game this side of Silent Hill. Martha is Dead is shaping up incredibly nicely indeed (although nice isn't exactly the best way to describe how the game plays out). Horror fans of all stripes need to put this game on their radar right now, as I thoroughly expect it to make the list of best Xbox horror games for Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S when it finally launches later this year in 2021.
Gorgeous Tuscany landscapes with a creeping secret
Martha is Dead is set during the closing years of World War 2, as Mussolini's dictatorial regime began to fall against the Allied forces. Two twin sisters, Guilia and Martha, live with their parents on a lakeside ranch, deep in the Tuscany countryside.
Developer LKA spared no expense building the game's environments and characters, and for good reason. Photography formed a large part of my gameplay demo experience, complete with a zoom lens. Ensuring the environments are detailed up close while using Giulia's camera seemed to form part of the design philosophy, and the developers delivered in a big way.
Giulia, indeed, is a big photography enthusiast, and is a defining characteristic of her personality. The relationships between Giulia, her sister Martha, and their parents, is complex and in some ways perplexing. As you explore the villa and the surrounding areas, you'll begin to get hints that things are not all as peaceful as the stunning south Italy landscapes might have you believe.
Early on, our titular event occurs, turning Giuilia's world quite literally upside down. Inexplicably, Martha winds up dead, apparently drowned in the lake beside their home. Giulia is the one to discover the body, with their parents close in tow. From that moment on, what might otherwise have seemed like an idyllic childhood begins to unravel, and you unwrap layers of disturbing hints as Giulia struggles to come to terms with her sister's death.
I don't want to give too much away, but even in the small preview slice we were afforded, I was impressed by the density of interactivity and dialogue LKA injected into Martha is Dead. Giulia remarks upon most things you interact with, giving insight into her thoughts and feelings as you move through the game's timeline.
The entirety of my 30-minute demonstration took place in the ranch and the surrounding woods, both during the day and at night. Giulia resolves to recover her tripwire nature cameras from the forest to see if they contain any information on what happened to Martha, emerging after dark to avoid her parent's scrutiny. Discordant music, armed only with a lantern paints a harrowing atmosphere that impressed and intimidated in equal measure. The sequence culminated in a horrifying nightmare that completely took me off guard, and elevated my estimation of LKA as a horror crafters studio by leaps and bounds. Martha is Dead commands your intrigue right from the first moment, and masterfully drip feeds tension as you move ahead.
How Martha is Dead moves past the "walking sim" stigma
Martha is Dead is an interactive adventure game at its core, although it shrugs off the "walking simulator" appendage with a mountain of interactive elements that push it far beyond your typical on-rails psychological thriller.
As mentioned, photography is a huge part of both the story, and the general gameplay, and the process of developing film is surprisingly involved and complex. Since the game is set during WW2 in the pre-digital era, you'll jump through a simplified exposure, water bath, film development procedure to progress the story, while also hunting down additional clues about the secrets around the villa. The photography system is wholly dynamic, meaning you can take photographs of basically anything you want, complete with dynamic focus, framing, ISO, and aperture controls. Whoever designed this is clearly a fan of classic photography setups, but the viewfinder also lends itself well to inducing fear.
Through the lens of Giulia's camera, you'll peel back layers of secrets that unravel the character's true natures, uncovering events that intrigued me to the point of desperation. The viewfinder is used to create narrative events, but also it's somewhat claustrophobic to use, giving you a crushed field of view.
Some of the subjects I was asked to photograph in the demonstration were truly grotesque as well, and I couldn't shake this feeling that there was a jump scare waiting for me just out of the lens' field of view — despite the developers assuring me that Martha is Dead is not about jump scares. Indeed, Martha is Dead is all about the intrigue, and a rich canvas of interactive objects, lore items, and Giulia's authentic Italian inner monologue got its hooks into me quite quickly.
I have to know more about this game, I have to know why Martha died, and how. Writing this, I realize that Martha is Dead's demo moved my interest in the game beyond professional analytical interest, and firmly into the realms of captivated dread. Something awful happened in that house, and I have to know what it is.
Martha is Dead is beautiful, horrifying
Martha is Dead is shaping up to be an incredibly promising horror title. The atmospherics are on point, and the unique presentation and approach to narrative gameplay is a breath of Tuscany fresh air, masking the grotesque secrets behind the villa's walls.
With so much riding on the story, I hope Martha is Dead remains elegant and subtle with its delivery and remains as intriguing throughout as this brief preview slice seems to imply. What I did see thrust Martha is Dead to the top of my horror pile and one of my most anticipated upcoming Xbox games, and if you're a horror fan, it should be at the top of your pile too.
Martha is Dead is launching sometime before the end of 2021, across Xbox, PC, and PlayStation.
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Jez Corden a Managing Editor at Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!