Would people know about Martha Is Dead without its censorship debacle? You’ve probably heard by now that this game has been modified for its PlayStation release, common to a trend where PlayStation versions of various anime games tend to be cut and modified for sexual content. Martha Is Dead, though, has been edited for violence, which is pretty surprising given that it’s an adults-only horror game and rated as such.
Indeed, the most notoriously censored sequence (and we don’t believe this to be a spoiler given how early in the game it takes place) depicts the removal of a corpse’s face. Nothing we haven’t seen in 15-rated horror films, frankly, but what makes the censorship unusual is that the scene is still entirely present. You see that face get cut, you see that skin pulled away from the head, you see the aftermath. The only change is that the sequence is no longer interactive; rather than hold down R2 and move the analogue stick to perform the DIY surgery yourself, you simply watch it happen.
It’s quite frankly baffling that Sony thought this made an appreciable difference to the impact and tone of the scene. This isn’t a shaft of light hiding some poor lady’s bum-crack, we’re talking about horrific imagery that hasn’t actually been removed or altered in any meaningful way. We can’t conceive of a world where someone plays this (again, adult-rated) fictitious horror game and finds that face-cutting sequence to be tactile or instructive enough to inspire either trauma or copycat behaviour, but the moment someone in real life plays Martha Is Dead and cheerfully swaps faces with their deceased sister we’d be happy to issue a full and frank apology for our cynicism.
Why labour so much on this point? Because, as stated, it seems to be the primary reason why so many eyes are on this game. Without that notoriety, it would likely fall through the cracks as another me-too first-person horror title. It would be unfair and inaccurate to say Martha Is Dead is without merit, but it’s a game that seems to struggle with its tone quite significantly and neglects meaningful interaction for long portions of its playtime.
The premise is strong and, unless memory fails us, relatively unique to horror games. The titular Martha is found by her twin sister Giulia dead, drowned. Upon discovering her body, Giulia decides to adopt her deceased sister’s identity, thusly giving her a first-hand experience of how little she as Giulia meant to her family. In gameplay terms, unfortunately, this interesting idea gives way to some very rote, by-the-numbers gameplay, that is occasionally so stilted it almost feels like one of the games they’d play over the phone on Live and Kicking. Left, left, right, left.
At times it feels rather like a minigame collection: there are sequences that see you run through the woods automatically, steering into words to form a relevant sentence. This feels like gameplay for gameplay’s sake and doesn’t work at all: choosing the words I STOLE HER leads you to either SOUL or IDENTITY, both of which seem as though they could be the correct answer. It’s only a brief thing, but it’s so ill-fitting and sudden that it feels like an egregious example of developers going, “Okay, we’ve made this world and we’ve got a story to tell. Now, how can we shoehorn gameplay into it?” And, of course, that’s rhetoric, that’s speculation, we’re not claiming that is in fact the case. But the feeling of ennui flows out of this game in many places. The constantly shifting inputs – you go from bizarrely sort of point and click gameplay to full character control between scenes – make the game feel disjointed, confused. And not in a thematic way, either. Most of the time you are in full control of Giulia/Martha, but you're more or less along for the ride. Quite literally, in some QTE-riddled cases.
Thankfully, the story is generally entertaining and well-told. While Martha Is Dead describes itself as a “psychological horror”, it’s not. Not really. It’s a borderline walking simulator with minimal inventory fiddling and a focus (no pun intended) on photography, but it never settles on a tone for long enough to get under the skin. It’s a parade of repellent sequences interspersed with episodic narrative, which to the game’s credit is interestingly presented with authentic Italian voice acting and music, though we felt some of the tunes were a little too generic “creepy”.
The setting is original, too: it's 1944 Italy, and rendered somewhat exquisitely, with the World War 2 backdrop factoring into both the story and the gameplay. The sweeping landscapes of Tuscany are visually arresting, and the darker sequences do well to foster atmosphere. Martha's family home feels authentic and "lived-in", and Giulia's plight is discernible and enhanced by the mise-en-scène.
Performance-wise we found the game extremely choppy when run in 4K resolution and ultimately bumped it down to 1080p (ostensibly the game's "performance" mode, which is unusually represented by a PC-style resolution change option) in order to improve the experience. And it worked, because at 1920x1080 the game runs at 60 frames-per-second the vast majority of the time, though we did see some drops and plenty of stutters and micro freezes at seemingly random times. We also ran into a game-breaking bug early on, which required loading an earlier save to fix. Perhaps a patch will fix these issues, because we see no reason why the PlayStation 5 can't handle this one.
While certainly an accomplished piece of storytelling, Martha Is Dead's gameplay is such blatant artifice that it does the narrative a disservice to partake in it. That sounds extremely damning, but there's a lot here to like: the languid pace and detailed nature of the photography sequences are a standout, the graphics are often impressive, and the sheer bloody chutzpah of the whole thing is appealing in a grand guignol sort of way. The game can be shocking in what it shows you, but it doesn't feel exploitative. Horror should be horrific, and Martha Is Dead is certainly that. Unfortunately, perhaps not always in the way it was intended to be.